For many parents, the sight of their child covered in mud from a day of messy play is enough to have them racing to run a warm bath and reaching for the hand sanitiser and soap.
Although being keen to remove any trace of dirt and bacteria from their sweet little bodies may be an impulse formed from protective good intentions, there are many reasons to hold off and let your child enjoy their messy play a little longer. Not only because those mud-splattered little faces are usually sporting cheek-wide grins, but because research actually shows that playing in the mud has many physical and emotional benefits for children.
So what is mud play?
Simply put, mud play is any soil, dirt or sand that is wet. Whether these are muddy flats left behind by receding tides, a sandpit damp from recent rainfall or a self-made pile of hosed down dirt in the backyard, it may be the stuff of nightmares for parents and their laundry machines – but it is a pure playground dream for the kids.
Squishy, sticky, mouldable and full of imaginative fun for little people, it is also a form of nature play that experts say has considerable benefits to a developing child.
The push to re-introduce more mud play
As silly as it may seem, gone are the days when childhood was naturally filled with mud play opportunities daily. When I grew up, it was nothing to come in from a day of outdoor exploration and play covered in mud from head-to-toe. And I was not the only one! This was most definitely the norm for most of the neighbourhood kids I knew.
There is increasing evidence that today’s society is “too clean”, and that this is a contributor to increased levels of childhood illnesses, including immune disorders and allergies. Today, with parents working more and devices, electronics and extra-curricular programs leaving children with minimal time to spend playing in their backyard, these opportunities for spontaneous mud play have seemingly disappeared.
With research highlighting the benefits for children to be involved in outdoor play, and in particular unstructured messy mud play, childhood educators are now implementing it more into their programs and encouraging parents to do the same.
The benefits of Playing in the Mud for Kids
So, what are the benefits to playing in mud for kids? Well, the list is actually huge! Below we have listed just some of the many reasons why playing in the mud is good for kids.
Playing in Mud boosts their immune system
Most parents who fear mud play do so because it is seen as unhygienic and bacteria-ridden. The fact that kids may immerse themselves in the dirt and possibly even ingest some in the process leaves them worried about what other small germs their child may be getting exposed to. Whilst it is true that children who play in the mud may be exposed to more allergens and bacteria, research has actually shown that this exposure helps to strengthen a child’s immune system in the long run, not weaken it. In fact, experts say that ‘getting dirty’ earlier in life can often lead to less allergies and a body that can cope and fight off germs.
A 2014 study by the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that “In inner-city environments children with the highest exposure to specific allergens and bacteria during their first year were least likely to have recurrent wheeze and allergic sensitization.”
Playing in mud supports their physical development
Playing in the mud helps support many key developmental milestones for kids too. Both their large and fine motor skills are used when they manipulate the mud in their hands, dig down into it, build it up and slip and slide all over it. Mud play also builds sensory awareness, balance and coordination. When children play outdoors, and in mud, the incidental movement and physical activity increases, helping children maintain a healthy lifestyle and develop their physical literacy.
A 2024 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health referred to a very interesting study, Playing in ‘The Backyard’: Environmental Features and Conditions of a Natural Playspace Which Support Diverse Outdoor Play Activities among Younger Children. Through a carefully constructed diverse outdoor environment, the researchers were able to determine that fine motor play was observed most often in the creek and mud kitchen where there were significant loose parts. You can read more about this study here.
It supports healthy brain development
When a child plays in mud, they use all their senses, which results in a highly stimulated and active brain. While playing with mud, children are learning and testing theories, as well as developing a foundational understanding of maths and literacy. During this type of unstructured, outdoor play, children are not only exercising but are building their ability to form ideas, problem solve, and think critically, as well as be innovative and inventive. Who would have thought all the mooshy, squishy, dirty play would be making them smarter too!
Playing in mud gives children a greater connection with nature
Children innately reap great benefits as they grow connection and appreciation of the natural environment. Mud connects children directly with nature and the plants and living creatures that inhabit that world. It encourages them to be more curious about the natural world around them, how it works and what hidden treasures reside within it. Small mud crabs that scatter in and out of their holes, tiny worms that help to make our soil healthier and many other tiny creatures too.
It is a great form of imaginative play
One of the greatest ways to encourage imaginative play is to pop your child in a muddy playground and watch them go! Whether there is a small mud kitchen set up to encourage those beloved backyard mud pies or simply a giant mud city waiting to be built, the options for imaginative play are simply endless. There really is no end to the creations, ideas and games children will invent when playing in the mud.
Playing in mud makes them happier!
There can be no doubt that children delight in mud play – the messier the better. In fact, ever notice how when the rain falls and muddle puddles erupt everywhere our kids seem to always be in the centre of them, heads thrown back in sheer delight? Well, it appears that there may be more to this desire than simply ruining their new clothes.
New research has shown that exposure to friendly soil bacteria (Mycobacterium Vaccae) stimulates the immune system causing the brain to release serotonin, the chemical responsible for raising our mood. Scientific evidence also highlights the restorative effects of outdoor play, which can reduce levels of anxiety and stress in children.
Finding mud play opportunities for your kids
Finding opportunities for your kids to play in the mud can be as simple – or as adventurous – as you like! By simply running the hose over a sandpit or simply filling a bucket with some dirt and adding a bit of water if outdoor space is limited could be one option. Otherwise, a trip to the local creek or beach will give you a huge area of mud for them to fossick, explore and play with.
You don’t need a lot of equipment for them to enjoy it either – a cup, bowl, spoon (any small utensils really) – will open up endless imaginative play options for them. Even just their bare hands and toes make for some pretty great sensory mud play opportunities.
The main thing? Let them play in the mud. The benefits are overwhelming, but more than that, your child will simply love it.
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