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Let Children Play

A gravel path led to a fifteen-foot waterfall and a pool of water, only inches deep with big smooth rocks. My two Grands leaped from rock to rock and waded in the water to the falls.  They walked behind the falls, but didn’t get wet.

            They played follow the leader and created paths across the pool stepping only on rocks.  Then they explored: one following a path up a small grassy hill, the other cupped her hands under a six-inch water fall. 

            And then, using their hands, they both dug into the silt, made a ball, and put it at the top of the miniature waterfall.  When it quickly washed away, Lucy said, “Let’s make a bigger ball!” Annabel dug up two hands full of silt and squeezed the water from it.  Just as she started to put it on the rock ledge, Lucy shouted, “Wait! Let me do mine too.  We’ll see which one dissolves first.”

            Each girl gently placed a mud ball near the edge of this tiny waterfall and they counted, “Three, two, one!” and dropped the ball.  “Gran! Did you see how fast that mudball washed away?” Lucy asked.

            Standing a few feet away on the dry bank, I nodded and gave two thumbs up. “We’ll do it again! Watch!” Annabel said as she scooped her hands under the ankle-deep water. 

            I watched, applauded, and took in the moment.  These two Grands are 9 and 11, and I was so glad they like to play in mud.  They made big mud balls and little ones to compare how much faster little ones washed away.  They found slightly smaller and slower waterfalls, only two inches tall. 

            These Grands have always played in dirt.  When Annabel was six, I sat outside watching her and her two younger siblings play.  Annabel offered me a drink. “I’m making chocolate milk with soap and mud.  Do you want to taste it?” she asked.  I grimaced and shook my head.  “I did and it’s disgusting,” she said. “Now I’m going to make a pancake with chocolate sauce and it’ll be delicious!”   A flat rock covered with thick muddy water looked similar to a giant pancake and maple syrup.

            According to authorities, playing in mud is not just fun.  Science shows that today’s sanitized world can increase levels of childhood allergies, but exposure to dirt strengthens a child’s immune level to prevent allergies.

            Serotonin, an endorphin that regulates mood, is released for a calming, happy feeling.  And playing in mud provides a connection to nature, an appreciation for the environment.  Mud, cheap and always available, is nature’s play dough. 

           Thinking skills are improved while playing in dirt because unstructured outdoor play leads to critical thinking.  I listened as my Grands casually stated their hypothesis.  They tested, analyzed, compared, counted, and came up with conclusions. They created their own science lesson.          When Annabel, Lucy, and I visited City Lake Park, I just wanted some outside time, some calming time.  And we got that and more – all three of us.

After a Rain

IMG_3042  On a warm sunny day after several rainy days, five-year-old Ruth squats low to the ground under a maple tree in her backyard. I walk near her and see that she’s stirring a small puddle of muddy water with a stick.

“What’re you doing, Ruth?” I ask. She looks up. There are mud streaks on her cheeks and she hands me a plastic glass filled with brown liquid with bubbles on top.

“I made chocolate milk with soap and mud. Do you want to taste it?” my Grand says.  I shake my head. “I did and it’s disgusting!” Ruth says. She turns her back to me, picks up a handful of mud, molds it into a ball, and flattens it. “Now I’m making a pancake.” She places the mud pancake on a flat rock, scoops muddy water out of the mud puddle, and splashes it on top of the pancake.

She holds the rock toward me. “Try it, Gran. It has chocolate sauce on top and it’s delicious!” I pretend to take a bite and agree that it is delicious.

“As delicious as the mud pies that I made when I was a child. I put gravel in them and sold them to my dad for a nickel,” I say. Ruth asks why I used gravel. “The gravels were chocolate chips.” Ruth nods and turns back to the dirt. I expect that she’ll ask for a nickel for the pancake, but she doesn’t.

Using a plastic shovel and her fingers, my Grand digs in loose dirt and uncovers earthworms. She holds one in her hands and it wiggles. She puts the worm in an orange plastic sand bucket that is half full of muddy water. Then she holds another worm until it too tries to wiggle away, and she puts it into the bucket. I tell Ruth that I played with worms when I was a little girl. She puts both hands in the bucket of water and wraps a worm around her fingers and says, “They really like me, but they can’t live with me so I put them in water and they’ll be happy.” If worms can feel happy, these two certainly should.

Ruth swishes her hands in the bucket of water and wipes them over the grass and then down the side of her shorts. She leaves her mud play and climbs up the ladder of the jungle gym and slides down the five-foot long slide. She jumps on the trampoline with her older brother and sister. I stand outside on the driveway and talk with Daughter as we watch her children play.

Ruth soon returns to the mud puddle and again smashes more mud between her hands. From several feet away, I hear her talking about mud pies and pancakes and chocolate chips and chocolate sauce. She stops her mud play and picks up another earthworm and puts it in the bucket.

It’s time for me to leave Ruth’s family’s home. I tell Daughter and my Grands goodbye, get hugs and kisses, and turn on my car’s ignition. “Wait!” Daughter says and holds up one hand, “Ruth wants to tell you something else.” I roll the car window down.

My Grand yells. “Look out, Gran! There’s a worm. Don’t run over it!”

I wouldn’t dare. That worm will be happy with its friends in Ruth’s bucket of water.

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