The Magic of Dirt and Mud Play
If you didn’t have the opportunity of playing in dirt and mud as a child, your reaction when you hear the words, “dirt and mud play” may be to frown in disgust; you may think it’s an unhealthy activity for anyone, especially children, to engage in. Such reaction is understandable. I mean, it’s dirt and mud we’re talking about here, right?
What you likely don’t know is that dirt and mud play is not just fun, but also full of benefits for young children who engage in it.
A growing body of research has consistently been showing that it plays very important roles in many areas of a child’s development, and so should be a part of children’s early years.
Here is the magic of dirt and mud play revealed.
Dirt and mud play is actually healthy
Contrary to what many think, playing in dirt or mud is not an unhealthy activity. Instead, it offers several health benefits such as:
- Stronger immune system. Children who are adequately exposed to the bacteria, viruses and parasites usually present in dirt and mud are less likely to develop asthma and other allergies than those who are always in very clean environments, according to the “hygiene hypothesis.”
Similarly, a 2016 study in The New England Journal of Medicine reports that children who are raised on farms are less likely to develop asthma than those who are not; while another 2010 study by Northwestern University in Chicago shows that children exposed to pathogens and germs in infancy have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular inflammation and auto immune diseases in adulthood.
- Better gut health. According to a medical study in Finland, children in day cares where they play in more natural spaces with soil and vegetation tend to get more types of friendly gut bacteria, than children in day cares with less natural play spaces.
- Improved eyesight. Because it’s an outdoor activity, mud play may also help to improve children’s eyesight. Studies done in the United Kingdom found that when children spend more time outdoors around age 8 they are less likely to become nearsighted at a later age.
- Therapeutic effects. Mud can have soothing and relaxing effects; no wonder adults in some parts of the world pay good money to take mud bath spas!
More dirt and mud play leads to better physical development
When you watch children play with mud you’ll notice how they pile, dig, squish, shape, and push it around. Sometimes they even go further to slide, jump, and splash in mud.
Some children make mud bricks, buildings, and so on.
Those who have access to a Mud Kitchen pretend to make pies, donuts, cookies, and other types of “food” with mud, and doing so usually also requires them to handle utensils and loose parts.
As children carry out all these activities with their hands, arms, legs and other parts of their body, their fine and gross motor skills, as well as their sense of balance and coordination, tend to become more developed.
In addition, the level of physical activity involved in dirt and mud play outdoors, together with the fresh air and sunlight they’re exposed to while at it, helps children maintain a healthy lifestyle. This type of play also promotes physical literacy which has to do with the development of fundamental movement and sport skills.
Dirt and mud play enhances emotional development
Mud play promotes mental health and emotional development because it:
- Improves mood. Scientists say that if they are exposed to mud regularly, children will be less likely to suffer from depression. A study done in the UK found that the friendly bacteria in soil activates neurons that produce serotonin, a brain chemical that acts as a mood stabilizer. This is no doubt part of the reason why children usually appear calm and happy after mud play.
- Boosts creativity. As an open-ended and unstructured type of play, dirt and mud play stimulates artistic expression and imagination, and provides a lot of opportunities for children to express themselves creatively. As they make mud sculptures, buildings, designs, etc., they become more inventive and innovative.
- Makes children more adventurous by providing opportunities for them to assess risks, challenge themselves, and expand their experiences.
Cognitive development is encouraged by dirt and mud play
The unstructured or open-ended nature of dirt and mud play, in addition to boosting creativity, makes it possible for children to build their ability to think critically, form ideas, and solve problems.
Children also practice science and math concepts when they manipulate mud, experiment with it, and investigate its properties.
Because they use most or all of their senses while engaged in it, mud play also helps to keep children’s brains active and stimulated. According to research, sensory play such as play with dirt/mud builds nerve connections in the pathways of the brain, and as a result increases a child’s ability to complete learning tasks that are more complex.
Dirt and mud play promotes social development
There is a reason why many parents, preschools and kindergartens like The Apple Tree International Kindergarten make sure to provide natural spaces with soil and greenery where their children/pupils can play. It’s because indoor play spaces don’t provide enough to ensure a child’s development socially and otherwise.
When you allow your child play outdoors in mud you’re helping to make them more aware of, and connected to, nature. In other words, dirt and mud play is a foundational activity that not only increases children’s appreciation for their natural environment, but also strengthens their connection with it.
Mud play is also a teaching tool parents, teachers or carers can use to educate children about working together as a team; and it provides many opportunities for young children to develop their conversational and listening skills because there are usually a lot of things for them to talk about while playing with mud in a group.
So you’ve seen the magic of dirt and mud play for young children, and why you should let your child satisfy their basic biological need to play in dirt and mud, both thankfully free and always readily available.
It’s understandable if you don’t like the idea of having extra dirty clothes to wash, but surely you can agree with us that the health, physical, emotional and other benefits of allowing your child play in dirt and mud as often as possible far outweigh the disadvantage of more dirty laundry.