Article by Julie Eldridge
Early Childhood Educator at Cincinnati Nature Center
While April showers may bring May flowers, springtime also brings the season of MUD! Look away for one second and your child is ankle deep in it. Squelch, squerch, plop! His shining eyes and joyful giggles speak to every child’s innate desire to get their hands dirty. So forget about the caked-on laundry and mess that will inevitably be tracked into the house. Instead, put him in his worst-of-the-worst play clothes and some sturdy rubber boots and head outside together for some fun and messy lessons.
At the first sighting of the ooey-gooey stuff, he is sure to start in with some grand tromping, marching and jumping. Soon he looks down and notices his heavy mud-caked boots. While standing still to assess his sticky situation, an insect zips in and daintily lands in the mud. Your child is amazed as he watches the creature gather mud into a ball using her front legs and mandibles, then flies off with her load. Her destination isn’t far, as she comes to rest under the overhang of a shed. She carefully molds the mud into place on her tube-like nest. It is an Organ-pipe Mud-dauber wasp. Load by load, she busily builds each tube where she will later lay her eggs.
The wasp’s nest building reminds you of another muddy nest. On a whim, you both trudge over to nearby shrubs. Delighted, your child discovers a Robin’s nest. Robins, too, gather mud, along with dry grass, twigs and moss, to construct their nests. Roll up your child’s sleeves and encourage him to gather his own twigs, dry grass and all-important mud. See if you and your little one can make a nest worthy of a Robin. After some trial and error, you both discover just the right recipe to create a nest that holds its shape. Imagine how much more challenging it would be if you had to use your mouth to build a nest, just like the birds. Yuck!
The two of you head out again, and are baffled to discover mud towers or tubes rising 4-6 inches from the ground. Each has a hole in the center about two inches in diameter. “Snake hole,” your child declares. Not quite. This is actually a crayfish chimney. Crayfish burrow into moist soils, pushing the soil up into a chimney as they go. Digging down to find the crayfish is not recommended, as some burrows go many feet under ground. Instead, try to build one of your own.
As your child searches for just the right mud for a chimney, he stumbles upon tracks. A closer look reveals the track-making creature has five toes on each foot. Before tromping on the tracks, encourage your child to place his hands in the mud and make handprints next to the animal’s footprints. He marvels at how similar the animal tracks are to his own handprints.
The tracks were made by a raccoon and quietly, you both begin stalking the tracks. Your child discovers the raccoon was headed to the pond. As you approach, there’s a sudden leap. Splash! A bullfrog dives for cover. You spot another sitting like a statue in the mud, eyeing you as you eye it. Bullfrogs are well acquainted with the mud. Just a couple months ago, when the pond was covered with ice, they were snuggled down in its muddy depths. The warming water coaxes them out. Now the males serenade, “Jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum,” calling to attract a mate. To discover more about frogs and to hear and see these creatures yourself, join us for the Frog Foray at Rowe Woods.
The mud drying and cracking on your clothes and hands signal it’s time to get cleaned up. As you head inside, your child recounts the day’s discoveries. The lessons learned on this day of unstructured play will stick with him long after the messy hands and dirty clothes are clean again.