Mud—A Prescription for Healthy Kids

Kids love mud—it’s just a fact. Whether it’s the batter for fresh muffins, or the building material for mini dams and roadways, or just the satisfying squish between toes, a young child seems drawn to the stuff as if by design. Parents, on the other hand, may be less enthusiastic about mud. For one thing— mud is dirty. But there are still plenty of good reasons to let your kids play in mud. The National Wildlife Federation’s report “The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids” states, “The things small children want to do outside, like building mud castles, splashing around in puddles and rolling down hills…may, in fact, be a grubby little prescription for health and happiness.” Here’s more on the benefits of getting muddy.

Physical health. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that early contact with some of the infectious microbes found in soil can result in a lower risk of heart disease later in life. Other studies have linked the over-use of sanitizers and sterilizing products to a higher incidence of allergies and autoimmune disorders. In addition, many experts have noted the connection between a sedentary lifestyle and an unhealthy body. “We have an epidemic of obesity in this country,” says pediatrician Dr. Bruce Birk. “All the best efforts to change diet are important, but secondary to the importance of regular physical activity, especially outdoors.”

Mental health. Look at a child’s face as she splashes in a muddy puddle, and you know she just feels good. Studies suggest that this feeling of well-being may result, at least in part, from a child’s contact with the soil. A bacterium found in dirt (M. vaccae) has actually been linked to increased levels of serotonin, a compound in the brain related to feelings of happiness. Physical play outdoors can also result in gains in independence and creativity. Chrissy Larson, an outdoor educator and preschool teacher, observes that a child’s “play in natural spaces is much more creative because of the lack of structure and the constant change with the seasons and weather.”

Educational benefits. Young children learn by engaging in hands-on activities with real objects. Put simply, children learn by getting their hands dirty. Unstructured play (that is, play initiated by the child and not led by an adult) is an important part of their education, and has been shown to promote cognitive growth and to positively influence social interactions. Yet today, a child’s schedule is often packed with hours of directed activities in school, sports, or aftercare programs. Free time is spent in front of one screen or another. There seems to be less and less time to “just muck about.” During unstructured play children plan, make decisions, and see the results on their own.

Connection with nature. Many experts agree that today’s children are quickly losing any connection to the natural world. Larson has seen her young students blossom as they follow raccoon tracks in the mud, and learn to recognize the trees that provide good rain shelter. She says, “I truly believe all that time spent digging in the dirt, playing on the dirt, sliding down the dirt, and sitting for snacks and stories in the dirt literally roots them to the earth…They begin to gain an understanding of the simplest and most complex parts of nature.” Today our children have more on their plates (often literally) than ever before. We tend to lead over-scheduled, yet sedentary lives. The CDC reports that obesity rates among our youth have tripled in the last 30 years. Pediatric use of antidepressants and medications for ADHD has skyrocketed. But it seems that playing in the dirt and mud, whether in the backyard or hiking along a creek bed, might be the perfect antidote. As Birk says, “There is nothing better or simpler than just going outside for unstructured play time in nature.”

Melanie Symms, mother of two active young boys, agrees. “My boys need to run around in fresh air, rain or shine,” she says. “It seems to help their behavior and general attitude.” Couldn’t your kids use a little mud medicine?

Make Your Own Mud Pit

No rain in the weather forecast? No worries. A DIY backyard mud pit provides hours of good clean (yes!) hands-on entertainment for budding bakers and engineers:

  • Find a corner of the yard where you won’t miss the grass. Kids are natural excavators—just be sure they know the boundaries.
  • Add lots of water for masses of ooey-gooey mud. If you’re using a hose, decide who controls the flow of water before play begins.
  • Provide tools of the trade: old pots and utensils; PVC pipe and connecting joints; hose, sprinkler, and wading pool.
  • Bury some booty for young treasure-seekers: marbles, toy cars, shells, miniature plastic animals.
  • Clean-up tactics save your sanity: Use specific clothing for mud play. Set a dishpan of water and an old towel near the door for pre-rinsing hands and feet. Enforce postmud showers if necessary.

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