The imagination station

Mud kitchens and sensory bin stands encourage active playtime for kids.

Lauren Evans wants to make sure kids are getting outside while using their hands and active imaginations to both learn and have fun.

About four years ago, Evans, who lives in Vineyard Haven, was shopping online and saw some mud kitchens that she thought would be perfect for her 2-year-old daughter (now 6 years old).

A mud kitchen is a small kitchen setup for children that brings together cooking with life-size utensils and role play from the home and outdoor environment into one sensory experience. It can also be used all year round, and is a great way for children to build independence and confidence.

Evans asked her father to build a mud kitchen for her daughter, and it was an absolute hit. But she wanted to make and sell the playsets so other children could have a great time while also working on cognitive and motor skills, so she designed a mud kitchen and started to sell her products from her Etsy studio, Monarch Studio Shop.

Folks can also follow Evans on Instagram and Facebook at @monarchstudioboston.

Evans’ playsets range in price from $265 to $850, depending on how elaborate they are.

“It has been so fun to see the mud kitchens do so well. It all kind of started with a ‘let’s just see what happens’ kind of approach,” Evans said.

Evans said a lot of families have provided positive feedback on the imaginary kitchens, with many parents saying it is a nice way to encourage kids to get outside, and also provides a respite to parents while their children are playing.

“Kids have such vivid imaginations, mud can be anything to a kid. My son will be playing in his kitchen — one day he is making muffins, and the next day he is working on a construction site,” Evans said. “And because kids get so engaged in what they are doing, parents can kind of step back and relax for a few.”

For a lot of families, Evans said the imagination stations are replacing the hours of screen time that kids might be “a bit overloaded on.”

“Kids get to play outside and use their hands and imaginations,” Evans said. “They are learning as they are playing, and they don’t even realize it.”

And you don’t need a huge yard or playroom for the mud kitchens. They fit easily in a small yard or play area.

According to Evans, schools have used mud kitchens and other sensory tools to enhance outdoor play areas and encourage interaction and collaboration between kids.

Evans also makes a sensory bin stand, which holds a large plastic bin that can be filled with wet or dry materials such as water, rainbow rice, craft sand, and pompoms.

One child can play at the sensory bin stand, or multiple kids can play at once, and families can fill the bins with anything that their kids enjoy playing with.

All of the Monarch Studio Shop playsets are made of natural, untreated pine.

Evans also makes different entertainment and education sets for kids, such as a puppet theater, a wooden tool bench, a reading nook that gives kids privacy to read, write, or draw, and a play castle for indoor play during the winter.

One of her friends has offered to make kits to go along with the sensory bin stands that will highlight a particular theme, and will include a book and dry materials for playtime. Nothing on the mud kitchens or the sensory bin stands is electronic or battery-operated, so kids who use the playsets are fully immersed in what they are doing.

Evans said the idea behind the playsets is simple, but effective.

“Kids love to mimic adults, and one thing adults do every single day is cook,” Evans said. “This way, they can mimic the adults in their life, siblings can learn from and teach each other, and kids gain a new sense of independence, which helps them build confidence.”

Apart from giving parents a bit of a break, the playsets allow kids to have their own space, their own tools, and their own projects going on. “It gives them their own imaginary world and allows them to be very creative,” Evans said. She noted that kids get immense gratification when they see they have made something entirely on their own, even if it’s a mud pie. And the playsets also teach kids to share their tools and toys with siblings and friends.

For Evans, getting kids outside is just as important as getting them up and active. “When children spend a lot of time outdoors, they are happier and more calm. Statistics show people are happier when they spend time outside,” Evans said.

Evans said last fall, she engaged in a fundraising campaign through IFundWomen, an online crowdfunding platform for women-led startups, and she surpassed her $3,000 goal.

“We had amazing support from friends and family, as well as people who didn’t know us but wanted to support our product, along with women in business,” Evans said. “We had to buy new tools, new materials, so to have the support of everyone was inspiring.”

According to Evans, families are giving rave reviews on her Etsy shop, and are particularly pleased with the quality of the playsets.

“We have lots of repeat customers. Some people will start with a sensory bin stand, and their kid will love it so much, they buy a mud kitchen or tool bench,” Evans said.