Connecting with Nature #3 Muddy March
22nd March 2016
Are there two sorts of children; those that love the mud and those that don’t? In my forest school work I see both preferences on a regular basis but think that perhaps there are only those that love it and those that don’t love it – yet. In March, there are small signs that spring is on its way but mainly it’s a grey month of waiting for the world to turn green again. After winter rains and heavy feet crossing waterlogged ground, mud is one of the resources in plentiful supply and one packed with possibilities for creative play.
I regularly work in an urban school where most of the children don’t play outdoors very often. Many seem to have picked up the message that they must never get dirty and always keep their clothes clean. Our forest school area has become very muddy this winter so this term I have tried to help them overcome their resistance and learn to love the the mud.
Boggarts: I tell them the story about the boggarts, the mischievous creatures that used to inhabit the woods, but which since being pushed aside by the activities of man, have taken to playing tricks on unsuspecting passers by. If you’ve ever been in a wood and had something fall on your head, or been walking along and been tripped by an invisible tree root, that’s a boggart!
To show these impish creatures that we mean no harm and seek their help in protecting the woodland, we can make their image on the trees or as puppets on sticks. Using mud or clay and natural materials such as grasses, cherry stones and feathers we can make all manner of fierce or friendly faces.
On a first session to help them overcome their fear of touching the mud I offered them one rubber glove each; they could chose to only handle the mud with that hand or work with a friend to sculpt the form. Most inadvertently touched the mud with their bare hand and found they lived to tell the tale!
Clay: On some sites clay is freely available to be dug up from the ground, but where it’s not, we take some in a tub. A great exercise to break the ice with clay and encourage everyone to get creative is to stand in a circle and give each person a piece. With hands kept behind their backs, ask everyone to sculpt a familiar animal – no peeping. Save the big reveal until the end when one by one the group presents their wonky and often hilarious looking creations.
The malleability of mud and clay is of course one its greatest attractions. You can use it to sculpt, build, draw and paint, just as our ancestors did. We looked around the woods for interesting shapes and textures and experimented making impressions in the mud, leading to two activities.
Pendants: With a piece of clay each the children flattened it into a pancake shape then made an impression with a chosen object such as a leaf, alder cone or catkin. We used pastry cutters to make an even shape then pierced a hole with a stick before leaving them to dry, then painted the shapes and threaded them onto string to make a fragile pendant. We found that painting them, then wiping the paint off meant the delicate patterns which were hard to see in the clay were picked out in colour to great effect.
Plastercasts: Finding an animal print in the woods can be very exciting, but even when there are no signs of wild bears and wolves passing through, we can make our own footprints or other impressions in the mud and keep them by making a plaster cast. I bought a tub of plaster of Paris online and also needed a bottle of water, mixing tub, measure, spoon, strips of cardboard and paperclips. Once you’ve got your impression, surround it with the strip of cardboard fixed firmly in the ground and fasten with the clip. Mix the plaster by measuring one part water then adding one and a half parts plaster of Paris powder to the water and stirring. It heats up and thickens quickly so pour it into your mould and leave to set. After an hour they could be removed from the mud and taken indoors to dry fully.
Body art: When comfortable with the feel of mud, our forest school children love to mix it to create face paint and immerse themselves in the woodland. I remember one very engaged game of hide and seek when we gave them 15 minutes to truly camouflage themselves in the woods. The winners mixed charcoal, soil and chalks and painted it all over exposed skin. Once hidden they appeared to have blended into the environment.
Should we really be encouraging children to get their dirty? In her book Why Dirt is Good for You, Dr Mary Ruebush argues that our obsession with cleanliness is making us poorly and exposing ourselves to some dirt and germs builds up the immune system brilliantly, protecting against allergies and asthma in adulthood. Researchers at the University of Bristol found that exposure to mud is also good for the brain. They found that a soil microbe called microbacterium vaccae causes the release of serotonin which improves mood and improves brain function. They are looking at how this can be harnessed in the treatment of depression.
Messing about in mud does seem to be a natural instinct for children and make them happy. Just remind them to wash their hands afterwards!