Mud. Ooey gooey squishy goop that forms when dirt and water mix together. Mud has a magnetic force on children. It beckons them to scoop and slide their way into a magical and messy world of play. Most parents abhor mud. It stick to everything and dries into a hard mortar. It’s a pain to get out of hair and even more annoying to clean it off the inside of a car. And yet, despite the messiness of mud, I am a huge advocate of mud play. Mud is a unique medium that provides endless opportunities for play and discovery. It also packs a punch when it comes to boosting our children’s health and happiness.
In this article I’m going to explore all things mud. I’ll start by sharing the benefits of mud play along with the latest research and then offer a list a great mud activities and mud books for your child to try out. Let’s dive in!
Disclaimer: This page contains Amazon Affiliates links and I may earn a small commission from your purchases made through them.
The benefits of mud play for kids
There’s this belief that mud should be avoided at all cost because it’s teaming with dangerous parasites, viruses and bacteria. After all, haven’t you heard about that person that got diarrhea after doing a mud run through a livestock pasture? It’s all over town! (groan.) You might have come to the conclusion that avoiding mud is a solid plan; however, research is showing keeping kids clean might actually backfire…in more ways than one.
Kids exposed to soil are less likely to develop asthma, allergies, cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. Researchers are still trying to figure out why this is the case. One guess is called the “old friends hypothesis” which is an updated and rebranded version of the so-called “hygiene hypothesis” that was first suggested by Dr. David Strachan in 1980s. This hypothesis suggests infants, toddlers and kids need to be exposed to “friendly” microbes for proper immune development.
There have been lots of studies trying to learn more about these “old friends”. Studies on mice have found that exposure to microbes impacts killer T cells in the immune system. Other researchers have been studying the bacteria Mycobacterium Vaccae and its immune regulation properties. Lately there’s been a lot of interest in helminths (parasitic worms) in regulating the immune system. There’s still so much to discover and learn!
Humans have evolved in close contact with dirt for thousands of years so it makes sense that soil plays a powerful role in building up the good bacteria in our intestines. In one study, ten daycare facilities in Findland replaced part of the gravel playyard with “forest floor”, grass, planters and peat and children played in these new plascapes for about 1.5 hours each day for 28 days. At the end of the experiment the children had more bacteria diversity on their skin and gut bacteria and positive changes to their immune system.
Time spent playing with mud reduces feeling or anxiety, anger, stress, depression and improves concentration. There are several reasons for the positive impact of mud play on children’s mental health. The first is that spending time in nature has a general positive effect on emotional and mental health. More specifically, the bacterium Mycobacterium Vaccae, which is found in dirt, has the ability to reduce stress much so that researchers are looking at how they can use this bacteria to make a “stress vaccine“. Time in nature also has been shown to reduce the symptoms of ADHD.
Mud is a wonderful material for stimulating the sensory system. It can feel cold or warm, sticky or slimy, rough or smooth. Different types of mud have different characteristics that children learn to appreciate through regular mud play. Sensory play helps young brains make new connections, strengthen pathways and prune synapses. It also promotes sensory integration sensory integration which is when children process their senses and use that information to make decisions.
For more information about sensory play and activites: 20 outdoor sensory play activities for young children.
Fine and gross motor skills
Playing with mud is a full body activity. Digging, hauling, squishing, stomping, mixing and spreading are helpful for developing coordination, fine motor skills, and gross motor skills.
Problem solving and creativity
Mud can be moved around and manipulated in many different ways. These muddy characteristics make it a great material for loose parts play, a type of unstructured play that encourages creativity and problem solving skills in children.
Learn more about Loose Parts Play: Using Loose Parts for Free Play and Loose Parts Play Ideas for Toddlers.
Spending time outdoors connecting to nature has many benefits in of itself. It has been shown to increase vitamin D levels, reduce nearsightedness, reduce the risk of obesity, reduce anxiety and anger, boost academic performance, increase impulse control and reduce symptoms of ADHD. Also, spending time outside playing with mud allows children to discover the beauty and awe of nature which will in turn help them grow into adults that want to care for nature.
Check out these handy info graphs from Children & Nature Network: Benefits of Nature – Health and Wellness and Benefits of Nature – Academic Outcomes
Mud activities for kids
Encourage your kids to get messy with these simple muddy activities.
One mud-delicious activity for kids is playing with a mud kitchen. There are plenty of DIY mud kitchens designs floating around on the internet, but all that’s needed for a mud kitchen is a few old kitchen tools. Look for cheap kitchen tools from your local thrift shop. Things like pots and pans, mixing bowls, measuring cups, mixing utensils, pie plates, and muffin tins are great for mud play. I also like to provide a variety of nature bits like shells, pinecones, herbs, flowers, rocks and sticks for “ingredients” or for decorating mud pies creations.
Gather some pails, shovels and nature bits for mud castle fun. Ice cube trays or small containers are great for making “mini mud bricks” which can be used right away or dried in the sun.
Painting with mud is a fun way to unleash creativity. Try painting with fingers, an old paintbrush or making nature paintbrushes using sticks and greenery. Regular white printer paper doesn’t hold up well to mud, but cardboard from cereal boxes or shipping boxes work well. My kids also like to “paint” their playset, the fence, big rocks or anything else within reach including each other!
Draw pictures in the mud with sticks, stones or other objects. Drawing in the mud is a great sensory way to learn letters and numbers.
Thick mud works well for forming into shapes and sculpting. It takes a bit of practice to get the right consistency of mud for sculpting but the result is extremely satisfying.
Mud tree face
Plaster some mud on a tree trunk and decorate the mud with sticks, rocks, shells and other nature bits to create a face on the tree!
Mud picture books for kids
Below are some of my kids’ favourite mud themed books!
All You Need Is Mud by Cam Higgins
This easy-to-read chapter book is about a puppy named Bo Davis and his muddy adventures with his friend pig. Book ten of the Good Dog series.
Ages 5 to 9
Dirt + Water = Mud by Katherine Hannigan
A young girl and her dog play in a mud puddle together. A simple story about imaginary play told in equations!
Ages 4 to 7
Mud! by Annie Bailey
A story about playing in the mud that’s filled with muddy onomatopoeias and mud-delicious ideas for playing in the mud.
Ages 3 to 5
Mud by Mary Lyn Ray
A beautifully illustrated lyrical story about melting snow, unfrozen earth and happy mud!
Age 4 to 7
Mud Book: How to Make Pies and Cakes by John Cage
A simple illustrated instructions for making a mud pies and cakes.
Age 3 to 5
Mud Cake: Backyard Birthday by Valjean McCray
Kim and Fredy work together to make a very special birthday cake.
Mud Kitchen Crafts: 60 Awesome Ideas for Epic Outdoor Play by Sophie Pickles
This book is packed with fun mud kitchen activities for kids to try at home.
Ages 2 to 7
Mud Puddle by Robert Munsch
Jule Ann keeps on getting jumped on by mud puddles hiding in the strangest places: in an apple tree, on top of the house, from behind the dog house and over the fence. A silly muddy story by much loved author Robert Munsch.
Ages 4 to 8
Mud Tacos! by Mario Lopez and Marissa Lopez Wong
Mario and Marissa make wormy, squirmy mud tacos together, but all those mud tacos make them hungry the real thing. A sweet story about imaginary play, cooking and family. You can listen to Mario Lopez read the book here.
Ages 3 to 5
My Mud Kitchen is Rad by Allison Bakkum
It’s raining outside and that means there’s nothing to do! But when one child encourages the other to come outside they have lots of fun playing in their mud kitchen.
The Piggy in the Puddle by Charlotte Pomerantz and James Marshall
Originally published in 1989, this sweet story about a piggy in a puddle is such a delightful read.
Ages 1 to 6
Stuck in the Mud by Miss Sally-Anne Peek (NEW 2023!)
Young Eleanor gets stuck in the mud and needs a helping hand. Who will come help her?
Stuck in the Mud by Jane Clarke
Hen wakes up to find one of her chicks stuck in the mud. Hen tries to free her chick but gets stuck too! One by one the farm animals and farmer try to lend a hand but they each get stuck. Read on to find out the funny and unexpected ending to this silly story.
Ages 1 to 4
The Amazing Mud Cake by Elizabeth Reid
A rhyming story about a child that makes an amazing mud cake for Baby, Gramps and Mummy. Sweet illustrations and simple sentences make this a perfect book for little ones.
Ages 2 to 5
The Mud Pony by Caron Lee Cohen and Shonto Begay
Originally published in 1988, this story is a retelling of a Native American tale. A poor young boy wants a pony of his own, so he shapes one out of mud. Tragically the boy is left behind when camp breaks, but the mud pony comes to life and protects the young boy.
Ages 4 to 8
The Muddy Chef by Penny Whitehouse and Emma Bear
Written by Penny Whitehouse from Mother Natured and Emma Bear from Birch and Bear, this mud-delicious book is perfect companion for mud kitchen adventures.