Xenopus tadpoles have emerged as a powerful in vivo model system to study mucociliary epithelia such as those found in the human airways. The tadpole skin has mucin-secreting cells, motile multi-ciliated cells, ionocytes (control local ionic homeostasis) and basal stem cells. This cellular architecture is very similar to the large airways of the human lungs and represents an easily accessible and experimentally tractable model system to explore the molecular details of mucociliary epithelia. Each of the cell types in the tadpole skin has a human equivalent and a conserved network of genes and signalling pathways for their differentiation has been discovered. Great insight into the function of each of the cell types has been achieved using the Xenopus model and this has enhanced our understanding of airway disease. This simple model has already had a profound impact on the field but, as molecular technologies (e.g. gene editing and live imaging) continue to develop apace, its use for understanding individual cell types and their interactions will likely increase. For example, its small size and genetic tractability make it an ideal model for live imaging of a mucociliary surface especially during environmental challenges such as infection. Further potential exists for the mimicking of human genetic mutations that directly cause airway disease and for the pre-screening of drugs against novel therapeutic targets.© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Portland Press Limited on behalf of the Biochemical Society.