This week's Mud Games at The Wallow event in Homer, AK was more fun and inspiring (to both kids and parents) than any of us had ever imagined! This was an unbelievably easy and inexpensive way to reconnect children with the wonders of nature and an event that could be replicated almost anywhere. I cannot recommend this activity highly enough as a way to engage youth in lively, fun, unstructured outdoor play.
The idea for Mud Games at the Wallow sprouted from the a conversation between several environmental educators (including myself) relaxing after a successful Winter Family Fun Day at a local nature center in January. USFWS educator Lisa Matlock was sharing memories of an annual Autumn Mud Softball Tournament in Sitka, AK that she had participated in years ago and talk led to how much fun we'd all had playing as kids in wet mud. We thought it might be great fun to find the muddiest place in our town and arrange some sort of event there for free play in the mud. I took on the task of scouting out locations and wound up talking with folks who manage the Cottonwood Horse Park in our community. Nearly everyone in our town assumes that this beautiful little park with a riding arena, several corrals, and picnic tables under giant cottonwood trees is only to be used by "horse people." However, in talking with the park's board of directors, it became clear that they wanted all of the community to use this area and got very excited about Mud Games happening there.
I have spent many months of my life around elephant seal wallows (very, very muddy places with oozing muck) and decided to name the site within the horse park "The Wallow" for our event. As I coordinated with park board members, plans changed from The Wallow being a one-day feature to a permanent fixture on the outskirts of the riding arena...hence, Homer's 1st permanent mud play area was born.
The only money spent for putting this event on was $50 (provided by the US Fish & Wildlife Service) to buy plastic buckets and shovels for participants to use at The Wallow's inauguration. Media outreach to local papers and radio stations cost nothing. I created flyers and hung them all over town the week before our event. Horse park volunteers dug the mud pit with a backhoe and just before Friday's event, we used 5 borrowed hoses to bring water from the park spigot down the hill to The Wallow. Creating the mud pit was as simple as digging the hole and adding water. We found a bunch of old, clean towels and buckets for the cleaning station. Thinking kids might want to play in the nearby sandy riding arena, we pulled together a bunch of yoga, soccer, tennis and other balls, a set of badminton equipment, and a couple Frisbees and set them out in the arena. But we found that the mud in The Wallow was too much of a draw for anyone to consider doing much of anything else. A few kids did take a brief break from mud play to make mud finger paintings on paper with help from a volunteer. And the riding arena did get used, though only as a warming station - kids chilled by the stiff breeze and soaked clothes lay down on the sun-warmed sand in the arena until they were ready to dive back into The Wallow.
Lisa and I had envisioned kids playing in the mud for about 4 hours, beginning at 2pm, and then adults taking over for the last 2 hours of the event...however, we found kids kept coming and going for 5 hours and the parents of kids (and event organizers) were the only adults to play in the mud Friday [there is already talk of another Mud Games in the future just for adults - with the addition of music and beer]. Over 80 kids ranging in age from 1 to 15 played in the mud; about 20 parents and grandparents joined them in The Wallow; and another 50 spectator adults watched the hilarity from the sidelines. I was both a spectator and a wallower, and I have to say that I've probably never laughed as hard and for as long as I did at Mud Games. Everyone was laughing almost constantly.
Many kids approached The Wallow with wide eyes and big smiles but needed 15 minutes or so to warm up to the idea of actually setting foot into the mud. Watching other kids decorate each other with mud pies, play tug-o-war, or do cannonballs off the rim of the pit into one particularly deep hole definitely helped draw lots of little ones into the muck. Parents who didn't mind getting dirty also proved great role models for their children. No one got hurt (we put up warning signs for the stinging nettles surrounding the pit and actively herded running kids away from these plants) and the only whining we heard was from kids being told they had to go (by their parents) or kids being hosed down with cold water so their parents would let them back in their cars. At our next event we'll figure out a way to make the clean-up water warmer!
A reporter from one of our local papers showed up to cover the event and wound up not only staying for an hour but getting right into the mud for close-up photographs and nearly toppling over into the goo. Exclamations from kids playing in and leaving The Wallow made my day. We heard statements like, "I've NEVER been dirty before!" (it's all relative after experiencing The Wallow) and "The beach in fun, but this is many, many, many, many more times fun!" and "Mom, can we come here every day?" To answer that last child, yes - parents can now bring their children or older kids can ride and walk to the park to play in The Wallow any time they want. Our clean-up station won't be there except for on special events, but hopefully that won't deter folks from visiting The Wallow on their own. The horse park board of directors is thinking about making a nice, permanent sign to identify The Wallow, and there is a wonderful buzz going around town generated by families who came to The Wallow's inaugural event. Already this weekend I've fielded questions about the possibility of using The Wallow as a birthday party site, a fundraiser site, and a field trip site. I hope those ideas all happen and The Wallow is added to every family's "Places To Take the Kids Outside" list.