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Mud—an invitation to messy play


Most preschool children love playing with mud. This open-ended material appeals to younger children who enjoy its sensory squishiness and to older children who mold it into pies and infrastructure.

Playing with mud helps children learn and grow in many areas. In digging, lifting, and pouring, they strengthen muscles and enhance eye-hand coordination. In mixing dirt and water, they explore introductory science concepts, including soil composition, gravity, and hydraulics. In playing with other children, they practice language and gain social skills such as planning and cooperation.

To freely engage in mud play, children need to wear old play clothes. Teachers can inform parents about upcoming mud days, and have a few extra sets of old play clothes on hand if parents forget.

Actually, dressing for messy play is a good idea every day. Children can focus on play and exploration, and teachers can plan art projects, sand and water play, and cooking activities without worrying about clothes getting stained.


Two outdoor options
Setting up a mud play area is best for outdoors because cleanup is easier. An important health and safety concern is shade. You might choose an area in the play yard that is naturally shaded by trees and shrubs or drape a canvas over ladders or a fenced corner. For convenience, choose an area with easy access to a hose and water faucet.

The area can be temporary or relatively permanent. For safety and sanitation, avoid areas with ants, mosquitoes, animal droppings, and chemicals, such as pesticide and fertilizer.

A mud pit. This temporary option can take several forms:
Bare patch of dirt. Spade an area about 4 feet square to remove grass and loosen the dirt. Remove large rocks, and invite children to help remove small stones, sticks, and leaves.
Tarpaulin. For easier preparation and cleanup, lay a tarp over the chosen area.
A large container. Re-use an old wading pool, laundry tub, trough, planter box, or wheelbarrow.

Make a border around the pit with old tires, bricks, or logs. This helps children understand that the area is for mud play and helps avoid conflicts with children riding tricycles or playing with other toys nearby.

A mud kitchen. Once set up, this option can remain a standing feature of the play yard that children can choose daily.
Cinder blocks and boards. Place a wide board (1 inch by 12 inches) on top of two stacks of cinder blocks (each 16 inches by 8 inches). The board serves as a work surface, and the holes in the blocks can store tools and containers.
Plastic crates and table. Arrange crates to serve as shelves for bowls and mixing implements. Set up a table at child height for a work surface.
Manufactured play kitchen. School supply companies offer mud kitchens built of weatherproof wood with sinks, drawers, and countertops. An enterprising parent may offer to build one for you.


Dirt and water: The key ingredients
The surface layer of many yards is called topsoil that appears dark because of the buildup of decomposed organic matter. It may contain variable amounts of sand, silt (from nearby creek beds), and clay. If the soil contains relatively balanced amounts of the three, it is referred to as loam.

As you dig, be aware that you might encounter helpful insects, such as ladybugs and earthworms, both of which you can transfer to your garden as well as use in a science unit with children.

Test the dirt you plan to use by wetting it. Silty soil feels smooth, almost like flour. Sandy soil feels gritty when you rub it between your fingers. Clay soil feels sticky. To get the right consistency for mud play (like bread dough), consider adding garden compost or potting soil. A good ratio is 1 part sand to 2 parts dirt.

The sand can come from your sand box. The potting soil can come from pots that formerly held plants or a new bag bought at a garden supply shop. Note that potting soil typically contains peat moss, pine bark, and tiny pellets of perlite or vermiculite intended to improve air flow and drainage in potted plants.

Use clean tap water or rainwater from a rain barrel. During times of drought, teach children to conserve water. In mud play, avoid letting the water hose run freely. Slow it to a trickle and turn it off after you have drawn off a predetermined amount of water. Or use a large camping jug with a spigot that allows children to fill containers on their own.


Introducing mud play
During circle time, read and discuss one or more of the following books.
Cage, John and Lois Long. (1988). Mud Book: How to Make Pies and Cakes. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

This disarmingly simple book was created in the 1950s by avant-garde composer John Cage and graphic artist Lois Long. The authors warn children that mud pies are “to look at and not eat,” but they must have expected adults to smile wryly at the obvious.
Hannigan, Katherine. (2016). Dirt + Water = Mud. New York: Greenwillow Books.

Playing in mud is only one of eight scenarios a young girl imagines in playing with her dog. Other scenarios, such as “Blue sky + breeze = flying,” give readers a subtle introduction to the mathematical equation.
Munsch, Robert. (2012). Mud Puddle. New York: Annick Press.

A mud puddle, far from being a passive pool of dirty water, takes on the character of an animated rascal. It jumps up from nowhere to splatter a young girl, forcing her to bathe and change into clean clothes again and again until she fights back.
Ryan, Pam Muñoz. (2002). Mud is Cake. New York: Hyperion Books.

A brother and sister start out imagining that mud is cake, and quickly shift into different scenes and roles with wild animals and props. Text is written in delightful verse, and illustrations are painted in wondrous watercolor.
Quinn, Lin. (2001). The Best Mud Pie. New York: Children’s Press.

The main character, Roberto, demonstrates his imagination and skill in making a big mud pie. A subtle message is that cooking is not limited by gender.


Getting started
Introduce mud play with a small amount of dirt, water, and containers. Allow children to explore the dirt and mud freely, but don’t force participation if a child seems reluctant. If you must conserve water, introduce the concept indoors. Make it a habit of turning off the faucet while washing hands and brushing teeth, for example. Instead of throwing out a half-filled glass of water, collect it in a recycled milk jug and use it to water plants.

Toddlers will enjoy sitting in dirt and scooping it up with their hands. Supervise carefully because at this age, children will try to put the dirt in their mouths. Take their hands gently and show them how to scoop dirt with a spoon or cup and dump it in a bowl.

Preschoolers will seize the chance to mix dirt and water, mold objects, try different implements, and let their imaginations soar. Whether squeezing mud in their hands or feeling it ooze between their toes, children find mud play just plain fun.

Offered a mud pit, children may want to build miniature roads, dams, and houses. A mud kitchen, on the other hand, may inspire pretend cooking or an art project.


Tools for mud play
Choose plastic, wood, and metal tools similar to those in the sand and water table. Parents may donate recycled items, or you might find bargains at thrift stores. Natural materials such as leaves, sticks, seeds, flowers, and shells add beauty and interest. Here’s a partial list of tools:
garden spades
mixing bowls and spoons
pitchers and cups
pots and pans
containers such as plastic butter tubs
pie and muffin tins
small buckets
plates and trays
cookie cutters
dishwashing tub


Playing with mud
1. Make sure children are dressed in old play clothes. They may wear plastic boots or sandals or play in bare feet.
2. Talk about limits, such as: 1) Mud and tools stay in the designated area, 2) Mud pies are for pretend play (not eating), and 3) Everyone helps with cleanup. Make sure there are adequate tools like scoops, spoons, and rakes so every child can fully explore the mud.
3. Add a little water from a hose or water jug to the dirt. Adding a little water at a time will avoid making the mud too runny. Encourage children to mix. Allow them to experiment with varying amounts of different soils.
4. Offer a few props at first, and gradually add others to maintain interest. Tailor the additions to the children’s activities. If they are building roads and walls, for example, offer toy vehicles and people figures. If they are making mud pies, offer plastic dolls, play dishes, chef hats, and aprons.
5. As children experiment, build, or pretend to cook, talk with them about what they are doing. Ask questions such as, “What would happen if…?” Take pictures to show parents and explain what children are learning.

Cleaning up
1. At the end of play time, ask which structures or products that children want to save for another time. Mud pies may be left to dry in the sun, for example.
2. Gather up tools and equipment used in play and toss in a bucket to rinse.
3. Rinse children’s arms and legs with a watering wand, or use an empty gallon milk jug with holes poked in bottom.
4. Have children wash their hands and feet with warm water and soap and dry with towels. Offer a mirror and a damp paper towel so that children can wipe their own faces clean.
5. Help children change into dry clothes. Toss towels and dirty clothes into the washer.
6. Make sure there’s no water left standing in containers or on the ground that can attract mosquitoes and other pests.


Art projects with mud
Mud offers many opportunities for art projects outdoors. Invite children to experiment and use their creativity with the following activities.

Mud paint. This alternative to regular paint offers a different sensory and visual experience and can be used in various art projects.


Here’s what you need:
soft mud
powdered tempera in assorted colors
dishwashing detergent
plastic containers, one for each color
thick paper such as poster board or cardstock


1. For each color, scoop a heaping cupful of mud into a plastic container.
2. Sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons of tempera over the mud and mix well with a spoon.
3. Add a squirt of detergent to make the mud spread more easily. Detergent also helps remove the mud from clothing and towels in cleanup.
4. Stir the mixture well. Add more tempera or mud to achieve the desired color and consistency.
5. Encourage children to paint as they wish—squiggles, designs, or pictures of objects.
6. Display the paintings in the classroom.

Mud prints. Dip a hand into a tray of mud paint or plain mud, and press on a sheet of clean paper to make a handprint. Or try a footprint. Let the print dry.

Decorative objects. Shape mud into circles and squares, and decorate with flowers, leaves, seeds, and pebbles. Let dry.

Sculpture. Mold clayish mud into animals, houses, castles, hands, faces, alphabet letters, and numbers.

Mud bricks. Press mud into plastic ice-cube trays. Let dry. Twist the tray gently to free the mud bricks. Build a miniature wall or house, using wet mud as the mortar between bricks.