Life in the rainy Puget Sound region makes mud encounters a regular occurrence. Parents avoid it, while kids typically relish squelching around in it. It turns out that the kids are on to something: Mud is not only one of the most equitable play materials out there — easily accessible to children around the world — but it’s also good for children’s health and development. In March, when rain and the mud flows freely around Puget Sound, put on your boots and make the most of this muddy season.
How mud play boosts health
Playing in mud isn’t just fun, it boosts health. Research shows that it strengthens the body’s immune system. According to the “hygiene hypothesis,” first proposed by epidemiologist David Strachan in 1989, children raised in extremely clean environments, who have little exposure to the bacteria, viruses and parasites typically found in mud and soil, may be more likely to develop allergies and asthma.
Other studies, including a 2016 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, report that children raised on farms are significantly less likely to develop asthma than children who are not. A 2010 study by Northwestern University in Chicago, following thousands of children in the Philippines over 21 years, reports that when children are exposed to germs and pathogens during infancy, their risk of developing cardiovascular inflammation and autoimmune diseases in adulthood is reduced.
Surprisingly, outdoor activities such as playing in mud may also improve eyesight. Longitudinal studies from the Children of the ’90s project in the United Kingdom found that children who spend more time outdoors at age 8 are less likely to become nearsighted by the age of 15.
Children’s mental health also gets a boost from dirt and mud play. A study from the U.K., jointly conducted by Bristol University and University College London, found that the friendly bacteria in soil activates neurons responsible for producing the brain chemical serotonin — which is a natural mood stabilizer. A 2004 study from the American Journal of Public Health reported that ADHD symptoms lessened in children within minutes of seeing green spaces.
Squish, shape, imagine, play
Children know instinctively that mud is a wonderful, open-ended material for play and learning. During unstructured, outdoor play, children form ideas, solve problems and think critically. Mud is an abundant and cost-free material, so children can practice science and math by exploring its properties, experimenting, manipulating and navigating. I’ve seen preschool-age children, for example, dig trenches in the mud patch to make water flow from one hole to another. They work together to determine the best place to dig and change plans if it doesn’t turn out as expected.
As an open-ended, creative material, mud also stimulates artistic expression and imagination.
Plus, while kids are squishing around outdoors, they naturally challenge themselves to become more adventurous. And as one of the most basic elements of the earth, mud allows children to develop an appreciation for the environment as they experience its diversity.
Favorite mud activities
Build a mud kitchen: A mud kitchen is an outside version of the indoor play kitchen but more fun as you can make sloppy concoctions without worrying about the mess. Mud kitchens do not have to be complicated or expensive. Our first was made with planks of wood balanced on a stack of bricks, with a collection of pots, pans and utensils collected from neighbors. Our current setup doubles as a potion station, with a large plastic cauldron inside a tire, an old play kitchen, and kitchen utensils and pans hanging from a tree trunk. An old piece of furniture is also a good base or you can create something from pallets, tires or crates. Place it near a water source for additional fun.
Dig trenches and pathways: Designate an area where children can dig with shovels to create trenches and pathways. Give them buckets of water to make a muddy river.
Small-world play: Kids can create a swamp for toy dinosaurs by pouring water onto a dirt patch or adding lots of water to the sand in a sand box. The dinosaurs can make muddy footprints as they stomp around. Make a building site for toy cars and trucks, and drive them through the mud to make tracks.
Use mud for art: Painting with mud works well on all kinds of surfaces, including paper, cardboard, plastic sheeting or even on the ground. Try other art activities: Make muddy footprints, mold mud into sculptures or make patterns with a stick and natural materials.
Make mud faces on trees: Kids can stick wet mud onto a tree trunk and decorate it with a face shape using seeds, petals, leaves and sticks. When dry, the faces will remain on the tree.
Parks and trails for puddle jumping
Of course, the simplest way to experience mud is to find (or make) a mud puddle, throw off your shoes and step in, feeling it ooze between your toes. If you would like to venture a little farther than your neighborhood, here are some great spring destinations for muddy explorations.
Golden Gardens Park, Ballard: With two wetlands, trails, hikes and a beach, this northwest Seattle park abounds with muddy encounters. Walk along the trail and take a bucket and spade to dig in the sand, or kick up some mud in the grassy area in the northern end of the park.
Farrel-McWhirter Farm Park, Redmond: You’ll find lots of mud around the stream or in the wide-open meadow at this park. It also includes a children’s animal farm, a horse arena and multiuse trails. The farm is open year-round from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Tolt MacDonald Park, Carnation: This 574-acre park sits at the confluence of the Snoqualmie and Tolt rivers in the Snoqualmie Valley. A 500-foot suspension footbridge crosses the Snoqualmie River and offers terrific views of the river and Cascade foothills. Trails are abundant, or kids can play in the mud along the river’s edge. If you are feeling more adventurous, stay overnight at the campground, which has yurts and an eco-friendly camping cabin upcycled from an old shipping container.
Beaver Lake Park, Sammamish: Beaver Lake is a favorite for dog walkers and nature lovers. Sit along the edge of the lake and dig in the mud, stomp in the wet, grassy areas or walk along the muddy trail through the woods to the play park on the other side. Find trees for making mud faces; we’ve even spotted the odd fairy house or two.
Mercer Slough, Bellevue: Mercer Slough is the largest of Lake Washington’s freshwater wetlands. Walk the wetland trails, spot some of the 170 species of wildlife, stop at the visitor center or even take a canoe along the water trail.
Boeing Creek Park, Shoreline: This lovely and wild park on the south side of Hidden Lake offers 36 acres of woodlands and streams. Walk the trails, cross over the creek on the stepping-stones, explore the water retention ponds or the banks of the babbling brook and make your way to the lake. All will be abundant with mud during March.
Visit a working farm: You can always find a muddy encounter on a farm and, as a bonus, you can discover how vital mud is for agricultural production. Some U-pick farms, such as Garden Treasures in Arlington, open in late spring, and farms such as Oxbow Farm in Carnation and Seattle Tilth’s farms and gardens offer children’s parties, field trips and children’s education programs.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2017, and updated in March 2020.