Let's be clear from the beginning - I love mud play.
I love watching children feeling mud for the first time.
I love seeing it squished between little toes that curl up at the sensation.
I love when the initial uncertainty that some children feel is replaced by sheer delight.
I love seeing children who feel free.
I have this memory of two boys, who were aged around five at the time. They'd spent hours digging, creating tunnels and channels and rivers, coordinating how to get the water to move through the area in the way that they wanted. They'd built an enormous "pool" in the mud pit, large enough for them to fit in together. And, soon enough, they had indeed filled it with water from the rain water tank, and were in that muddy slushiness. I remember taking a photo of them sprawled in the mud, their faces cupped by their hands, both grinning from ear to ear. I wish I still had that photo - those boys would be young men now!
After their hours of muddiness, they needed a shower. They had mud from head to toe. And yet, despite the clean up required, there was no doubt that it was worth it.
It was worth it to see their creativity.
It was worth it for the cooperative problem solving.
It was worth it for the sheer delight on their faces.
Sometimes I hear from educators that mud play is too much work, that the inevitable clean-up is too hard, that the time spent is too long. But I have to ask the question - what else are we doing that is more important? So often, our days and programs are filled with group times and transitions and expectations that break our periods of play up into small chunks of time that make it too much to get out the water play, or not enough time to paint a mural on the fence. Are these "let's sit down and read this book that I chose and hope that we can get through it without me having to tell Fred to stop kicking Sally and Evie to leave the puzzle on the shelf" times, more important than this pure, child led, exploratory and sensory play?
If it were up to me I'd say "just do it." Let them make the mess, explore the mud, create and play. Deal with the mess, and in the words of a very famous character, sometimes we just need to "let it go" a little.
However, I do think there are practical ways that we can make mud play more accessible, easier to manage and simpler to clean up. Here's FIVE of them:
- Have a designated space - it's important to create a set space for mud play. This might be an area where the grass naturally doesn't grow and it tends to get a bit muddy anyway. You can try putting some logs around the outside which helps to keep the mud play somewhat contained, but also helps children to easily identify the mud play space. Also be mindful of the type of dirt that you have - many soils may not be suitable for play. In our former service, we had to dig out the existing dirt and replace with a sandy river loam from a landscape supplier. It doesn't need to be fancy, and it doesn't need a gourmet kitchen. An old sink, some pots and pans and a bunch of loose parts are a great place to start.
- Make the most of the natural environment - when you are designating your mud play space, think about where it is located for clean up purposes. Does it run off onto grass (much easier) or garden beds (even better for making the most of the water use) or is it adjacent to a concrete area that might become a slip hazard?
- Invest in functional storage - this makes clean up so much easier. A couple of easy options - a large lidded, fixed storage box adjacent to the mud play, so that everything can just be thrown in at the end of the day. Just ensure that the bottom is slatted so dirt can fall through and it doesn't build up in the box. Or, make use of milk crates. Throw all of the bits and pieces into milk crates and hose them off over the garden or grass, then store in your storage space. If you are near a wall, you might consider hooks for hanging things like pipes and tubing.
- Have "clean up" supplies on hand - If children are planning on some big mud play, you might suggest that they have spare clothes, or their bag, ready and waiting for when they are done. Make it easy so that children don't have to traipse through the bathroom or indoor play environment to get their change of clothes. Invest in reusable wash bags, individually labelled, so that children can take their muddy, wet clothes home to be washed in an easy and sustainable way. Consider where children can wash off if need be.
- Involve the children in clean up - One of the main complaints I hear from educators is about how much they have to do. It shouldn't only be on us though. Children are more than capable - and often love the sense of responsibility and trust - to hose off the pots and pans and carry them to the storage shed, or to hang their wet, muddy socks on a clothes horse to dry in the sun.
So, there you have it. Some pretty simple ideas that are easy to implement right now. What are you waiting for? Go and embrace the muddy goodness!
PS - On May 4th at 11am (AEST) I am delivering a session called "Dirt Between Their Toes" for Explorations Early Learning. Would love to see you there. For more information and registration - click HERE and use the code "INSPIRED"