The New Medicine

By Ashley Talmadge

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 perhaps just the satisfying squish between toes during a hike through a streambed, 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 recent report The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids (2012) 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 the Wilce Student Health Services Blog (Ohio State University) Victoria Rentel, MD cites a study in which the digestive tracts of indoor pigs were compared to those of outdoor pigs, and concludes “there is…a growing, stinking, microbial-filled gooey heap of evidence that human interaction with bacteria is good.” 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. As early childhood educator Bev Bos states in her book Before the Basics, “Children were not born to wear shoes. In our concern for hygiene and safety, we develop amnesia. Give children a break! Remember how good mud feels between the toes?” 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.” She says that in her program “we value the social and physical aspects of discovery outdoors. Nature’s topography can be tricky and…we are good at helping children become independent as they get confident on their feet.”


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. 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.” Unstructured free play has been shown to promote cognitive growth and to positively influence social interactions. During unstructured play children plan, make decisions, and see the results. Tony Deis, founder of the outdoor education program Trackers Earth, says, “We need to take a look at how childhood has changed. We may feel we are making a safer world for children by limiting where they roam, but at what cost?” Referring to outdoor activities common to children just a generation ago, he continues, “What did the freedom of walking creeks and catching frogs give them? Did they have a destination? Were they learning anything? At Trackers we firmly believe they were learning everything.”

Connection with nature
Many experts agree that our children are quickly losing any connection to the natural world. Larson talks about how her young students learn to make use of the immediate environment.

“At first they don’t notice that some trees are better than others for shelter from the rain, but after a few weeks in the class they are very good at finding the cedar trees and the giant sequoias and the spruces and Douglas firs.”

Deis believes that children who are involved in Trackers programs gain an understanding of the limits on natural resources. They learn that nature may not provide exactly what they want.

“We allow kids time to develop awareness of the environment around them,” he says. “Taking time to build knowledge is a gesture of appreciation.” While Deis understands that his students likely will not have the daily opportunity (or need) to make a bow and arrow, or to start a fire without matches, he hopes that they will carry a “meditative thoroughness” into other areas of their lives.

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 in the last decade.

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. Birk says, “Raising children can be complex. There are a lot of tough decisions to make and it can be overwhelming. However, 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? With some planning, you can create a backyard mud pit that will provide hours of good clean (yes!) hands-on entertainment for your kids. And who knows? They may just learn something too…

Create a boundary. Find a corner of the yard on which you won’t miss the grass, or whatever else was growing there. Kids will enjoy excavating the area with you. (Be sure they understand they are not to “work on” other areas of the yard without your approval.)

Add lots of water for masses of ooey-gooey mud. Decide which aspects of water flow your kids can control. Can they have access to the hose? If so, will there be a time limit? A limit as to how high the pressure can be? If there is no hose available to them, be sure to provide some kind of water source. Buckets, tubs, and coolers all work well.

Provide props. Old pots, pans, and utensils (or even margarine cups, sticks, and stones) will help your little baker make fresh mud muffins. PVC pipe in various sizes, along with an array of connecting joints can keep your pint-sized engineer occupied for hours. Add a hose, sprinkler, and wading pool for more excitement. Treasure-seekers will be delighted to find buried booty of all kinds: marbles, glass stones, shells, and miniature plastic animals are some you might try.

Clean-up time. You will save your sanity (and the mud pit) if you establish clean-up rules in advance. For instance, you may want your kids to use specific clothing for mud play. Try placing a large dishpan of water and an old towel near the door, and ask them to rinse and dry their hands and feet before coming in. Showers are often still necessary, but pre-rinsing is a must.


The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids
National Wildlife Federation (2012).

I Love Dirt: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature, by Jennifer Ward, Roost Books (2008).

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv, Algonquin Books (2008).

Ashley Talmadge is a freelance writer and mother of two boys. She enjoys writing about the many facets of parenthood, and her articles have appeared in dozens of parenting publications throughout the U.S. and Canada.