Mud Play: The Benefits of Saying “Yes” to the Mess (Guest blogger: Anna Owen, M.S.Ed)

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.

 Social-Emotional Development

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).




Language Development

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.”



Cognitive Development

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.

Holistic Planning: Strategies to Nourish Spirituality in the Classroom (Guest blogger: Dr. Jennifer Mata-McMahon)

As Early Childhood Educators we are taught to plan and implement developmentally appropriate experiences for children under our care in order to ensure their learning and development progresses adequately. We know from empirical research and evidence-based data, that developmentally appropriate practices, based on differentiated instruction and open-ended play, are the best pedagogical approach for young children (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). Nevertheless, when studying child development, we tend to focus on the four major development areas: cognitive, language and literacy, social and emotional, and physical. Leaving aspects pertaining to the spirit outside the realm of what is facilitated in the classroom. I propose that under a holistic view and understanding of the child, we need to incorporate the child’s spirit, and look into ways in which we can not just support its development, but also nurture and nourish its growth.

In my book Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education, I explain what children’s spiritual experiences look like for kindergarteners. By observing kindergarteners closely in their school environment I was able to develop profiles for the children I observed, and through those profiles, I found specific ways in which these children experienced and expressed their spirituality. Specifically I found, (1) joy (joyfulness and delight), (2) concern for others, kindness, compassion and caring, (3) relationships (importance and value of friends and family), and (4) Imagination (use and exploration in play), were the ways in which these children expressed their spiritual selves (Mata, 2015).

While interviewing in-service (Mata, 2012) and pre-service (Mata, 2014) early childhood educators, I found that spirituality is considered an important and valued aspect of childhood. Teachers shared they would be willing to explore and learn how to nourish spirituality in the classroom. For the most part, teachers find spirituality important and would be willing to include planning for its nourishment for the children under their care. One common thread in my findings was that teachers, although willing, seemed to be unprepared and did not know where to begin, when addressing children’s spirit. In my recommendations I propose teacher preparation programs include this type of course work in order to prepare early childhood educators to best provide this support for young children. In my work as a teacher educator, I have included this in some of the courses I teach, incorporating it into our studies of child development, as well as curriculum design.

In a more recent research project I have been working on with my colleagues Michael Haslip and Deborah Schein, we have set out to survey teachers at a national level, in order to uncover what in-service educators are doing to promote and nourish spirituality in secular settings (Mata-McMahon, Haslip & Schein, 2018). So far, we have received 33 responses representing 16 US states. Analyzing the data from educators’ responses to the open-ended questions of our online survey, we found explicit ways in order for educators to more consciously nurture the spirit of young children. The following recommendations for early childhood educators, for practice and implementation, stem directly from the analysis of the data collected through this survey based study.

  1. Drawing on one’s personal spirituality as a resource. We found that educators pulled from their beliefs and spiritual practices, such as yoga, meditation and prayer, to inform the work they carried out in the classroom and the quality of the relationships they fostered with children and families. 
  2. Preparing a beautiful and well-organized classroom environment that includes spaces for quiet time and retrieval for children, allowing for pondering.
  3. Using a flexible schedule that allows for extending the time allocated to activities and conversations regarding spiritual inquiries, allowing for exploring children’s ponderings.
  4. Nurturing and developing loving relationships with peers and adults.
  5. Developing children’s love for nature through indoor and outdoor interactions with plants and animals.
  6. Maintaining a child-centered curriculum, in which children are allowed to follow and explore their interests.
  7. Emphasizing moral and character development by modeling and teaching children about virtues.
  8. Promoting social and emotional development, by making it a priority in the curriculum.

By recognizing and then affirming the inner life force within children, educators can create a new perspective through which to understand holistic child development and then translate that vision into their pedagogical practices and educational environments (Mata-McMahon, Haslip & Schein, 2018).

A visual summary and resource on this topic can be found in a video I filmed for my You Tube channel, entitled How can we nurture children’s spirituality? – Strategies for the Classroom.



Copple, C. and Bredekamp, S. (Eds.) (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs: Serving children from birth through age 8. (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Mata, J. (2012). Nurturing Spirituality in Early Childhood Classrooms: The Teacher’s View. In M. Fowler, J. D. Martin III, & J. L. Hochheimer (Eds.), Spirituality: Theory, Praxis and Pedagogy (pp. 239-248). Oxford, UK: Inter-Disciplinary Press. ISBN: 978-1-84888-091-7

Mata, J. (2014). Sharing my Journey and Opening Spaces: Spirituality in the Classroom. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 19(2), pp. 112-122. DOI: 10.1080/1364436X.2014.922464

Mata, J. (2015). Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education: Four Kindergarteners, One Classroom. New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN: 978-0-41583-470-4

Mata-McMahon, J., Haslip, M. J., and Schein, D. L. (2018). Early Childhood Educator’s Perceptions of Nurturing Spirituality in Secular Settings. Early Child Development and Care. DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2018.1445734

Jennifer Mata-McMahon, Ed.D. – Is an Early Childhood Educator, Researcher and Scholar, originally from Caracas, Venezuela, working in the field since 1995, with an M.A. (1998), Ed.M. (1999), and Ed.D. (2010) from Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. She is the coauthor of Ambiente en Acción (Environment in Action) (Unimet, 2006), author of Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education (Routledge, 2015), and coeditor of Spirituality: An Interdisciplinary View (Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2016), as well as the author of several book chapters and journal articles on children’s spirituality.










Web links in text:

Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs: Serving children from birth through age 8

Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education

Sharing my Journey and Opening Spaces: Spirituality in the Classroom

YouTube Video “How can we nurture children’s spirituality? – Strategies for the Classroom.

Early Childhood Educators’ Perceptions of Nurturing Spirituality in Secular Settings