Kids love mud – it’s just a fact. Whether it’s building material for mini dams and roadways or perhaps just the satisfying squish between toes during a hike through a streambed, a young child seems drawn to the stuff as if by design.
Parents, on the other hand, may be less enthusiastic about mud. For one thing, mud is dirty. But there are still plenty of good reasons to let your kids play in mud. The National Wildlife Federation’s recent report “The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids,” published in 2012, states: “The things small children want to do outside, like building mud castles, splashing around in puddles and rolling down hills … may, in fact, be a grubby little prescription for health and happiness.” Mud, it seems, has some amazing benefits.
A growing body of evidence suggests that early contact with some of the infectious microbes found in soil can result in a lower risk of heart disease later in life. Other studies have linked the over-use of sanitizers to a higher incidence of allergies and autoimmune disorders. In the Wilce Student Health Services blog at Ohio State University, Victoria Rentel, M.D., cites a study in which the digestive tracts of indoor pigs were compared to those of outdoor pigs. She concludes, “There is … a growing, stinking, microbial-filled gooey heap of evidence that human interaction with bacteria is good.”
Look at a child’s face as she splashes in a muddy puddle and you know she just feels good. Studies suggest that this feeling of well-being may be a result, at least in part, from a child’s contact with the soil. A bacterium found in dirt (M. vaccae) has actually been linked to increased levels of serotonin, a compound in the brain related to feelings of happiness.
Early childhood educator Bev Bos states in her book Before the Basics: Creating Conversations with Children (Turn the Page Pr Inc, 1983), “Children were not born to wear shoes. In our concern for hygiene and safety, we develop amnesia. Give children a break! Remember how good mud feels between the toes?”
Physical play outdoors can also result in gains in independence and creativity. Chrissy Larson, an outdoor educator and preschool teacher, observes that a child’s “play in natural spaces is much more creative because of the lack of structure and the constant change with the seasons [and] weather.” In her program, she says, “we value the social and physical aspects of discovery outdoors. Nature’s topography can be tricky and ... we are good at helping children become independent as they get confident on their feet.”
Young children learn by engaging in hands-on activities with real objects. Unstructured play (that is, play initiated by children and not led by adults) is an important part of their education. Yet today, a child’s schedule is often packed with hours of directed activities in school, sports or aftercare programs. Free time is spent in front of one screen or another. There seems to be less and less time to “just muck about.” Unstructured free play has been shown to promote cognitive growth and to positively influence social interactions. During unstructured play, children plan, make decisions and see results.
Tony Deis, founder of the outdoor education program Trackers Earth, says, “We need to take a look at how childhood has changed. We may feel we are making a safer world for children by limiting where they roam, but at what cost?” Referring to outdoor activities common to children just a generation ago, he continues, “What did the freedom of walking creeks and catching frogs give them? Did they have a destination? Were they learning anything? At Trackers we firmly believe they were learning everything.”
Many experts agree that our children are quickly losing any connection to the natural world. Larson talks about how her young students learn to make use of the environment. “At first they don’t notice that some trees are better than others for shelter from the rain,” but she says they quickly find out.
Deis believes that children who are involved in Trackers programs gain an understanding of the limits on natural resources. They learn that nature may not provide exactly what they want. “We allow kids time to develop awareness of the environment around them,” he says. While Deis understands that his students likely will not have the daily opportunity, or need, to make a bow and arrow or to start a fire without matches, he hopes that they will carry a “meditative thoroughness” into other areas of their lives.
Today our children have more on their plates (often literally!) than ever before. We tend to lead over-scheduled yet sedentary lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that obesity rates among our youth have tripled in the last 30 years. Pediatric use of antidepressants and medications for ADHD has skyrocketed in the last decade. But it seems that playing in the dirt and mud, whether in the backyard or hiking along a creek bed, might be the perfect antidote. Bruce Birk, M.D., a pediatrician, says, “Raising children can be complex. There are a lot of tough decisions to make, and it can be overwhelming. However, there is nothing better or simpler than just going outside for unstructured play time in nature.”
No rain in the weather forecast? With some planning, you can create a backyard mud pit that will provide hours of good down-and-dirty, hands-on entertainment for your kids.
• Create a boundary. Find a corner of the yard on which you won’t miss the grass, or whatever else was growing there. Kids will enjoy excavating the area with you.
• Add lots of water for masses of ooey-gooey mud. Decide which aspects of water flow your kids can control. Can they have access to the hose? If so, will there be a time limit? If there is no hose available to them, provide some kind of water source. Buckets, tubs and coolers all work well.
• Provide props. Old pots, pans, utensils, empty plastic containers, sticks and stones will help your little baker make fresh mud muffins. PVC pipe in various sizes, along with an array of connecting joints, can keep your pint-sized engineer occupied for hours. Treasure seekers will be delighted to find buried booty of all kinds: Marbles, glass stones, shells and miniature plastic animals are some you might try.
• Cleanup. You will save your sanity if you establish cleanup rules in advance. For instance, you may want your kids to dress in specific clothing for mud play. Place a large dishpan of water and an old towel near the door and ask them to rinse and dry their hands and feet before coming in. Immediate showers will most likely be necessary, but pre-rinsing is a good idea.