Mud is “Nature’s Prozac”
There has been an explosion of interest in the role of the gut microbiome in recent years. The discoveries range from the role of bacteria gained through vaginal birth to their role in Alzheimer’s. I have written previously about the benefits of mud Mycobacterium vaccae (MV) in Getting the Dirt on Play. This installment will look at getting those benefits with the least amount of hassle. My reasoning is to make it so easy to allow your kids to play with mud that it becomes just another toy and not another cleanup chore.
The key to this approach is moderation. Sure, it’s fun, on occasion, to get fully immersed in mud, but that is not necessary for our goal, which is to just get a taste. You see, the bacterium in mud will multiply to the appropriate balance with the 100’s of other species that dwell there. One of the benefits we are looking for is the mood-altering power of MV. Think of mud as Nature’s Prozac in its ability to calm anxiety and elevate the spirit. Kids don’t have to play in mud to get this boost as they can get it with just playing with dirt. You get the same effect from gardening. There are other benefits to getting dirty such as lowering allergies and asthma, but in these stressful times, the reduction in stress outweighs all other considerations.
If you can get the same benefits from dirt as you can from mud, why should you bother with the mess? The reason to add water to the mix is that the tactile impact of mud is a force multiplier. The slithery, gooey, squishy quality of mud has its anxiety-reducing quality. Let’s look at how to get all the benefits while minimizing the mess.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” This notion applies doubly for kid’s play. Your first step is deciding what you are comfortable with what your children will get dirty. In our preschools, we use aprons, rain gear, or a change of clothes as our solutions depend on the play materials we are presenting. Having these options ready to pair with the play agenda for the day is a recipe for success.
As has been the case with our previous recommendations in this series of blogs dealing with the pandemic, the primary path to maximizing benefits is setting up the environment. Preschool programs have been dealing successfully with this challenge since forever, so we will highlight what they have found to be successful.
Another common phrase is “everything in moderation,” and it applies doubly in this case. Small amounts of water and dirt are fully adequate to support great play sessions. One way to lower the amount of dirt and water used is to set up another traditional feature of early childhood education centers, the “Mud Kitchen.” These are so beneficial and emblematic of a school that supports play-based learning that I recommend those looking for a school for their children to walk away and not look back if the school they are considering doesn’t have one.
A mud kitchen can be very elaborate or just some tubs and boxes. The key to making this work is to have lots of bowls, pans, bottles, and squeeze sprayers. Adding some marbles, small rocks, sand, lawn cuttings, and Easter egg dyes in containers set up an apothecary so kids can create potions. This sort of brewing up trouble will produce happy play episodes where you will only need to eat some pretend cake or poison once in a while to have hours of relative peace. You will initially have to maintain the materials and set up to some extent but try to transition as early as possible to have the kids gather the ingredients with you to extend the play and kid control.
While any dirt is great, some are concerned with “germs” and don’t trust just digging in the backyard. If that’s a concern, you can start with sand. The two images above are from Nature Play at Home: Creating Outdoor Spaces that Connect Children to the Natural World by Nancy Striniste, which I highly recommend.
Another alternative is clay. Sure, you can buy all sorts of “toy” clay in a myriad of colors and get none the bacterial benefits. It’s so much better to get a 25 lbs bag of air-dry clay for $30 and have enough to last for months. Play clay will also result in great sculptures and tons of slithery fun.
If your child is adverse to mud, a fun way to get them into the slimy play is by doing “finger painting” with chocolate pudding.
Let’s look at wet-play next.