Enabling Environments: Mud - A right mess

Julie Mountain
Friday, June 8, 2012

The play and learning opportunities that one mud hole can provide are extensive. Julie Mountain describes the creativity and experimentation encouraged by playing dirty.

Really: is there anything more elementally delicious than the sensation of cool mud squelching between your toes? If there's one thing UK settings are not short of, it's the raw ingredients for mud play - dirt (or sand) and water. So, why not join thousands of other settings across the globe and celebrate International Mud Day on 29 June this year?

Organised by the Nature Action Collaborative for Children, Mud Day aims to introduce truly messy play into children's lives in order to help them reconnect with the natural world around them. Playing in mud offers children opportunities to discover new physical, emotional and imaginative interests, experimenting with a tactile material that can feel almost alive. Mud is best when children are able to play in and around it, unhindered by adult concerns about dirty clothes and messy play spaces.


It's quick and simple to create a permanent or temporary mud hole:

  • sacrifice some planted areas for digging and mud making - it may not look as conventionally attractive as flower beds but will contribute far more to children's development
  • if you don't have exposed dirt, lift a section of turf to allow children to dig down. Mud play will be popular, so be generous with the patch you create. If you don't want permanent mud, lay the lifted turf in a shady spot and keep it damp so that it can be replaced later
  • import topsoil from a garden centre or perhaps from newly emerged molehills (lovely, soft soil). You may choose to lay it onto a tarpaulin if you'd rather it wasn't permanent. Don't use compost - it has the wrong structure for mud play and will frustrate children's ambitions.

A water supply is essential - but if you don't have an outdoor tap, children can still make mud by transporting water in any vessels they can find and carry. This task will in itself become an integral part of the mud play, but think about the route children will take from the water supply to the mud area so that their activities don't detract from other children's play or create slippery patches.

To enjoy mud properly, everyone needs to be properly clad; on warm days, a T-shirt and shorts will suffice (don't forget sun hats and sunscreen) and, on our more common damp days, make sure that children can access wet weather gear. You will also want to provide warm soapy water for rinsing off, and adults with plenty of towels for cuddling children dry afterwards.

Resources for mud play need not be extensive or expensive. Children will make use of anything available for decanting, spreading, shaking, splattering, measuring, painting and much more. If you have concepts you would like children to explore through mud play, think about simple, flexible resources: so, for example, encourage group play with large 'archaeological' objects to bury and find, ropes and pulleys to transport mud and stories that will generate excited and imaginative messy play.


As with any outdoor play activity, use a common sense approach to risk assessment; 'risk benefit' is now widely recognised as an appropriate tool that will enable safe, exciting play. The essential guide, Managing Risk in Play Provision (a free download from www.playengland.org.uk) will provide advice and build your confidence as you explore the possibilities of risky play outdoors.

Most scientists now believe that a little dirt and bacteria is actually good for us; this is known as the Hygiene Hypothesis and the International Mud Day resources include information that you can share with parents and practitioners to reassure them that mud play is safe play. Nevertheless, it is sensible to embed regular handwashing into children's outdoor play routines and to avoid mud play in any areas you suspect may be contaminated by animal faeces.


For much of the time, squishing in the mud and making mud pies will provide children with plenty of stimulus for open-ended play, encompassing collaboration, communication and physical activity. If you want to extend mud play, here are a few simple ideas:

Mud impressions: mix up some thick mud onto greaseproof paper and shape into 'tiles'. Press leaves, twigs and other found objects into the mud to leave impressions. Dry the tiles in the sun; they will offer a few days' continuous creative play until they revert to dust.

Mud masks: thick, sticky mud can be adhered to vertical surfaces, such as trees and walls.

Use natural materials like leaves, sticks, flower petals, stones, feathers and cones to create facial features and hair.

Mark-making: swish sticks through the mud; blob mud onto the end of sticks to write on the ground; splatter mud 'paint' onto long strips of lining paper - compare the consistency and colour of mud from several holes.



At Footsteps Day Nursery and Preschool, Farnborough, we have developed a new and unusual facility for the children - a muddy kitchen, writes nursery manager Tara Gatford.

Unlike previous generations, children today often miss out on the opportunity to make mud pies and weed soup and to get well and truly filthy.

Our nursery team introduced the idea of a mud kitchen as a fun way to explore sensory experiences that would benefit the children emotionally and physically, and, above all, be great fun.

The children were involved in creating the special area within the nursery's large garden, helping to dig out the turf and turn over the soil, and they will be at the centre of how it develops in the future. The kitchen is supplied with pots, pans and utensils, a preparation area and 'dining' table and everything that a respectable kitchen would normally have.

Parents are great supporters of the project as they can see the benefits for the children and are happy to send them to nursery with bags of old clothes to wear in the area, so allowing children to really make the most of this liberating experience.

It did, however, take the children a while to get used to being allowed to get dirty. While the outside area has always been an important aspect of the nursery, and children's outdoor play inevitably results in dirty hands and soggy clothes, some children were initially wary of being able to dive into a huge patch of mud. Oliver was one of them.

One day, he told a member of staff that his trousers were wet and expectantly awaited being whisked off for a change of clothes. Instead staff reassured him that being wet was fine and that he could get as dirty as he wanted to in his muddy kitchen clothes. He looked over at the other children, some of whom were literally up to their elbows in mud and then at the adults who were not stopping them.

He returned to his task of collecting containers of water to create ponds in the dirt but still stayed away from the mud at first. It did not take long for the mud to be irresistible though and soon he was jumping up and down in his pools, splattering mud all over himself and others shouting, 'I'm stuck in the mud, somebody help.' He had a huge grin on his face and was enjoying the freedom of getting filthy.

The muddy kitchen is not only about fun, it also enriches the children's creative play, especially the boys, who focus on these activities rather than chasing around at high speed. They become thoroughly engrossed in their own investigations, be it digging up worms or dropping stones into muddy pools, and they love sharing these experiences with other children, staff and parents. It has also been a great facilitator of language development as the children are inquisitive about what they find.

The variety of play and learning opportunities that one patch of mud can provide is extensive as children enjoy exploration in groups or individually with no fear of reprisals for getting dirty. While one child may be engrossed in watching a worm bury itself in the ground, others may be experimenting mixing and combining different elements to create the ultimate mud pie, which they then offer to staff to sample.

This project has been a fantastic tool for enriching and encouraging creative play and languages. If you want to get the boys away from bikes and into the kitchen then a muddy kitchen is the answer.

For more information, visit: www.footsteps-daynursery.com


  • There are too many mud stories to list them here, but Mud Puddle by Robert Munsch (Annick Press) will be reissued in September with new illustrations and is an enduringly silly story

Julie Mountain is director of Play Learning Life, julie@playlearninglife.org.uk

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