How to Build a Mud Kitchen

By Megan Haynes

As part of our nature explore outdoor classroom, we wanted to create a “messy materials” area where children could have access to a variety of open-ended materials. We know that mixing soil, sand, water, and a range of other natural materials (flowers, sticks, pinecones, leaves, etc) has an important role in early childhood. Research shows that direct exposure to the natural world encourages a sense of wonder and imagination along with supporting physical, social, and cognitive development. Also, it is simply so much fun! 

Nature educator, Jan White, further describes how mud kitchens work in outdoor play: 

Mud kitchens provide something quite different to a soil digging patch, whilst also being much more easily managed. A mud kitchen includes elements of the much-loved domestic corner and cooking from indoor play, which are then hugely enriched through the special nature of being outside.

Choose the Place

If possible, select a corner of your outdoor space to put your mud kitchen. The corner makes your kitchen feel cozy as a separate area of play. We added our mud kitchen next to the play house and the stage which enhance each other, enriching the experience for children. You’ll want to have an ample supply of sand and/or dirt that is easily accessible to the children. A water supply is a must but you can decide if you’ll want to collect the water in containers or an outdoor tap. I prefer filling up a large jug (amazon or thrift store) where the kids can independently get the water they need. Plant material, flowers, gravel, pebbles, sticks, are other natural companions for concoction making. I hit up the local thrift store to find my kitchen pots, pans, spoons, etc. 

While a mud kitchen can be as simple as putting out all of the materials above, we wanted to create a permanent area in our preschool play area.  My amazing father-in-law designed and built our mud kitchen and I’ve included his instructions below. 

How to Build a Mud Kitchen

Step 1 - Find an old kitchen sink

We visited ReStore to find our used kitchen sink for $10. We recommend getting the standard size with two separate basins but any sink will do and you can adjust your measurements around it. 

Step 2 - Purchase the Materials

Our finished mud kitchen was 60” long table. You will need the following: 

  • 39 feet of 2x6 (for the surface, back, frame, etc) 
  • 12 feet of 4x4 (for the legs) 
  • Small box of Wood screws - 3 1/2 inch for the legs to the frame
  • Small box Wood screws - 2 1/2 inch for everything else

The majority of our wood we saved from our old pine wood deck. You can purchase a similar type of wood at Sears Trostel in Fort Collins or check craigslist for people selling old wood.

Step 3 - Cut the posts and make the frame

Here’s a sketch of the mud kitchen along with the actual size of the pieces to cut. 

Step 4 - Make the surface area. 

You’ll want to measure the sink depth and adjust a 21” dimension to fit the sink.  Also, make sure you include spaces between the boards for moisture to get through.

Step 5 - Add back boards and hooks

We added a back to hang pots, pans, spatulas, and large spoons. We found small hooks that you can easily hand screw into the wood. 

The kids love this new addition to our outdoor classroom and please reach out if you have any specific questions! You can reach me -- 

What is the Reggio Emilia approach to early learning?

By Megan Haynes

While Reggio Emilia is not as widely known as Montessori or Waldorf, it is starting to attract a devoted following in the United States. Several of you have asked for more historical information on Reggio and where this philosophy originated. Here’s five important things to know about Reggio Emilia, its history in Italy, and the future of this approach to early learning.

1. The Reggio approach is geared towards early childhood education. 

Similar to Montessori, Reggio is a child-centered, progressive approach to early learning. The guiding principle is that children are viewed as strong, capable, and resilient; rich with wonder and knowledge. While I have learned about elementary and high schools using Reggio-inspired ideas, the large majority of schools are geared towards toddlers and preschool children. 

2. Reggio grew out of the aftermath of World War II.

After World War II, the town of Reggio Emilia, Italy was destroyed. A young teacher by the name of Loris Malaguzzi saw the need to rebuild society, starting with children. He developed a constructivist approach which valued the ability of children to learn spontaneously through hands-on learning. 

3. Reggio is an International Movement.

The first Reggio school opened in the 1940s in Italy. Now Reggio Emilia-inspired schools have spread to 34 countries where it inspires over 75,000 children and families. In Fort Collins, the two Reggio-inspired schools are the Early Childhood Center at CSU and Roots & Wings. Also, there is a “Wonder of Learning” exhibit that travels all over the world explaining the Reggio approach. This summer the exhibit will be in Ann Arbor, MI and you can click here for a full list of future dates.

4. It is not a formal, doctrine approach.

Contrary to Waldorf and Montessori schools, there is no formal teacher training, credentialing, or authorization to become a Reggio-inspired school. The only “Reggio Emilia” schools are the ones based in the Reggio Emilia region in Italy. The schools in the United States use the same ideas and philosophies as Italy and refer to themselves as Reggio Emilia-inspired. 

5. Reggio Children is the organization that supports the Reggio approach.

Reggio Children is based in Reggio Emilia, Italy. This organization provides training materials, courses, and curriculum to support Reggio-inspired schools all over the world. 

For more information on how Reggio Emilia compares to Montessori and Waldorf, check out this article I wrote which explains the different styles and includes a list of specific preschools in Fort Collins.

Photo credits: Reggio Emilia, Italy, Wonder of Learning

Nature Explore classroom at Roots & Wings!

By Megan Haynes

Roots & Wings is now a certified nature explore classroom!  To learn more about Nature Explore and their mission of creating dynamic, nature-based learning spaces, you can visit their site

My journey to create an outdoor classroom is inspired by my mother, Susan Strahm. She has been a long-time advocate for high-quality, early childhood education in Nebraska and first introduced me to the Nature Explore concept when my daughter was a baby.

When I found myself opening up my own preschool, including a Nature Explore Classroom was a “must-have” before I could open my doors. I wanted to create an outdoor space that provided the students with a variety of open-ended materials that would nurture creativity and a sense of wonder in a natural setting.


Roots & Wings includes a “Mud Cafe” in our messy materials area, dirt and sand digging areas, large nature art table for projects, block building station for creations and tinkering, and a stage for music and movement to name a few. We plan to host performances on our stage for parents. For our gathering space, we used tree stumps for singing, snacks, and group activities.


There is a designated garden area for spring, summer, and fall harvests. Right next to the garden is a special pathway through the lilac bushes called the “Tunnel Trail.” The butterfly perennial garden is available to the children to assist in taking care of the plants.

Thanks to my project-oriented dad for building a wood platform that is now used as a stage. Thanks also to my father-in-law for his creativity in building our “Mud Cafe” out of reclaimed pine wood. Also, I’m grateful for the friendship of Berni Ratliff who is my go-to garden expert that is always teaching me new things.

Lastly, I would like to thank my husband, Nana Trish, and my own children for their tremendous support and helping whenever possible!

Roots & Wings breaking ground to be the third Nature Explore classroom in Fort Collins!

nature explore logo.png

Plans are underway for Roots & Wings to be a Nature Explore certified classroom! Here's a glimpse of the outdoor space: 



Our architect and builder (my amazing father-in-law) is on the staff this summer to help create an inspiring place for play. With the Nature Explore certification, the outdoor classroom will include the following: 

Roots & Wings will be the third Nature Explore certified classroom in Fort Collins. Others include Brenda's Daycare  and Theresa Jekel Family Childcare

Nature provocation via Willow School

Montessori, Reggio, or Waldorf: which style is best for your child?

By Megan Haynes

Making a decision on the right preschool for your child can feel overwhelming. Especially in a place like Fort Collins where we are lucky to have so many wonderfully vibrant and inspiring schools. There are many factors to consider including the curriculum, education of the teachers, location, size, hours available, outdoor playground, etc. 

To start, here’s a quick comparison of the Montessori, Reggio, and Waldorf styles along with a list of specific preschools in Fort Collins. 


Photo credit: How we Montessori

Photo credit: How we Montessori

Montessori Philosophy

  • “Follow the child” -- A Montessori classroom is carefully put together to allow the child to work independently and enjoy self-discovery.

  • There is a focus on academics, but the main idea is that children learn at their own pace.

  • Create individualize learning plans for your unique child’s needs and interests.

  • Believe independence and self-directed learning are important concepts and goals to work towards

Parental involvement

  • Occasional

  • Extracurricular

Classroom Environment

Who’s it for? 

Many parents choose Montessori who want their children to acquire leadership skills and independence in a multi-age setting.

Montessori Schools in Fort Collins:   

Reggio Emilia

Photo credit:  Nature provocation

Photo credit: Nature provocation

Reggio Emilia Philosophy

  • Project-based curriculum with units based on students’ interests

  • Children encouraged to explore and play through inquiries and provocations

  • Expressive arts - children use many different methods to express their thoughts, creativity, and understanding: pretend-play, drawing, music, dance, movement, sculpture, painting, and drama.

  • Reggio Emilia schools document what kids do by way of video, photos, and written observations.

Parental involvement

  • Occasional

  • Parents might offer expertise on topic of study

Classroom Environment:

  • Classrooms are designed with natural light, order, and beauty

  • The environment is the third teacher and is recognized for its potential to inspire children.

  • Authentic tools and materials

Who’s it for? 

For parents who want their child to be a good citizen may choose a Reggio-inspired school. Through the many projects, children learn about cooperation, problem-solving, and how to resolve conflicts with others.

Reggio Emilia Schools in Fort Collins


Photo credit: Moon Child

Photo credit: Moon Child

Waldorf Philosophy

  • Play-based with a dependable routine. Certain days of the week for baking or gardening.

  • Emphasis on liberal arts of creative learning, reading, singing, acting, etc.

  • Children spend a lot of time outdoors

  • Children are not allowed to wear media characters and no electronics or technology

Parental involvement

  • Frequent

  • Extracurricular

Classroom Environment:

  • Home-like environment with natural materials (silk curtains, wool rugs, wooden tables, chairs, etc.

  • Waldorf specific arts and crafts: pressing flowers, carving pumpkins, making "birds nests” lanterns, pinecones dipped in melted beeswax, making crowns from felt and yarn, baking bread, needle work, etc.

Who’s it for? 

Parents may choose Waldorf because they want their child to develop individualism in a cooperative, creative, routine-based setting. 

Waldorf Schools in Fort Collins

The other school I will mention is the Arts & Imagination Preschool. This fine-arts based preschool blends many things from Waldorf, Reggio, and Montessori. 

Please reach out if you have any questions or feedback. Also, here's a list of all of the preschool options in Fort Collins. I'd love to hear from you!