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Getting Messy With…Mud

With its abundance of natural resources and space, the great outdoors is made for messy play, says Kirstine Beeley…

Kirstine Beeley
by Kirstine Beeley
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Picture the scene. It’s a cold, crisp winter morning. You fling open the door to your outdoor area to find… nothing but gloom, mist and muck? How about a veritable wonderland of sensory play experiences?

Far from limiting your options for messy play, the cold months offer a host of opportunities to explore nature in all of its sensory glory – from squelching around in muddy puddles, to squeezing and squashing clay and painting rainbows in snow. As with other aspects of outdoor play, however, it’s important to appreciate and plan for the uniqueness of the outdoor environment.

Outdoor play is not just about bringing what you would do indoors outside; it’s about embracing the special experiences that can be gained outdoors, as a result of working with nature and the weather. And this is no less applicable to messy play than other areas of your provision.

Making plans

Outdoor messy play needs to be carefully thought out, planned and implemented with clear learning intentions in mind. Is your aim to offer it as a sensory exploration as part of understanding the world? Or is it intended to help build muscles in hands and arms as part of physical development? Perhaps the idea is to develop creative expression or social skills as children work together? Or is it all of the above, but for different children?

As long as you know who the learning experience is targeted at and why, you are well on your way to providing meaningful messy play.

Once you have identified your target children, agreed your learning objective and identified your materials, you now have to plan the activity to make it exciting and engaging. You need to prepare it so that it becomes an ‘invitation to play’. Plonking a lump of clay onto a play table is not inviting, but add lots of sticks and twigs, leaves, ferns, acorns, conkers, shells, pebbles and glass beads and it becomes engaging and exciting.

Mud in a play tray holds an element of natural excitement and inbuilt curiosity for most children – but add some pots, pans, spoons, whisks and muffin tins, and a mud kitchen is born, ready for a whole heap of messy play exploration.

Messy materials

The natural environment offers many messy play materials that you just don’t get indoors:

Mud Mud is one of the most widely available and engaging messy play materials there is, and early years best practice embraces rather than avoids it. From cooking up a storm in a mud kitchen to full body exploration in a muddy puddle pit, children just love getting muddy.

Try extending your mud play offering with paper so children can finger paint with mud, or colour your mud with powder paint and use stick brushes to explore. Throw mud at a sheet canvas on a fence or build mud castles. Put mud into ice cube trays and leave to harden, then build mud brick walls, or even build your own mud slide – the possibilities are endless!

Clay If you are lucky enough to live in a clay soil area, then your access to clay to explore will be limitless. For everyone else, a big bag of air hardening clay is inexpensive and provides an array of natural messy and manipulative experiences. Encouraging children to get fingers into the clay and squeeze it really helps to build those all important finger and hand muscles, because it is often stiffer than traditional modelling clay or play dough.

Alternatively, add lots of water to clay and enjoy it when it’s really squishy and squelchy, for a completely different kind of sensory experience. Add some natural materials, and the children will be able to explore their creative side.

Leaves With a bit of careful planning, leaves can form part of manipulative and messy play all year round. In early autumn, jumping into a huge pile of wet, multicoloured leaves offers a full body sensory experience, whilst dried leaves stored for winter can offer a crunchy, scrunchy activity for both small hands and feet – ideal for linking with stories such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.

Stones, gravel and pebbles These are great for using in outdoor maths, literacy and creative activities. Why not provide access to large quantities of pebbles, baskets of stones or even a gravel pit, so that children can enjoy the scooping and pouring traditionally offered by sand play with a very different material? In this way, children can experience first-hand concepts of heavy and light, and the array of noises stones make when they are poured into different containers.

Quick sand Sand play is a staple (and too often, the only) provision for messy play outdoors in early years settings. Why not develop it a bit further and add some chopped herbs from your garden for a multisensory experience? You could also add some cornflour and water to create a ‘quick sand’ mixture, for exploring with both hands and feet.

Compost As well as the many experiences that mud play can offer, giving children access to clean compost can develop their learning further. Its texture is different to mud, and it behaves differently when you add water. Why not try exploring some other natural materials, such as sawdust and water, to build on children’s ongoing learning?

Space to play Another benefit of taking messy play outdoors is the extra space you have to work with. Try using mops and brooms to move bubble foam around in puddles, or painting in paddling pools. For the latter, put some paper on the bottom, add balls and poster paint and lift and tilt to roll the balls around in the paint. Otherwise, why not try mixing up potions and soup in a paddling pool with an oversized spoon indoors!

Using large-scale manipulative play equipment allows children the opportunity to really get those larger muscles in the arms, shoulders and legs working.

As well as offering the most amazing resources and opportunities, the outdoor learning environment also provides a unique platform for learning through messy play across the EYFS. So get your Wellies on, get outside and start enjoying the benefits – and don’t forget your camera!

Weather watch

As well as providing lots of natural materials to explore, the outdoor learning environment allows children to interact first hand with the elements. These in turn offer their own unique messy play opportunities; from mixing bubbles in puddles with a whisk until you get a froth or exploring snow with your fingers, the weather offers experiences you just cannot get indoors.

Try placing a plastic sheet over a climbing frame and throwing paint or foam at it in the rain, or explore ice cubes in trays in your garden with natural materials frozen inside. In the absence of snow you could always try exploring snow fluff (mix together three packets of cornflour and a tin of shaving cream for a white, mouldable wonderland!). Messy play really should be available outdoors regardless of the weather or time of year!

Kirstine Beeley is an author and educational consultant; for more information, visit

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