Few activities inspire more nostalgia than the beloved childhood pastime of splashing, running, and squishing in the mud, free of rules and inhibitions. For children and young-at-heart adults, playing in the mud is just plain fun, with a feeling of mischievousness that comes with making a mess. But for children, all that fun also benefits their physical, emotional, social, and mental growth in a variety of ways. When designing outdoor environments that support children’s development, we can promote mud play by creating flexible spaces and by supporting programming efforts such as International Mud Day—and by worrying a little less about the mess.
Benefits of Muddy, Messy Play
Mud play is more than just a fun activity that gets kids outdoors and away from computer screens. Some benefits of messy play, and ways for adults to encourage and support it, are discussed here and we will further examine some of the play-related benefits that mud play can support.
Creative play – Imaginative play, open-endedness, and abstraction are essential drivers for social and emotional growth (as discussed here), and abstract dynamic materials like mud provide the ultimate opportunity for children to imagine and assign meaning to their play. Without any formal rules or structure, a play setting such as a mud pit allows children to create games or activities themselves, set their own rules, or simply explore their environment. Children can play by themselves or with others, and playing with loose materials interactively with parents is a way to support parent-child bonding, or affect attunement, as discussed here. It also allows children to observe how others interact with the mud in ways they might not have thought of themselves.
Tactile play – While activities like organized sports, running in a game of tag, or climbing a net structure are obvious contributors to children’s physical development, manipulation of loose materials such as mud can provide a complement to these activities and further enhance development of motor skills and body awareness, as noted here. In climbing a ladder or running up the steps of a play structure, children move relative to static objects; in contrast, mud and other loose materials are dynamic and must be scooped, shoveled, and squished, affording children a different mode of interacting with their environments. Mud also provides sensory input for the tactile system, and playing or splashing in mud can stimulate the vestibular, proprioceptive, and kinesthetic systems, which are discussed in further detail here. These benefits can be further enhanced by altering the consistency of mud by simply adding more water, more dirt, or a different kind of dirt to create a variety of play experiences.
Form of nature play – The importance of nature play, and some practical considerations for implementing it, have been discussed in several past articles on The Field , including Making Nature Play Areas That Work and New Resources for Inviting Nature Back Into Play, wherein sand, dirt, and water play (close relatives of mud play) are discussed as important forms of nature play that help connect children to the natural world by allowing them to interact with natural materials.
Hygiene hypothesis – Some benefits of mud play may arise from the simple fact that it’s dirty and messy, and it’s nearly inevitable that children will (intentionally or not) ingest some mud while they play. According to the hygiene hypothesis, improved cleanliness and a corresponding decrease in germ exposure and infections are “at the origin of the increasing incidence of both autoimmune and allergic diseases” . Several possible mechanisms for this correlation have been proposed, and although no causal link has yet been found since the hypothesis was first put forth in 1989, it remains a relevant framework for scientific research. Other hypotheses, including the old friends hypothesis  and the microbial diversity hypothesis , posit that exposure to beneficial microbes during early childhood may protect against development of inflammatory or allergic diseases.
International Mud Day
In 2009, International Mud Day was initiated by members of the Nature Action Collaborative for Children at the World Forum for Early Childhood Care and Education as a way to support mud play in countries facing very different practical challenges—Australia and Nepal. The full story of this initiative is available on the World Forum Foundation website  and is a testament to the importance and benefit of collaboration to support activities that benefit healthy growth and development for the world’s children.
International Mud Day is now celebrated every June 29 across the world, providing an outlet that supports mud play and advocating for its place in the realm of children’s play. The World Forum Foundation provides access to resources and promotional materials to assist in the planning of an International Mud Day event.
Childcare organizations and nature play advocates across the U.S. and around the world hosted events for International Mud Day, including:
- Ruth Staples Child Development Laboratory in Lincoln, Nebraska
- EcoTarium Museum of Science and Nature is in Worcester, Massachusetts
- Green Garden CDC in Detroit, Michigan
More photos from International Mud Day can be found by searching #wfmudday on Instagram.
Applying to Practice
As designers of outdoor spaces, we are faced with the reality that many types of activities that are most beneficial to children can present practical problems when implemented as permanent facilities in the landscape. For instance, a permanent mud pit may be impractical in a public park due to the maintenance, liability, sanitation, and supervision challenges it presents. However, when designing private or semi-private facilities such as preschools or childcare centers, we can consider ways to allow for temporary mud pits to be set up as part of the future management and programming of the space. Open space that has direct access to a cleanup area, such as an outdoor sink or hand/foot wash, provides an excellent opportunity for future mud play events. Another way we can promote public access to mud play opportunities is to support programming efforts like International Mud Day, whether by organizing an event, volunteering to supervise, or assisting with the siting and installation of temporary mud play areas.
If you participated in International Mud Day 2017, please share in the comments below or by emailing email@example.com or sharing on Facebook or Twitter using #wfmudday.
- Okada, H., Kuhn, C., Feillet, H., & Bach, J.-F. (2010). The “hygiene hypothesis” for autoimmune and allergic diseases: an update. Clinical and Experimental Immunology, 160(1), 1–9.
- Rook GA, Martinelli R, Brunet LR. “Innate immune responses to mycobacteria and the downregulation of atopic responses” Current Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology 2003 Oct; 3(5) 337-42.
- von Hertzen L, Hanski I, Haahtela T (2011). “Natural immunity. Biodiversity loss and inflammatory diseases are two global megatrends that might be related”. EMBO Rep. 12 (11): 1089–1093.
- Mud Day, World Forum Foundation Connection Center. Accessed July 2017.
by Brenna Castro, ASLA, landscape architect at Callander Associates Landscape Architecture and Co-Chair for the Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network.