When we got outside I started picking up the clumps of mud that somehow invade the playground every spring, and put them in a bucket; Several children took interest in what I was doing and started to help. We brought the bucket (which was at least a 3 gallon pail full of wet dirt), put it in the sensory bin and added about a gallon of water. Of anything that I have ever put in a sensory bin they only liked water this much.
I know this is not an inventive concept no one is going to read this and say "playing in mud? Brilliant! I never thought of that!" but really, there is something so organic about playing and digging in the mud and dirt, something that is so natural and essential to children.
Often you can see pictures or watch videos of "progressive" schools, or "cooperative preschools" doing things on a huge scale like this- just letting kids dig in the school yard, flooding it, making trenches, just PLAYING IN THE MUD. Unfortunately for many of us we don't have this luxury. The property owners or the school doesn't allow this kind of "destructive" play. Children can not dig holes, pull up the grass, climb trees, or anything else of the sort. (I have heard horror stories of places that have also gotten rid of swings, teeter- totters, and slides because they are too dangerous, so in this respect I count my blessings). I am not necessarily in favor of turning the entire playground into a mud pit, grass is nice too, still I think that there is so much children can learn and appreciate from getting to dig and play in the earth; If there wasn't, why would they want to do it so badly?
As a child I grew up on a farm (and I am only in my twenties, so don't accuse me of writing a "back in my day" blog :)! ) I had tons of toys as a child, and indeed was probably spoiled, but aside from playing with my personal cassette player, my favorite doll, and my tea set (filled with water and food coloring for me by my grandmother), most of my memories of play as a preschool aged child involve playing with the earth.
I remember that there was a huge table size rock at one corner of our yard that was used to cover an old ground well that was no longer in use. I used to take sharp smaller rocks and dandelions and "draw" on that rock for hours. I learned that I could make white scratch marks with smaller rocks on that rock and yellow marks with dandelions; I could wipe it all away by rubbing some of the dusty- dirt that our driveway was made of over the surface and could start again.
I also have vivid memories of playing in the creek. I remember going to it with my dad in the summer and sticking my feet in. I remember taking my stacking duck boats and putting various things in them to float down the stream (okay, yes, those are toys). I would put worms in them or dandelions or stones (I learned if I put too many stones in or if I put water in they would sink), to go for a ride. One time I was really excited because I was playing by the creek (or "crick" as I used to call it) and my dad, who was working on some sort of a wood project near by, used scraps of wood to make me a sail boat. He asked me for a sail and I ripped a page out of one of my coloring books, which he fashioned the sail out of. I still have that boat, the wood is the same, but the page has turned yellow almost brown and is curled up with age.
I picked berries and wild mushrooms (I knew not to eat them, but they served well as pretend food), Ate black cherries off the tree, made daisy crowns, and "moss sculptures." I captured bugs in jars, raised stripy caterpillars into butterflies and a hundred other things.
I was also an avid rock collector. My mom would take me for walks up the hill to a dirt road where there were always an abundance of different rocks. I found white quartz, granite (in pink, black, and white, and sometimes in combinations), different types of slag and basalt, slate, and obsidian. I didn't know the names at the time, but you can bet that it was easy for me to learn them and remember their names in Earth Science (having examined an collected rocks I also easily understood types of rocks). Another great place to learn about rocks was at the lake; Keuka Lake was only a few miles away and was full of rocks. Going here I found smooth stones and drift wood- learning about the power of water. I also found a great many fossils on these walks and trips to the lake as well as in creek beds.
The point of all of this is to say that as preschoolers some of the most important things for them to learn are the things that they learn naturally, just by doing the things they like to do out in the real world. We do not think about it but there are so many rich experiences for them just waiting out the window. So many of the things that a good program offers- sensory experiences, gross motor (digging) and fine motor (cutting) skills, not to mention just the observations that they make about nature, life, the planet, weather, animals, insects, plants, and many many other things are available from this type of outdoors learning.
This is not to say I am discouraging other important aspects that can't be learned by running around outdoors like a wild animal; I am not discouraging art or literacy work or anything else that happens in classrooms, rather, I just believe that more and more children live in small Suburban or Urban developments with little or no yard, and certainly no creeks, ponds, lakes, rock piles, dirt roads or drive ways, or giant rocks. The truth is that children are really missing out by not having these experiences to just play, and well learn (subconsciously) on their own in the great outdoors. As a teacher I think it is my job to recreate as much as I can experiences like these that I had as a child, and the experiences that most children even 50 years ago were having. There's a lot to be learned when you are playing in the mud.