Friday, June 2, 2017

Rewind: Playing with...Mud

International Mud Day is approaching.

Mud Kitchen, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
I have long loved mud. It is a messy and joyous medium full of great possibilities. As a child I molded “fruit” from the mud excavated from around the foundation of our newly built house. I built nests out of mud and dried grass and sat in the woods to watch which mud-grass nest design birds would choose. Hearing e.e. cummings’ phrase, “…when the world is mud-luscious…” for the first time in college, the ooze and joy of mud play and the deep, dark pungent mud smell from childhood engulfed me.

The scooping and sculpting, digging and dunking, concocting and cooking, mixing, making, and sitting in mud has long been part of childhood. Just as I remember sculpting with mud, a friend recalls a spring mud ritual in New Hampshire. When the snow was almost melted and the dirt-covered playground softened, eager boys hurried outside and scooped out snow to play marbles in the mud. Christine Maestri wrote in the Star Tribune some years back about her year old niece choosing mud to explore over an entire whole farm. Passing the barns, animals, garden, toys, grass, the toddler walked directly into the mud puddle and sat down where she stirred and squished the mud in her fingers and played with it for nearly half an hour. 

Childhood without mud play is sanitized in too many respects. This is more than adult nostalgia, a romanticized vision of childhood, and my personal fondness for mud. Given mud’s great learning value as fascinating content and inspiration for varied experiences, mud play has a limited presence in most children’s lives. Clay and sand are great, but mud is better. It is local, plentiful, versatile, and somewhat forbidden.

And Then There Was Mud
Mud is a world-making medium. The world was covered with primordial ooze, mud, at its very origins. Mud in its many forms, hot and eruptive has contoured the world; cool, slimy or thick, it has been a habitat for critters.

Just as mud was at the beginning of the world, it is also a universal medium for children to explore, discover, and use to shape their world. It is elemental, putting children in touch with the earth. The pressures of a small hand or the push and poke of even a tiny finger can sculpt mud and shape a world. Mud is not only local, it is also intensely seasonal.

Anything a-la-mud
Mud lends itself to cooking, painting, sculpting, building, and full body slathering. Children can create mudloaf, mud pies, mud lattes, and anything-a-la-mud in muffin tins, pie pans, ice cube trays, cake molds or cookie sheets. Do not forget the scrapers, pancake turners and spatulas; the stirrers, spoons, sticks, and brushes for mixing, mushing, spreading and stirring. In short, set up an entire mud kitchen. And the birthday candles. Leaves, seeds, and sticks make any mud creation better. Equip a mud patch with hand shovels and trowels for digging; buckets and tubs for filling; hoses, watering cans, and cups for adding water and making sure the mud is “just so.”

Mud play is inevitably child-directed. Few adults want to get in there and take over a mud activity. We do not need to teach children to investigate mud or how to do so. Investigations with mud start in many ways. Not surprisingly, children’ investigations of mud begin with touch, a finger, a toe, a hand, a foot, whatever the moment (and supervising adult) will allow. Deeper immersion will follow.

When I have watched children play with or in mud, they are either extremely intent and serious or are playful and exuberant. If intent, a child is alone in thought, observing closely and with great concentration as if measuring with her mind how much she must press this mud patty before the mud fills in. Or a child might watch how the mud drips form at the lip of the cup. A child might concentrate on a muddy finger and drag it across a stone, a bare arm, or a piece of paper and notice how mud paints.

If joyous and spirited, children crow, cajole, and compete with one another about their mud related accomplishments. They might be stringing together mud-inspired rhymes in a sing-songy voice, serving mud lattes to imaginary friends, or applying face paint to scare others. Their imaginations transform mud to oobleck, to lava, to chocolate. Children join forces to sculpt mud worlds with castle outposts, great walls, towers and moats.

 This is just the kind of lively participation in the world–physical, natural, social, sculptural, aesthetic–we so want children to enjoy. We seldom, if ever, see the same excited questions, deep absorption, extended discovery, and elaborate play narratives emerge from an exhibit on sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks with fixed specimens, labels and photos.

Learning from Mud
Attractive to all ages, the mud table at Discovery Hollow
Considering mud is so prevalent and versatile, so joyously accessible, there are surprisingly few opportunities for children to explore mud in museums, classroom, and camps. Occasionally a children’s museum or nature center will boldly embrace mud. Tamarack Nature Center added an enormous mud table in Discovery Hollow. Yet, one museum asked me to take “mud pies” out of the final draft of the exhibit master plan. Visions of muddy-fingered children disturbed board members.

Mud is quintessentially interdisciplinary. Is mud science, solids suspended in liquid? Is it art, a plastic medium with expressive qualities? Is it humanities, a universal building material providing shelter the world around? Yes. Yes. Yes. and No. Mud is mud.

While exploring mud is often unstructured and open-ended, it is also an entry point for children to explore and learn about big and sometimes complex ideas and often with a degree of authenticity that is valued.

Making bricks at the Santa Fe Children's Museum
Children are able to make adobe bricks at the Santa Fe Children's Museum. Outside, under the trees, children mix the soil (typically a sandy clay loam) and water, find the right proportion to get a stiff mix; fill and compact the wooden forms; and then remove the brick from the form and let the bricks dry in the sun. In the play and work of brick making are centuries of building knowledge, a feel for the native soil, the heft of wet and dry bricks. This can be repeated in other locales with wattle and daub methods using an underlying structure with twigs and sticks, mixing cut grass or straw into the mud, and ‘plastering’ it onto the structure beneath.
The clay house at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
As part of the summer 2012 exhibit, Dirt-O-Rama: Intriguing Tales of the Underground at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, children worked with artists to create a clay house in front of the Arboretum Learning Center. Starting with an underlying straw bale structure, a coat of clay from the local brickworks was plastered over the spiral structure. Nearby, the Mud Kitchen was open for play on weekends.

In addition to the indoor clay studio and outdoor sandbox at Pittsburgh Children's Museum are vats of beautiful, bubbling mud in the Backyard. Children can dip their hands and arms into the roiling ooze that suggests the Earth's origins, feeling its temperature and consistency, and sensing how it coats and clings to the skin. In Animated Earth by Steven Eisenhauer, children can add air to the mud vats. Turning the handles adds air pressure to change the surface, the size of the bubbles, and the music of the mud.

Backyard bubbling mud at Pittsburgh Children's Museum
In an ode to the medium of clay, Denver Art Museum’s 2011 exhibit, Marvelous Mud: Clay Around the World explored clay’s range and versatility as a mark of human interaction with the earth. The show features a great sweep of ceramic arts through human history and around the world, with antiquities and contemporary arts from the museum’s collection. Artists, asked to create specific works for the museum, stretched the possibilities of mud and ideas about clay. In the Mud Studio, children and adults explored clay as an inviting and forgiving sculptural medium that invites experimentation, permits mistakes, and allows reworking. 

Mud play doesn’t have to be outside or full body, although that is a terrific way to enjoy mud. Mud can be scooped onto a cookie sheet, fill up the sensory table, top off a plastic swimming pool, or be discovered in a mud puddle. It can turn an outdoor kitchen area into a mud kitchen. But I have to say that watching children at the Arboretum play in the mud, that the one having the most fun and on whom all eyes were directed was the boy sitting in, covered with, and lolling about the mud patch.  Oh, International Mud Day is June 29th. But I think any day can and should be a mud day.

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