We were lucky enough to have a stream in the woods behind our house, my second home really. In the winter I'd plow off the gnomes' ice skating rinks, and build little hot coco shelters on its' banks. The rest of the year I was busily creating mud potions, cakes, damming up mini water falls, redirecting the flow, gathering precious pebbles, and harvesting skunk cabbage. I was fasciated with the textural jewel like orb hidden in it's center which looked so sculptural and otherworldly, yet responsible for that intense stink.
Yes, mud is dirty, yet it's also awesome. Mud offers not only a wealth of different open ended learning opportunities, yet research backed purpose to boot.
Below we'll share that research, some of our favorite muddy activities and resources, and some picture book companions to cozy in with after your much needed shower post play.
Research: Why Mud Play Matters
Mud and the outdoors harbor bacteria, as such some parents worry about encouraging their youngsters to really dig in, and strain to see the value. Yet, twenty years of research reveals that children who grow up with frequent exposure to different flora and fauna bacteria are more resilient health wise than children who grow up without those natural germs, in overly clean, sterile environments. Today, researchers recommend getting all in there, and playing in the dirt to boost the body’s immune system, as well as decrease the risk of allergies and asthma. Not only does mud help our immune system, it also helps our attention and mood.
In addition to the physical benefits, mud play makes a person happier. Many studies indicate that getting messy outdoors decreases stress and anxiety in children. Human cancer patients treated by the bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae, found naturally in dirt, report a better quality of life. And doctors are starting to prescribe gardening (adult mud play) and nature walks because of this clear connection. The bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae activates the neurons in the brain that contain serotonin, and chemically shifts our mental state towards joy and a feeling of goodness and peace.
For further reading on this:
Report Recommends Mud Pies for Earth Day by Galion Inquirer
The Mud Center: Recapturing Childhood by Community Playthings
Getting the Dirt on Dirt for happier, Healthier Children by National Wildlife Federation
Engineering with Mud Bricks: Ages 2-10 (and some 37yr olds)
Humans have been making mud bricks since ancient times. What I love about this activity is it can be as simple or integrated a learning opportunity as makes sense for your family. Little ones can mix up mud, scoop and tap it into ice cube trays for molds, and then stack and build with their very own mud blocks! Building upon their oral language development you can play with their structures, noticing how their mini car or gnome is: under, over, up, down etc... Is the castle tall or short, wide or narrow? Let's count out 3 bricks, 5, 10? Which brick is heavier or lighter? Let's paint the mud bricks, naming colors as you go. The castle could be a backdrop for storytelling, or a fun challenge to see how tall you can build it before it falls over! (predicting how many bricks, counting, graphing different attempts to see an average .... all age and readiness depending)
Older children can work with ratios and the science behind mud brick building. Predicting how much dirt, sand, and water might create the most solid bricks, will dead leaves help or hinder the strength, pine needles, acorn tops ... really whatever natural matter you have is what humans long ago would have turned to. They can measure, add, test and record their results simply on sticky notes, to more complex writing creating a recipe someone else could follow, and writing it out as a scientific report. You can estimate how long it will take for your bricks to dry. You can try oven baking some, and air drying others, comparing and contrasting, really it's about being curious yourself as an adult learning guide, and harnessing your kiddo's interests. If you are really going into mud engineering I recommend checking out Building with Stabilized Mud by K. S. Jagadish.
To bring in some cultural and historical learning you could learn about different structures built with mud bricks, their history and use, learn about roman cement which was made with ash (I'm thinking older kids here, together, with supervision, you could safely build a fire and cool and gather your ash, noticing if how it impacts the structure. Looking to geography you can see where in the world they still build with mud and why. You can add in estimating and art by drawing a blueprint, or builder's drawing of a structure you want to build, and estimate how many bricks you'll need to complete it, and then see.
One of my favorite is linking creative writing, and create a story about who lived in your structure and what their daily life might be like. It can be historical fiction if you are working on a certain area and time frame where mud bricks were being used, learning about their foods and traditions. It can also be complete whimsy with a secret dragon chamber and a moat built to keep out lava, or what happens by the pegasus landing pad on the top tower.
All, from the humble, and free magnificent mud.
Here are a few other neat muddy resources:
30 Plus Mud Activities by Growing a Jeweled Rose
How we built a mud pit by Having Fun at Chelle's House
Let Your Kids Get Dirty! by Simple Mom
Marvelous Mud by Rusty Keeler
Wet sneakers and muddy clothes are prerequisites for understanding the water cycle.
- David Sobel