Many children enjoy playing in the mud because it’s just plain fun. Think back to your own childhood…do you have fond memories of making mud pies or digging in the dirt? We can take advantage of children’s intrinsic motivation to get their hands dirty as we foster their learning and development in many important ways through mud play.
The possibilities for what children might do with mud are limitless. The open-ended nature of mud allows children to play with it in ways that support their developmental levels and unique interests. Younger children might simply enjoy the sensory experience of running their fingers through the mud, while older children might engage in more sociodramatic play where they pretend to serve up creative flavors of mud pies that feature special ingredients such as leaves, pinecones and rocks. Children will work with mud in ways that are “just right” for them, allowing teachers to support and scaffold their development and learning in many areas.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways that mud/dirt play can foster development and learning.
Mud play offers many opportunities for children to follow rules, work together, collaborate and assist each other. Whether they are working together on a mud sculpture, taking turns jumping into a mud puddle or helping each other get cleaned up, they are practicing important social skills. Children also gain confidence as they assess and take risks, formulate plans and try out their unique ideas. We often see children naturally exhibiting positive approaches to learning such as curiosity, persistence, creativity, problem-solving, self-direction, engagement and sustained attention as they engage in this type of play.
Physical Development and Health
Through mud play, children have multiple opportunities to use their large and small muscles, as well as to practice balance and coordination of movements. As children squeeze, poke, dig, scoop, mold, scrape, stir, fill, lift, climb, stack, build and jump their way through mud puddles they are practicing important motor skills. In addition, researchers have even found that playing in the mud can be good for both physical and mental health (Horvath, 2013). It has been found to reduce symptoms of allergies and asthma, improve resistance to disease, reduce anxiety/stress and boost mood (thanks to the friendly bacteria found in soil that causes the brain to release serotonin – the “feel good” hormone).
Children will express themselves as they play and communicate about what they are doing. As teachers, we can also introduce new and interesting words as we notice and describe their efforts, “Look at how your mud has changed. At first, it was really thick but you added water and diluted it…now it’s not as thick.”
That same release of serotonin in the brain that triggers happiness has also been shown to improve cognitive function! How about that? Playing with dirt and mud can even make children smarter! In addition, we can facilitate learning in several content areas as children engage in mud play. They will explore math concepts such as measurement, comparison and volume as they mix up their mud pies. They will learn about one-to-one correspondence as they put just one pinecone onto each of their mud muffins. They will learn spatial concepts as they navigate a toy truck over, under and through the mud trenches that they have created. They will explore science concepts when they make predictions, investigate and observe changes (such as what happened to the wet mud when it dried overnight?) There are opportunities for literacy when we provide children with easy-to-follow recipes that can be laminated and kept in the mud kitchen. Children will do art and use creativity as they paint with mud, use sticks to draw in the mud, create interesting mud sculptures and participate in imaginative mud play. Children are able to become fully engaged because they are using the mud in ways that are interesting to them, while also practicing many important skills and dispositions in an integrated way.
There are a variety of ways to explore mud play in an early childhood classroom. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Create an outdoor mud kitchen that is stocked with materials for making mud pies (smocks and rain boots make clean-up easier).
- Have a designated space for dirt and mud play, adding items such as shovels, small animals and/or vehicles.
- Fill a sensory tub with dirt and let the children squirt and pour water onto it.
- Allow children to paint, draw and get creative with mud.
- Have children create mud sculptures, adding natural items and loose parts.
- Create mud bricks for building.
- Encourage children to jump in mud puddles.
- Give children a target for throwing mud.
- Have a Mud Celebration Day!
“The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.” -E.E. Cummings
Special thanks to St. Ambrose Children’s Campus in Davenport, Iowa for allowing me to capture photos of the children playing with mud in their outdoor classroom!
Horvath, J. (2013) Don’t be afraid of mud, Early Years Educator 15:4, v-vii
Anna Owen, M.S. Ed., is an Early Childhood Resource Specialist with STARnet Regions I & III. Anna has been involved in the field of early childhood since 2003. She received her Master’s degree from Western Illinois University in 2013. Her previous job titles include training coordinator, parent educator and preschool teacher. In her role as an Early Childhood Resource Specialist, she provides technical assistance and training to early childhood professionals and families. She is passionate about the arts and serves as the co-chair for the Creative Expressions Art Gallery that takes place biannually at the statewide Sharing A Vision conference. She provides professional development on a variety of topics related to curriculum, assessment, lesson planning, intentional interactions and much more. In her spare time, she enjoys photography and spending time with her husband and two young children.