One of my favorite things about warmer weather is being able to take the kids outside. One of my kids' favorite things about warmer weather is being able to play outside with water. And one of their favorite things to do with water is to make mud.
There are so many options for water and mud play -- and not all of them leave your children looking like pigs on a hot day. My kids actually generally end up more wet than muddy, although there certainly is opportunity for both.
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The easiest thing to do is to hand your child a full watering can and point him to the nearest patch or pot of dirt. Toss in a stick or two and he'll figure out the rest. One of the best parts of mud is making it -- and that's my 3-year-old's favorite part. Justin loves to pour water. He'll go back and forth to the spigot with his little watering can forever. He can make some great mud. The other day, he watered a patch of dirt for a bit, handed me a stick and said, "Mommy, this is your spoon!" I started to pretend eat, and he said, "Ew! Not like that!" Then he proceeded to cackle loudly while stirring the mud. Oh, we were supposed to be witches! Oops.
One of the things my (almost) 5-year-old daughter, Lily, likes to do with pretty much no guidance from me is to make 'gardens.' She finds a patch of dirt, carefully arranges twigs, grass, dandelions and rocks, then waters, waters, waters! Our gardening toys include watering cans, hand shovels and small buckets. I recently included some fake flowers, which has been a huge hit.
Planting real flowers and vegetables is a more productive way to play in the mud. Lily and I recently planted some wildflower seeds in a pot, watered, and added a few plastic flowers until the real ones sprout. My husband and I are planning our first garden now, with input from the kids -- cucumbers and pumpkins have been requested. We also will soon take them to a garden shop and let them pick out flowers to help plant. This obviously takes more parental commitment, so if you don't have a green thumb and your child isn't interested in waiting weeks to see the fruits of her labors, you may just want to stick to pretend gardening and fake flowers. Nothing wrong with that.
Justin likes to step in the mud, feeling his shoes stick a bit, and then go stomping around making footprints. Lily 'decorates' our shed with handprints. My 17-month-old, Benjamin, tagged along once with his sister, but discovered he doesn't like to get his hands that dirty. Another type of print Justin, especially, likes to make is tire tracks. He enjoys driving his mini construction trucks and Matchbox cars through the mud to see what kind of tracks they make.
The little guy has the most fun painting with heavily watered-down mud. He's still getting the knack of pouring and, as mentioned, he doesn't like to get his hands messy. So painting with a cheap paintbrush is a great way for him to play with the mud without actually having to touch it. He had fun just painting on the table, but a using a piece of cardboard, or even the shed, might be interesting, too. Next time we do this, we will experiment with a variety of natural 'brushes', such as a sprig of pine needles, pine cones, dry leaves, long grass and sticks. I think Lily, in particular, will enjoy seeing the different strokes each item can make.
Digging for worms
Another option is to dig for worms. This can occupy the kids for quite some time, provided they actually find a worm or three, and they are surprisingly gentle and not squeamish at all. An alternative is to bury fake worms or small toys in a kiddie pool filled with dirt or mud and have the kids dig for hidden treasure that way.
One activity that I thought they'd really get into, but have not, is making mud pies. They enjoy pretend cooking inside, and helping me make real food, but when I brought some of their play kitchen items outside -- mini muffin tins, plastic stirring spoons, measuring cups and small bowls -- they didn't focus much on making mud food. Hopefully, your kids will be more interested in this, because it can be quite fun to see what kind of 'food' they are concocting.
I recently discovered one of Lily's favorite things to do is to wash her toys, so now I always include a bin with soapy water and a rag for her to clean them with. She'll get things dirty just so she can clean them up -- and she will even wash her brothers' toys, too. Justin could care less about being dirty and wet, and Benjamin would rather try to drink the water or dump the bin over on himself, so this one is mostly just for Lily right now. It is a great way to reinforce the idea of cleaning up after yourself and others.
So there you go -- just a few ways your kids can have a great time outside with minimal prep and planning on your part, although cleaning up after could take a bit of effort. Also, you can substitute sand for mud in many of these ideas, so if you or your child is a bit squeamish about the mess, sand can be a somewhat cleaner alternative. Enjoy!