For many adults, making mud is not a clear winner. It's so common (and understandable) to ask, "Making mud? Is it really worth the mess?"
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. But, with few exceptions, kids get completely absorbed in mud play. The great news for parents is you can do this virtually anywhere too. 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. Slow down and let kids enjoy the process involved in making and playing with mud. The recipe is simple, the ingredients easy to source, but the learning mud play offers is rich and well worth the mess!
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Step 1: Prepare yourself for mud play.
We get it. Messy mud play is not always a grown up's dream. No matter how you and your kids feel about mud, you can still get all the goodness. It's just a matter of finding out your way to do mud play. Watch this humorous video from our Just Between Us Grown-Ups series about how to make mud play work on your terms. Once you've picked a time and a place that works for you, follow the steps below.
Step 2: Pack a few materials.
Unless you’re near a water source, you’ll need to bring it with you. We like to have around ½ a gallon of water per kid so they can play and experiment for a while (less if it's rained recently). Bring a small pail or container for each child so they can transport and pour water as they see fit.
Step 3: 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 for stirring and mushing mud. If it's dry, rough up the earth a bit so water collects and the soil is easier to work with.
Step 4: 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.
Step 5: Explore mud recipes.
Allow (or help) kids to fill up their pails or cups and dump water as often as they like. Even though mud is made from just two ingredients (dirt + water), there are unlimited mud recipes that can be made by experimenting with different amounts of soil and water. Invite kids to see what happens when they combine different amounts of each ingredient. How do different mud recipes look and feel?
Try out some of our favorite mud recipes from these downloadable recipe cards and discover which ones your child likes the most. Or, create your own recipes! Give kids 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.
Step 6: Support mud play.
For many children, experimenting with mud immediately brings joy and curiosity, while others need to take it slow. Every child (and adult) has a unique sensory system, and mud can push some kids too far out of their comfort zone. We call these mud mindsets and each can be supported in their own way! You may find your child’s mud mindset changes day by day, so it’s important to get a sense of how your child feels about messy play before we dive in.
To gauge where your child is at today, try these tips:
Prepare your hands for play with some exercises that activate kids’ sense of touch.
Model a little mud play yourself and let kids decide if they want to try it out.
Provide tools like sticks or leaves to make mud more manageable.
Let kids go as "deep" as they want. Each child has their own threshold for sensory stimulation, and if we trust them to lead their play, they will manage that quite nicely.
Substitute mud with materials like forest putty, shaving cream or even water which offer similar benefits with more control and less mess.
Extend the Play!
If kids appear ready for more, simply start to build alongside them. Make a mud pie by forming a fistful of mud into a patty and plopping it down somewhere. Start to combine mud and sticks to make a structure of some kind. Gather nature treasures to decorate the mud. Kids will likely get intrigued by what you are doing and want to try it too. Want more mud play ideas? Try our Mud Faces for Trees DIY, make Mud Art or cook up a feast in the Mud Kitchen.
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. Such a gripping sensory experience is a great opportunity to build language and communication skills. 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!
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By creativity, we mean the ability to both imagine original ideas or solutions to problems and actually do what needs to be done to make them happen. So, to help kids develop creativity, we parents need to nurture kids' imaginations and give them lots of chances to design, test, redesign and implement their ideas.
"Creativity is as important now in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
Why, you ask? For one, it is through being creative that a person is able to get senses, sensibility and spirit working together. Simply put, without creativity, we don't think our kids will live a full life.
On a more practical level, it's also the means by which humans of all ages make an impact on the world and other people around them. A lot of heavy stuff is going to go down in our kids' lifetime, and their generation will need to imagine and implement solutions to big and very complicated problems. Although our kids are still far from public office or the boardroom, today's political and business leaders worldwide are already pointing to creativity as the most important leadership quality for the future.
Although years from the art studio or design lab, little kids can learn to think and act creatively if you give them time and the right practice.
What are schema and why should you care?
There are patterns of repeatable behavior known as "schema" that you can notice in your child's play during early childhood (~18months-age 5 or 6). No matter where you are in the world, these same schema are exhibited by kids. Experts believe that when kids repeat these patterns in different situations, kids develop physically and cognitively. In turn, they are better able to understand, navigate and interact with their worlds, resulting in transformative learning. Kids naturally become absorbed in repeating these patterns, and practice with schema is highly engaging for them.
“Children’s schemas can be viewed as part of their motivation for learning, their insatiable drive to move, represent, discuss, question and find out.”—Professor Cathy Nutbrown, UK
How are schema useful to parents and teachers?
First, it just feels great to better understand your little ones. Once you notice these patterns, your child's seemingly random and (occasionally frustratingly) repetitive actions suddenly appear elegant and purposeful. Best of all, once you realize that they are really exploring a certain schema or two, you can pick activities for them that give them the opportunity to practice them, increasing their engagement and extending their learning.
Does every kid get absorbed in schema?
These are universal patterns, but different kids will engage in schema in different ways. For example, some kids dabble in schema, engaging in several at any given time. Others move from one schema to another over time. Others still stay working on a single schema for years.
How should you support your child as they exhibit schema?
Exploration with various schema is built into Tinkergarten activities. It's also interesting to notice how some of the best kids' toys enable children to practice with schema.
To get started, check out the most common schema and see if you recognize these patterns in your child's behavior. If you do, check out our activities that help to extend his or her learning by supporting that schema. For fun, mention these to your friends as you watch their children at play. They'll be in awe of your observation skills, any maybe even refer to you as the toddler-whisperer?!
The scoop on common schema:
You may have noticed that your child seems to spend lots of time picking up objects, putting them into a container, perhaps only to transfer them to another container or dump out the container and start again. Your child may also simply love to haul around hefty things (e.g. logs, books, blocks). Kids may also love to fill up wagons, carts, strollers, etc. so they can "transport" objects or people around.
So many children become engrossed in spinning around and around to the point of dizziness…who hasn’t?! Kids who are focused on rotation/circulation spin themselves or become fixated on watching things that rotate, like a wheel, or the clothes dryer. That is the magic behind rolling down a hill.
Many kids go through a phase or just always seem to like moving in straight lines. They probably like to walk along the cracks in the sidewalk, balance on the curb, walk along a log, climb up and down ladders or whiz down slides. Some can't get enough of those swings. They also love to throw, drop, roll and toss all kinds of things.
Kids like to order, arrange and position objects or themselves. They may arrange blocks, cars, rocks or other objects in lines, rows, piles or patterns. Drawing, painting and sculpture work likely includes lines and patterns as well. Lining up may be a favorite activity, and where friends and family stand, sit or walk may be of particular interest.
Kids like to cover, wrap or enclose things and themselves. For example, your child may hide themselves under the bed covers, love to wrap up in a towel after the bath, or use a single crayon to cover a whole piece of paper during art time. You may also notice a time when your kids continue to find places to tuck objects or themselves out of sight (aggrrr, not the keys again!). They may love to sit in tunnels, climb into empty boxes, hide up in trees, build forts, or squirrel away in a little area under the stairs. Or, they may love to tuck treasures away into boxes, bags, pockets or hidden nooks around the yard.
A child might spend a great deal of time connecting things to one another. You may notice that they love to join the train tracks together, link LEGOs in long chains, build “fences” out of blocks, each block touching its neighbor. They also love to use tape, glue, string, and other things that connect objects.
Kids like to transform the shape, feel and look of things and themselves. You'll notice this when they are dressing up in costumes or putting on make up. These are your potion-makers and demolition crew, who may add milk to their mashed potatoes, make potions in the backyard, knock down buildings and towers, and mix all of the play-doh colors together...in short, they can be a big sister’s nightmare!
What is Sensory Development?
Although some scientists classify as many as 20 senses, when childhood educators talk about "developing the senses," we typically mean developing the five standard senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. In addition to honing these senses, educators care about sensory integration, which is the ability to take in, sort out, process and make use of information gathered from the world around us via the senses.
Why does it matter?
The better kids are able to tune and integrate their senses, the more they can learn. First, if their senses are sharper, the information kids can gather should be of greater quantity and quality, making their understanding of the world more sophisticated. Further, until the lower levels of the brain can efficiently and accurately sort out information gathered through the senses, the higher levels cannot begin to develop thinking and organization skills kids need to succeed. Senses also have a powerful connection to memory. Children (and adults) often retain new learning when the senses are an active part of the learning.
So, if kids have more sensory experiences, they will learn more, retain better and be better able to think at a higher level. Makes the days they get all wet and dirty in the sandbox seem better, doesn't it?