A favorite childhood summer activity, my sisters and I used to spend hot days filling a little green plastic pool from the backyard hose to keep cool. But so much of the fun was what was happening outside the pool; we loved to splash the water straight to the ground, making muddy puddles. I remember how sun-warmed and sensational the mud felt on my bare feet, creating suction as I pulled them up and down. A Children’s Museum colleague shared an accidental mud discovery she made with a group of preschool children. Playing with a homemade slip-and-slide on a hill, children were just as drawn to the mud they made in the process, noticing the fascinating downhill rivulets being formed as the water and soil met, the kids changing the directions of the paths.
Despite its sometimes dirty reputation, mud stands strong with sand and water as an excellent open-ended play element for children to explore, allowing them to shape their environment while engaging their senses. Dirt and water can come together in endless combinations for mixing and molding, giving kids permission to dig in, experiment and make mistakes because of the endless supply. At the Museum, we’ve celebrated mucking around with mud using lots of topsoil, water and inspiring materials. Children used old kitchen pans and utensils to roll and form mud pies, each one uniquely constructed and adorned with toppings like gravel, dry beans and sprinkles of sand – some artfully arranged, others piled just for the experience of it. While most kids darted straight to the mud pit and other activities, not everyone was without hesitation. We loved how one mom pushed through her doubts, shook her head with a smile and said, “Why not go for it?”
When we asked Museum visitors to respond to the question, “What ways do you play with dirt and mud?,” they shared ideas from “make a restaurant that serves mud” to forming mud balls and muddy face paint. Mud play can be a messy, full-body outdoor experience but it’s also an art medium to explore indoors. We mix mud and sand for a gritty, spreadable texture, perfect for painting and stamping on paper with brushes with natural materials. Connecting with dirt and mud – basic elements of the earth – in different ways is wondrous, creative and just plain natural!