The Geological Society’s 2015 Year of Mud celebrated the wide-ranging benefits of advances in the science of mudrocks. But aside from underpinning ground-breaking engineering projects and improved understanding of soil quality, mud also offers a vital resource in the most fundamental learning activity – play.
Even if the thought of toddlers and mud is enough to have you mentally reaching for baby wipes/towels/a bath of soapy water, it’s important to let children play and learn outside. Outdoor play is a great way for them to explore nature, use their senses and investigate the world around them. It’s also been found that getting outside is beneficial to children’s physical and mental health, and bacteria in soils can boost the immune system and may even help improve mood. Messy play also has lots of benefits, so if going outside isn’t practical it’s still worth letting them have a go indoors (and having a look at this list of tips for keeping messy play stress-free.)
So, what can you do with mud? A quick internet search will bring up lots of different activity ideas. These are just a selection:
Mixing up mud
Of course, mud can usually be found around and about, but if it’s not in abundance it can easily be made by mixing soil and water together, with optional extras such as leaves and grass. Children can experiment with mixing and changing materials, measuring, proportions, viscosity, colour, consistency and texture. Getting their hands in the mud adds a sensory experience.
Making mud pies
Making mud pies is a classic children’s activity with lots of learning benefits. Children can experiment with texture, cohesion, water content, mixing and changing materials, viscosity, compaction, shape, size, cardinal and ordinal numbers, mark making, creative expression, evaporation…and so on. Simply mix up some mud (plus twigs, branches, gravel, etc.) and create pies! And then decorate with whatever you can find lying around…
Mud pie making can be as simple as shaping pies with hands, or can scale up to a full mud kitchen – also known as a texture kitchen – with benches, pots, pans and utensils. These are popular in Early Years settings and offer a long list of opportunities to develop a range of skills. An easy way to encourage a wide range of play is to have a variety of different shaped, sized and textured utensils, such as spoons, spatulas, cookie cutters, jugs and sieves.
If you’ve got the space and resources to create a full kitchen, there’s a useful and free guide to doing this here, with links to lots of other examples.
Mud bricks contain the same basic ingredients as mud pies (mud plus other bits – children can experiment with consistency by adding varying amounts of something like grass to different bricks.) They can be shaped by hand, in trays or moulds or in ice cube trays for smaller blocks. By leaving them out in the sun to dry, children get the opportunity to learn about timescales, temperature and evaporation. This is a good opportunity to explore hypotheses; they may be able to predict whether or not a larger brick will dry out before a smaller brick, for example. And once their bricks are dry, they can build with them, introducing angles, balance, height and construction.
Sieves and colanders
Allowing children to strain mud and other sediments through sieves and colanders lets them explore size (especially if you offer grain size comparisons such as sand and gravel) and gravity.
It’s also an opportunity to develop the fine motor skills needed to do things like tipping and pouring, and picking up and grasping grains and utensils.
This one is obvious – use the mud like paint and get creating! This can be done on paper, on the ground or on any surface you can easily clean or don’t mind getting messy. Creative activities offer multiple benefits for young children and are very important in developing their self-expression, confidence and curiosity. The picture here was an unprompted depiction of a rainbow, which eventually ended up with clouds and rain too.
Links and resources
- Forest schools: impact on young children in England and Wales
- The Scientist: Let them eat dirt
- Play England: Play and health: Making the links (pdf)
- University of Bristol: Getting dirty may lift your mood
- All about…messy play (pdf)
- Tips and tricks for messy play
- Make a mud/texture kitchen – it’s a must!
- Mud kitchens – a recipe for fun
- Seven benefits of the arts in early childhood
Laura Hobbs runs ‘Science from the Start’, providing science-based play learning activities for pre-school aged children. All activities are parent/carer led and provided with accompanying accessible scientific background information to help adults facilitate and engage with children’s learning. They also use readily available, free or low cost materials to enable reproduction or extension at home. Links to other informal science learning opportunities for under 5s are provided through a directory on the project website, and through the project Facebook page.