Mud, glorious mud
Mud always seems to be a popular activity with young children but this year, I have noticed its popularity has hit an all time high! The children’s fascination with mud is not affected by the weather, they are happy in the mud come rain or shine. The setting where I am doing some work at the moment has a wonderful mud pit but the popularity of playing in the mud has led to the purchase of a wooden mud kitchen which was beautiful and pristine for all of a few seconds!! The children love it.
The children are also interested in the soil, the feeling of it running through their hands and they enjoy the way it looks running around showing everyone their grubby hands! There is plenty of play in the soil adding dinosaurs and various toy vehicles but once water is added, excitement grows! The combination of mud and water creates opportunities for exploration, cooperative play and lots of sensory discovery. Mud play is all about fun, fun, fun!
It isn't for every child - there are those children who are very uncomfortable getting themselves dirty and I have to say, there are many parents who are very uncomfortable with their children getting dirty. I have observed one particular child who back in the winter was not too keen on playing in the mud, he seemed happier in the sand and preferred the company of adults. It's has been a joy to see him start to explore the mud pit, get involved with the other children as they play in the mud until yesterday he had so much mud on him he was hard to recognise!!!
It may be that in your setting there will be practitioners who are not keen on this type of play and of course it does create mess. I think the most important thing is to understand their resistance but to explain the benefits of allowing and embracing mud play. Share with your more reluctant staff the advantages of having a mud kitchen and/or a mud pit. Clothes and resources will get dirty, so discussing together as a team how you will accommodate this would be useful to ensure everyone is onboard.
Before the children begin to play make sure they are wearing clothes that can become muddy. You can provide waterproof aprons, which are useful in sunnier weather to minimize the mess on clothes but I would advise that children come to your setting with a set of waterproofs - one setting I know encourage children to have lined waterproofs for during the winter and another set for the warmer weather. It's a good idea for children to wear rain boots whilst they are playing in the mud. Agree what your expectations are for the children regarding cleaning up after the play. Soapy water can be provided so that a routine is established of the children washing up resources etc after playing in the mud. From my experience, they enjoy this almost as much as the mud play!!! The children themselves may need cleaning too so the best way to do this will also need to be discussed and agreed with your team.
For me, the beauty of mud play is that it is so open ended. There is no right or wrong way for the children to play with it, it has a never ending range of opportunities for them to discover. Being so open ended, it meets the diverse needs and interests of different children. They never seem to tire of playing in the mud as I have observed play that has continued for the whole morning or afternoon session with so many components to that play. For example, in the setting I have mentioned, they have a curry plant growing quite near to the mud pit. Several boys were exploring mixing water into a large bowl of mud; one boy added some of the curry plant “I'm making curry” he said. He asked me to smell his curry and we chatted about the smell and I asked him if he liked curry “ no” was his reply but that didn't matter at all! This caught the attention of the other boys, they began to get smaller bowls from the mud kitchen shed and started to concoct their own curries with much discussion about the texture of the curry and the strength of it, asking me at various points to smell their curry to test its strength!
Mud play is inclusive of all children as it allows them to play at their own developmental level. Younger or less skilled children might focus on the sensory experience whereas older children may have more specific goals in mind for their mud play such as the boys in the above example. Some children may thoroughly enjoy the sensation of mud, while others are only comfortable poking a finger into it or just observing the play. Mud can be explored at their own comfort level.
Of course it is about the fun but ……. the really great news is playing with mud is good for our children it has lots of benefits!!! The setting I have mentioned fully embraces mud play but I do wonder how many other settings are as keen. Mud is dirty and it makes the children dirty. This can be problematic for settings and make practitioners feel very uncomfortable - it's time consuming getting the children ready to play in the mud - wet weather gear, wellies etc and time consuming getting them cleaned up afterwards. Parents may well not be happy with the idea of their children digging in the mud at nursery or preschool. This is where knowing about the wonderful benefits of playing in the mud can really strengthen your case.
Scientists have now confirmed something that children have somehow always known; playing in mud is a joyful and fun experience. Recent research (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1868963/) has shown that dirt contains microscopic bacteria called Mycobacterium Vaccae which stimulates the immune system and increases the levels of serotonin in our brains - this can soothe and calm children and help them to relax. In our busy, crazy world, children are having less time to relax and anxiety is on the rise, mud play is an easy way to counter that. Scientists say regular exposure to the bacteria may help reduce a child’s vulnerability to depression and we all want that! Yes mud is dirty but it makes us happy!!
There is some discussion too that as our lives get cleaner our children are actually more susceptible to allergies and that exposing children to dirt and germs works to prime a child’s immune system to prevent allergies. It also enables children to connect to nature which embraces the approach of one of my favourite pioneers of play, Friedrich Froebel (1782 - 1852). A key Froebelian principle is that every day experience of the natural world is essential for children to learn about the beauty of nature and how it relates to all living things. Playing in the mud encourages children to develop an appreciation for the environment. It is sadly the case that for many children today, outdoor play and spending time outside is something that happens rarely and it is impossible to care about the environment if you have not had the chance to spend time in nature, discovering its opportunities. By providing time for the children to be outdoors and the chance for muddy, messy play, you facilitate a love of the world.