Meghan Fitzgerald is founder and chief learning officer at Tinkergarten, which began in New York and is now expanding to other communities—including Austin!—to offer outdoor early childhood education classes for children and their parents. We invited Meghan to join us on the blog to share her considerable mud-making expertise.
I must admit that, as a former principal and brand-new mom of an eight-month-old, I was a bit uncertain about making mud, and I certainly wasn’t thinking of it as a transformative experience. “Making mud? What’s the point?” I wondered. “Is it worth the mess?” This was before my forest school training and before I started to really spend time with tiny people outdoors.
It turns out the simple act of making mud is a universally powerful pastime for young people (and not bad for us big kids, either). Yes, kids get messy. (Fair warning: They may even try to taste the mud.) But with a few exceptions, kids get completely absorbed in this pursuit. The great news for parents is you can do this virtually anywhere—with the most basic of materials (water + dirt!). Armed with a few tips, parents can help unleash the activity’s rich learning potential. Play in the mud along with your kids, and you’ll inspire immediate smiles as well as a lifelong comfort, even pleasure, in mucking around. That kind freedom spawns unbridled creativity and joy that’s just plain good for the soul. So let them go for it—you can make an outdoor cleanup part of the fun too!
Here’s how we like to approach mud play:
- Pack a few materials: Unless you’re near a water source, you’ll need to bring it with you. We like to have around half gallon of water per kid so they can play and experiment for a while. Bring a small pail or container for each child so she can pour water as desired without dumping your entire supply.
- Clear your spot: If you’re in a high-traffic area, check to make sure that there are no obvious hazards (e.g., broken glass, metal, dog doo, trash) where you’ll be making your mud. As you scan the ground, grab some sticks that kids can use for stirring and mushing mud.
- Pour a little water. Then let them do the pouring: Trickle a small amount of water on the ground, and discover together what happens to the dirt. You can take a stick and even do a little mixing. Then hand a bucket to your kids, inviting them to transport water and see what happens when they add it to dirt. Stand back, and watch them get to work.
- Dole out the water as you go: Allow (or help) kids to fill up their pails or cups and dump water as often as they like. Playing with water is, in and of itself, a super engaging lesson in cause and effect and physics. We prefer filling a large container (e.g., 5-gallon bucket) and letting kids serve themselves.
- Play and “ooooooh” alongside them: Let them continue to pour, mix, and make mud on their own, but do the same alongside them. Every now and again, “Ooooh” or “Ahhh” at the mud puddles, rivers, and piles you make. Ask kids if they notice a difference between their mud and yours, giving an opportunity to describe the different muds using words such as soupy, thick, chunky, dry, wet, or sticky. Such a gripping sensory experience is a great opportunity to build language.
- Make something (optional): If you think they are ready for more, do not interrupt their play. Simply make a mud pie by forming a fistful of mud into a patty and plopping it down somewhere. Gather nature treasures to decorate it (our oldest loves to make pizza mud pies most). Kids will likely get intrigued by what you are doing and want to try it too. If you have older kids (ages 3+), you can make mud faces on the trees!
Why is this activity great for kids?
Playing and experimenting with ooey, gooey mud helps children to strengthen their sense of touch—and we know that the better kids are able to tune and integrate their senses, the more effectively they can learn. Once kids know how to make and manipulate mud, they have a tool for play and building with virtually unlimited uses. When kids transform the shape, texture, or nature of materials (in this case, turning dirt and water into mud), they also engage in a universal behavior pattern called the transforming schema, which supports brain development. Best of all, when you let kids lose themselves in play and give them room to mess around, you offer them the openness and freedom they’ll need to develop true creativity down the line. If all this isn’t compelling enough, research also indicates that playing in the dirt is just plain good for kids’ health. So go on, get dirty!