Sunday, 22 January 2017

Dishing up the dirt: Why mud can help children become happier and healthier.

Can you remember the magic of picking up wet, cold mud and letting it ooze through your fingers? Mud play was a magic part of childhood. Did you ever used to grab handfuls of dry soil and scoop water to mix with the mud? Next the stones, flowers and grass would be thrown into the pot and you'd mix the entire concoction with a stick until it looked just right. Mud pies were my speciality. Painting with mud was always fun too. Especially on a hot day. I’d use my hands to rub wet mud onto the walls in the garden, making patterns and pictures. In time, it would start to dry, crack and change colour. There was a great sense of satisfaction I would get from peeling the mud off the walls as it dried. Once I even ate a handful of soil, just to see how it tasted. Earthy.

There are so many memories I have of playing with mud as a child. All of them happy, magical and filled with imagination and discovery.

The other day I caught myself yelling out the window to my kids – “Hey guys – stop playing in the mud, you’ll get filthy!”

What the…?

I had to take a minute to check myself and what I’d just said. When did I forget about the magic powers of mud? And when did I start caring so much about dirty clothes?

I’m going to tell myself it was the day that I was trying to clean the kitchen floor and that’s why I had forgotten about the importance of playing with mud.

Scientists have now confirmed what children have instinctively known about mud play; that it is a joyful experience. The latest research shows that soil contains microscopic bacteria called Mycobacterium Vaccae which stimulates the immune system and increases the levels of serotonin in our brains, it is an endorphin that soothes, calms and also helps us relax. Scientists say regular exposure to the bacteria may actually help reduce children's vulnerability to depression. In basic terms, playing in mud can make you happier!

There is more! Playing in mud also makes you healthier. Science shows that in our sanitized society levels of childhood alergies and asthma are on the rise. Exposure to dirt and germs works to prime a child's immune system to prevent allergies. Believe it or not, it is healthy for children to get muddy!
The same release of serotonin that is released when playing in Mycobacterium Vaccae mud is also linked with improved cognitive functioning.  

There is a myriad of possibilities that open up to children when playing with dirt. They learn co-operation, negotiation and collaborative skills as they work with others. There are creative and expressive skills that are developed as they engage in the wonderful sensory experience of moulding and shaping mud in different ways. It improves gross and fine motor skills, in addition to emergent maths and science skills as they problem solve, make comparisons, count ingredients, test theories and share their natural resources. The beautiful open ended nature of mud means that children have endless possibilities opened up to them as they think creatively and learn without the fear of making a mistake.

Children spend so much time indoors on computers,infront of the TV, on Ipads, tablets and phones and less and less are being seen out in the trees, making daisy chains, exploring, making dens and getting muddy. Given the opportunity, our children would spend the entire day outside, but more often than I'd like to admit I fall into the trap of thinking TV is an easier, quieter and less messy option. 

I have always been an outdoors kind of girl. I grew up in South West Wales, where I was surrounded by farmland and nature. My evenings and weekends were often spent exploring outside. My family used to joke that when they didn't know where I was, they wouldn't worry too much because I'd always show up a few hours later with twigs in my hair and mud in my fingernails. There was something so freeing about being outdoors. The possibilities were endless. One day I'd be an adventurer hunting for new territory. The next minute I'd be off on a bone hunt looking for clues about which animal it had belonged to. Mud pies, river dam building, digging for treasure and much more, were all part of what helped me to tap into a deep love and curiosity about nature and gave me a myriad of learning opportunities. 

Going outside, getting muddy and messy is important. It is not only fun, but it's educational and providing a healthier happier start to life for our children. If you worry about clothes getting spoilt, - make sure they put on some older clothes before you go out. Invest in some waterproofs so they can go and jump in every muddy puddle they see if they feel they want to.

There are so many amazing ideas on how to encourage messy mud play. Here are just a few to have a look at.

Magic Mud Recipe - by Growing a Jewelled Rose
Create a Mud Kitchen - Pinterest Ideas 
Mud Painting - by Forest Schools Blog
Muddy Animal Wash - By Imagination Tree

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