The benefits of mud play – an Occupational Therapist’s perspective
It is a sad reality for many of our children that playing with mud is often discouraged or banned by well-meaning parents. Modern parents sometimes fear the unknown and seek safety in providing play experiences for their children that are considered less risky, and appear to be safer and more hygienic. Some see mud as messy and time consuming. An inconvenience. Others can’t see the educational benefits and instead, steer children towards educational games and toys, or structured sports and extracurricular activities instead. Of course there are many benefits for children who engage in sport and music and other forms of recreation, however the benefits of unstructured, messy play – like mud play, are too often overlooked.
The benefits of mud play for children are well-documented, so why aren’t we engaging more in this form of play? Perhaps in addition to the above, mud play is simply less accessible for families these days. This lack of access may be more of barrier than we realise. With an increased focus on saving water, it’s possible that families are less likely to run the backyard hose to create a muddy play environment. There is also an increased focus on preserving our natural waterways, which may deter some families from visiting natural settings for mud play. Time is also a huge factor. Busy families struggle to find the time to create mud play experiences for their children. It’s easier to defer to activities that are easy to access, easy to engage with, and don’t require a massive clean up!
We know that mud play is great for healthy development of the sensory system, for promoting imagination and creativity, to improve fine motor skills (such as in-hand manipulation and bilateral coordination) and social skills. It’s an inexpensive, fun play experience. The problems of accessibility, risk, and general misinformation need to be solved.
Here are a few FAQs and tips to make mud play more accessible for families:
Who knows what’s in mud? I don’t want to put my child at risk of injury or illness.
- Don’t let your child play in dirt or mud that has been contaminated by animals or harmful chemicals.
- Check the area for sharp or abrasive debris.
- Wash hands thoroughly after your child finishes playing.
Did you know the hygiene hypothesis suggests that childhood exposure to microbial organisms reduces the risk of developing allergic diseases? Kids who are exposed to dirt, and subsequently put their fingers in their mouths, can actually develop an increased resistance to allergens (Lynch, Sears and Hancox, 2016).
How can playing in mud possibly be educational?
Children learn best through play. There are lots of learning opportunities available when playing in mud. For example, through mud play they can learn about the different properties of matter. Is it smooth or lumpy, hard or soft? Is it cold or warm? Can you shape it or does it run? This is science!
They can also develop maths skills. They can use different tools such as measuring cups and spoons to learn about quantity and volume.
These are just a few examples. There are many, many more!
I don’t understand why sensory play is so important.
“Maturation of the brain and sensory systems occurs after birth and is heavily influenced by early life experiences and environmental interactions.” (Clark-Gambelunghe, 2008).
It is essential that our sensory systems are well-developed in order to successfully interact with the world around us. Without healthy development of the senses, kids can become easily disregulated and struggle to respond appropriately to some types of sensory input. Examples of this include being oversensitive to light or noise, not coping in crowds, or loathing the texture of certain fabrics.
Children with sensory challenges can also struggle with attention and concentration, have difficulty regulating their emotions, or may poorly interact with others. This is a very brief snapshot of the relevance of the sensory system, however the importance of multi-sensory stimulation (that is exposure to lots of different types of sensory input) cannot be emphasised enough. Mud play is an amazing multi-sensory experience for young children.
Our time is already stretched. I don’t have time to go out to find mud. Where do I even find mud?
Build a temporary mud pit in the backyard. You can find some ideas and all the information you need to proceed here – https://www.natureplayqld.org.au/diy-nature-play-mud-pits-1-0-1-temporary-mud-pit-options
I don’t have the space to build a mud pit!
A bucket of mud in the bathtub or sink can be just as much fun.
I’m worried about the impact on the environment if we use too much water.
You can check your local water restrictions here if you’re concerned about running the hose in the backyard – http://www.bom.gov.au/water/restrictions/index.php?state=QLD
You can also try using recycled water e.g. keep a bucket in the shower. A bucket of water can be added to dirt or sand to create a muddy experience.
I don’t know if we’re allowed to play near creeks. Are there rules around this?
The Nature Play website has a comprehensive list of parks and other places to visit where you can find water that is free for public access. Often where there is water there is mud! – https://www.natureplayqld.org.au/things-to-do/places-to-go
Creeks, dams and waterways that lie on private property should not be accessed without permission of the landowner.
When playing in and around water, supervision is required at all times, and typical water safety rules apply.
Be respectful of the natural habitat and teach your children to leave things as they found them after playing.
I just can’t handle the mess.
That’s a tricky one. It’s hard not to get messy when playing with mud! Being prepared in advance might help. Be armed with an old towel for a quick clean up, then perhaps head straight into the shower.
A hose off in the garden on a warm day is always a treat for kids.
Have some old clothes or swimmers on hand and have your child change into them if you know they are going to get messy. It’s absolutely worth overcoming your aversion to mess. Your kids will thank you for it.
Lynch, Sears & Hancox, (2016), Thumb-Sucking, Nail-Biting, and Atopic Sensitization, Asthma, and Hay Fever, Pediatrics, August 2016, VOLUME 138 / ISSUE 2
Clark-Gambelunghe MB, et al. (2008), Sensory development. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2015;62(2):367-84. 2. Graven SN, et al. Sensory development in the fetus, neonate, and infant: Introduction and overview. Newborn Infant Nurs Rev. 2008;8(4):169-72.