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Oregon Family Magazine

Messing with Mud

01/01/2021 11:23AM ● By Beth Stein
The ingredients in the recipe are simple:  water for wetness, soil for substance, crumpled leaves for texture, bark chips for chunks, grass for green-ness, and rocks just for fun. The how-to part of the recipe is also pretty straightforward – dig, dump, stir, mush, squoosh, pour, pound. Note that the order of operations is not important and processes can be repeated without any adverse impact. You definitely can’t “overmix” this cake/cookie/soup (depending on who you ask) batter/dough/mix!

So who’s cooking? For this recipe, it was a group of four and five year olds in a Wonder Keepers class at Nearby Nature’s Learnscape. But it could just have easily been your children, of course, out in nature, messing with mud.

Despite the cold, and especially thanks to COVID, it’s going to be very important to get kids outside this winter. Time outdoors means healthy air, fun exercise, a welcome change of scenery for everyone, and so much more. Good ideas for walks in nature near Eugene can be found at eugene-or.gov/327/Parks-and-Natural-Areas and for Springfield at willamalane.org/park_and_trails/parkdirectory.php. Bike rides are possible on drier days, thanks to all the safe and accessible bike paths. But what will really cheer up your younger ones is to let them get truly immersed in the natural world. In colder climates, that would probably mean time in the snow. But here in the Willamette Valley, where we don’t see the white stuff very often, we’ve got to get creative. What we do have in winter is rain (and thus abundant mud-potential in places like sleeping gardens) and plenty of “loose parts” – lichen, leaves, cones, seeds, and all that other stuff that has fallen from trees and bushes in recent months. The combination adds up to ingredients for lots of fun!

You’re probably thinking, mud play in January? That’s crazy! But don’t write off the idea quite yet. Your part in the project doesn’t have to involve getting completely dirt-doused yourself.  Instead, ditch your worry, and let the kids get dirty!  The best way to do that is to dress your children in wet weather gear that’s easy to clean, or clothes designated for outdoor “kitchen” play. (A quick rinse before washing will also ensure you don’t destroy your washer and that your chef’s duds are good for another baking session.)  You can also keep the project relatively in control by providing a plastic wash bin or a similar smallish container for your bakers’ creations if they’re playing in your yard. If you’re on the go when the urge to make mud pies hits, or you don’t have a yard at your disposal, you can be prepared for fun anytime if you toss a couple small salsa-type containers in your backpack. If you’re playing in public, just be sure your cooks aren’t creating a muddy mess that will impact others’ ability to enjoy an outdoor space.

Finally, if mud is simply not your thing, remember all those loose parts we talked about before? Leaves and lichen and cones and the like? Those are also great for creative cooking projects - and also free, and abundant. Add a few recyclables for bakeware, and your cooks are good to go! You can even bring these ingredients indoors!

For more fun ideas for nature play both in and outside this winter, visit nearbynature.org/explore-activity-pages/. Every Monday, we post a new nature craft, scavenger hunt, or nature puzzle. You can also have these activities emailed to you directly. Also visit nearbynature.org/nearby-nature-school/ for information about the Wonder Keepers and other school-year, in-person, outdoor classes for kids 4-10 years old!

Beth Stein is the Executive Director of Nearby Nature, a non-profit education group dedicated to fostering appreciation of nature nearby and providing tools for ecological living. The organization hosts summer daycamps in local parks as well as COVID-safe school year activities, field trips, special events, and restoration projects. For more information, call 541-687-9699 or see nearbynature.org.