“The right to play is a child’s first claim on the community. Play is nature’s training for life. No community can infringe that right without doing deep and enduring harm to the minds and bodies of its citizens.”
Play Wales 2015 (David Lloyd George, 1925)
“So children who learn outdoors know more, understand more, feel better, behave better, work more cooperatively and are physically healthier”.
National Trust 2012
Mud, Marvellous Mud!
Oh the joys of mud! Since the dawn of time children have been drawn to mud puddles and dirt as a part of their play. Mixing soil, water, and other natural materials like pebbles, leaves, or grass provides children with endless possibilities for learning and fun. Many of us have fond memories of creating mud pies, digging for worms, or making streams and valleys in the mud. But it is not just about fun, children can learn from playing in mud too.
Operation Mud Kitchen!
· Have an ample supply of soil (loam free) and water - access to different kinds of soil and sand allows children to create different kinds of mud, providing different opportunities for play.
· Pebbles, stones, and other natural materials allow children endless possibilities to use their imagination as they play.
· Vertical surfaces as they provide the opportunity to hang pots or utensils.
· Horizontal surfaces should be large enough to accommodate more than one child at a time.
· Shelving for easy storage of equipment like, pans, bowls, and utensils and also makes the area feel more kitchen-like.
· Stock with old pots, baking pans, bowls, utensils some food scales for children to use. Include shakers for children to fill with dried flowers or leaves to use as “spices”.
· Fill other containers with pebbles, twigs, pine needles, or other natural materials to be added to children’s creations.
· Add chef hats and aprons to enhance the play!
Embrace the mess – it’s okay for children to get dirty. In fact, when you look at the benefits children gain from mud play, it’s not just okay, it’s important, and the joy on the children’s faces will reinforce your efforts and make the mess worthwhile.
Benefits of Mud Play
Scientists have now confirmed something that children have always instinctively known; playing in mud is a joyful experience. Recent research has shown that dirt contains microscopic bacteria called Mycobacterium Vaccae which stimulates the immune system and increases the levels of serotonin in our brains, an endorphin that soothes, calms, and helps us to relax. Scientists say regular exposure to the bacteria may help reduce a child’s vulnerability to depression. In short, playing in mud makes you happier!
Playing in mud can make you healthier too. Science shows that today’s sanitized world is actually contributing to increased levels of childhood allergies and asthma. Exposure to dirt and germs works to prime a child’s immune system to prevent allergies. Yes, it’s actually healthy for children to get muddy!
Mud is also an excellent medium for learning. The same release of serotonin that occurs when playing in Mycobacterium Vaccae dirt has also been shown to improve cognitive function. The rich, engaging sensory play children partake in while playing with mud allows them to express their creativity while enhancing their fine motor skills. Children practice social skills such as cooperation, negotiation, communication, and sharing as they work together. Increased development in cognitive skills such as, maths and science are practiced as children make before and after comparisons, solve problems, test theories, and measure and count ingredients for their mud pies. This is the scientific process in action! Mud is a wonderful art medium, it is in ample supply, can be easily molded to create endless sculptures, and responds differently than clay or play dough. The open-ended nature of mud encourages creative thinking and allows children to freely create without fear of making mistakes. This also contributes to a child’s sense of self, helping to build a strong inner sense of competency.
Mud play is inclusive of all children. It allows children to play at their own developmental level. Mud is an open ended material that meets the diverse needs and interests of different children. 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. Some children may thoroughly enjoy the sensation of mud between their toes while others are only comfortable poking a finger into the mud. Allow children to explore the mud at their own comfort level. With mud, there is something for everyone and there are no wrong answers.
A useful approach for mud kitchens is to supply soil from purchased loam topsoil rather than from gardens or uncovered plant borders (all garden centres sell this; don’t try compost as it does not behave sufficiently like soil for satisfactory mud play). Sand in sandpits is also best covered with a light mesh out of hours.
Playing in the mud inspires children to feel a connection to nature and develop an appreciation for the environment. Many children today have limited opportunities to play outdoors and it is difficult to care about the environment if you have not had the chance to spend time in nature. By providing time outdoors and the chance for muddy, messy play, you facilitate a love of the earth.
But maybe the greatest benefit of mud play is the memories being created by the children. Mud play and the wonder and joy associated with it are the stuff that fabulous childhood memories are made of!
The Adult’s Role
Not all adults will embrace mud play, and some may actually have objections to children getting dirty. It’s true that mud play creates a mess, but the mess is worth it when you consider all the benefits children gain through this type of play. In order to advocate for mud play, carefully observe what children are doing and interpret this for other adults who may not understand why this type of play is valuable or what children are gaining from it. Take on the role of facilitator by allowing mud play and supporting the play that emerges from the children. Supply language for children to describe their creations. Think about ways to extend their learning by adding new materials, posing challenges, and pointing out interesting results of their efforts.
Of course mud play is messy and clean-up afterwards can be a large job. Just as children are expected to clean-up after playing with materials in the classroom, they can assist with clean-up in the mud kitchen. Routines and expectations must be communicated clearly to the children before, during, and after mud play. You can provide large pans of warm, soapy water and establish the routine of children washing the muddy pans and utensils as the first part of cleaning up the mud kitchen.
Pots and utensils need to be kept in good condition and will need to be washed and dried reasonably often to avoid them rusting and becoming unpleasant to use. Keeping them drained and aerated is a very good idea, and occasionally wiping a light coat of cooking oil (with paper towels or cloths) prevents rust and mold. Storing resources in open-net sacks or wire baskets is also a solution.
What to Wear?
There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing! Children need to stay warm and comfortable – and mud kitchen work is likely to be wet and messy. Waterproof dungarees with wellies offer the best protection for most of the year in the UK – the best hot weather attire would be old shorts and T-shirt!
Somewhere to wash muddy suits down and hang to dry should be part of any well-operating outdoor provision.
Health and Safety
First and foremost, children must be kept safe enough whilst they have access to the important experiences that they need for full and healthy development. Our job is to manage an opportunity to make it safely available – not to remove it in the name of ‘health and safety’. The requirement is to be ‘as safe as necessary’ rather than ‘as safe as possible’ (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents).
The current official approach is one of risk-benefit assessment – better thought of as benefit-risk assessment: that is, consider why the experience matters and then manage to make it available. Much more can be found in the government endorsed document Managing Risk in Play Provision, available to download from the Play England website.
Michelle Rupiper – Community Play Things