Gemma-Rose and Sophie are outside. They have been in the garden for hours despite the cool winter temperature. They have sand buckets and spades, and a big box of odds and ends: plates, bowls, spoons, pots, all leftovers from different tea sets.
On the outdoor table there are piles of flowers, berries, weeds, grass, twigs and pebbles. And a bucket of soil. Somewhere down at the bottom of the garden is a hole, a hole that is getting bigger and bigger.
I ask Gemma-Rose, “Will I fall into your hole and break my ankle?”
She grins and says, “You never go down to that part of the garden.” No, it’s the secret bit under the trees.
Soil is spooned into a pot. A jug of water is upended, water flows out and Sophie stirs briskly. “What sort of cake shall we make?”
“Chocolate chip, I think,” says Gemma-Rose reaching for a handful of berries. “It’s a birthday cake.”
The game continues…for hours. Finally, as I notice the sun going down and the sky darkening, I shout out that it’s time to come in. Two girls reluctantly drag themselves away from their stews and cakes and biscuits.
Today we were chatting while we ate lunch. I asked everyone why they love or loved mud pie games so much. Soon the older girls were smiling as happy memories returned.
“Do you remember those berries that grew over the fence? We loved squishing them with a stone or taking out the seeds or slicing them up. And what about the daisies we’d pull apart and add to our stews?”
It seems the girls enjoy squishing and slicing and mixing, and squelching everything through their fingers. They enjoy searching the garden for flowers and leaves, twigs and stones, berries and seeds: anything that can be added to their pies and cakes. They like having an array of ingredients and then being able to create. And they like getting dirty. (Except for piano-finger Charlotte who didn’t like getting dirt under her nails.) Of course, it’s not just about making mud pies. It’s all about pretending. There’s a game going on. Someone is having a birthday and needs a cake. Now they have a restaurant and are cooking gourmet meals. Perhaps they need food for a picnic. Or they are catering for a big homeschooling function just like Dad.
“Sophie and I are going to be bakers when we grow up. We’re making bread and cakes.”
I think about the value of such play. The girls are spending a lot of time outside in the fresh air interacting with nature. They‘re experimenting and experiencing and creating. They are pretending, copying situations in life, making sense of the world. The girls are focused on what they are doing: they are learning to concentrate. They are not bored. They are not whining, “What shall we do next, Mum?” They are coming up with their own ideas. They are thinking. They are entertaining themselves for long periods of time.
And most of all they are having fun. They are carefree children, spending time in a world of their own creation. They are having a wonderful time.
When I was a child, I remember long hot summers spent in the garden with my two sisters. We had our own hole too. It was under the tap at the side of the house. We were extremely fortunate. Our hole wasn’t filled with ordinary soil. What we dug out was almost pure clay. In my imagination I am once again that little girl. I am squelching that clay through my fingers. It is slippery and sticks together in a most satisfying manner. I make a ball and then use my thumbs to hollow out the middle until I have a bowl which I set aside to dry in the sun. Now it is time to make biscuits. There is already a stew cooking: flower petals are floating in a pan of water. I add another pinch of crumbled up leaf and stir the mixture… The sun is shining, the sky is blue. I wish the day would go on forever…
I don’t know all the ins and outs about why play is good for children. I am not always sure exactly what the girls are learning as they spend hours engrossed in their games, day after day. But I am sure they are learning and developing: their play is invaluable. I know they need lots of time to create and pretend, explore and have fun without any interference from me.
Most of all, I know that children need time to enjoy being children. They grow up much too fast, don’t they?
I wonder if the girls will always remember that hole down at the bottom of the garden, under the tree. One day, will they tell their own mud-pie-making children all about the fun they had as they stirred berry choc-chips into their chocolate mud cakes?