Mud Baths for Healthy Children?

Westland, MI takes seriously the fun value of mud baths. In July every year Wayne County Parks and Recreation Department mixes 200 tons of topsoil and 20,000 gallons of water to create a giant lake of mud for children to play in at the “Mud Day” festival. They are following in the footsteps of spa resorts that for centuries have offered mud baths as a therapeutic treatment, and of children who have always loved to mess around in the earth. But now, this wickedly messy, and deliciously calming activity has been shown by scientific studies to offer some important health benefits.

Research by Söderström and Blennow shows that children who spend time out of doors suffer less from allergies and are less frequently sick. This research proposes that not only the fresh air and exercise are important, but that children’s natural resilience is strengthened by exposure to a rich diversity of bacteria, building up their natural antibodies, and enabling them to better resist disease.

Laboratory research by Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks of The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York supports this hypothesis by showing that mice fed the dirt bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae navigated complex mazes twice as fast as those that were not. They also exhibited less anxiety behavior. It is thought the bacteria reduces anxiety by increasing levels of serotonin, and may also stimulate growth in certain neurons in the brain.

“Mycobacterium vaccae is a natural soil bacterium which people likely ingest or breath in when they spend time in nature," reported Dorothy Matthews. Matthews and Jenks suggested that creating learning environments in schools that include time in the outdoors where Mycobacterium vaccae is present may decrease children’s anxiety and improve the ability to learn new tasks.

This research comes at a time when we are recognizing that bringing children up in a totally antiseptic environment may prevent children’s immune system from being challenged sufficiently to develop resistance. Exposure to germs during early childhood primes the body against allergies. Many believe our obsession with cleanliness is to blame for the recent boom in allergies in developed countries. Overuse of antibiotics may also be hindering the development of the friendly bacteria found in the intestinal tract that aid the immune system in warding off allergens.

Looking at the larger picture of health and biodiversity, the EPA asserts that our health and well-being are critically dependant on biological diversity and the protection from disease that biologically diverse ecosystems provide. EPA has awarded three grants, totaling $2.25 million, to support research programs working to better understand and characterize the mechanisms that link environmental stressors, such as deforestation and climate change, to the loss of biodiversity and the transmission of infections diseases to people.

Encouraged by the appealing findings of potential health benefits of play in mud, Kidsafe NSW Playground Advisory Unit proposed ways children can become engaged in gardening. Other children’s play organizations provide guidance for mud-play. “Nuranni” on Health Information offers the following ideas for some of children favorite things to do in the mud:

  • Make mud pies and cakes. This is an oldie but a goodie.   Use old containers to “bake” in and decorate with small pebbles, flowers, or leaves.
  • Make mud houses using sticks for supports. Include tunnels, secret rooms, and even a moat.
  • Make mud balls by shaping mud into balls by rolling the “dough” in your hands. Decorate the balls with flowers, leaves, rocks, or small twigs. Stack the mud balls on top of each other to create a unique sculpture.
  • Make rivers and dams. Dig a river in the dirt and add water. Build a dam to form a small puddle.
  • Construction zone: bring in the trucks, the hard hats and the shovels.

Ideas for a Mud Play

  • Mud Slides : Kids can jump right in and get all dirty with a mud slide. One completely built of mud could add unique feature to your indoor playground. Drench the face of the mound with water until the mud is slide down in the center of the mound. When children start to slide down it, their horseplay will dig the slide deeper.
  • Tug-O-War : Post stakes equidistant on either side of the puddle. It’s best to build a tug-o-war station in indoor mud playgrounds that are wall-to-wall mud so that children won’t hurt themselves on hard floor surfaces if they pull too hard.
  • Mud Kitchen : Mud pies have been imaginatively baked since the first child discovered the flexibility in molding mud. Arts and Crafts. Let kids make casts out of the mud.
  • Shower Rinse : Showers can be installed at the edges of the mud ground playground. Showers can serve a dual purpose. The other purpose is to keep the dirt ground flowing with water to keep the mud moist. Install a drainage system that washes the mud back onto the playground floor.

Fangotherapy (therapeutic mud baths) has been popular in Europe since Roman times, and is available in some Japanese and North American spas (e.g. Calistoga, CA). Different spas offer different healing treatments, depending on the composition of their local mineral- and nutrition-rich mud from volcanic ash or meat moss. Warmed to 100 degrees, a mud bath is profoundly relaxing, often heals skin conditions, reduces pain and inflammation, and sweats toxins out of the body. Abano Terme in Italy, for example, is recommended for the treatment of the following conditions: “Osteoporosis, arthritis, rheumatism (metabolic and inflammatory, bursitis, tendinitis, periarthritis, epicondylitis); joint pain, strained muscles, recovery from fractures and orthopedic surgery; gout and many diseases of the respiratory system.”

But even without the heat and medical spa surroundings, it is clear that children find the Mud Day Festival the most glorious fun – and fun is thoroughly therapeutic.