New leaders in exploring earth

How I observed and facilitated the children's leadership in mud play

Project author:

Project summary:

This reflection project creates a sense and understanding of the natural world where the children between two and a half and four becomes the leaders.



I wanted to let children lead the change using their non-verbal and verbal communication.

My focus is on the mud kitchen area where the sand tray is based. I had noted that the children were using the spades from the sandpit to dig in the earth around the sand pit, exploring and adding the earth to the sand tray and the teachers emptying the sand tray at the end of the day and fill it up with new sand the next day. As well as that teachers were asking the children not to add the earth to the sand tray. This happened again and again.




We are a Froebelian Nursery. Our nursery garden is divided into 3 parts. The First area when you come into the Nursery gate, is mostly concrete and a bit of earth on the edge of the concrete. The second area is where we have the climbing frame, the sand pit, a willow arch, a sensory garden, and a wild garden with a bug hotel. The third area is where we have our vegetable patch. We will always open one part of the playground in the morning for free play and halfway through the morning, we will open two parts of the playground.

In January of this year, I became the new Head teacher and Interim manager at the Nursery where I work. I have worked at this nursery for nineteen years, but I am new at managing my colleagues. Therefore, the change which has been done together with my colleagues has been a small change.

At our Nursery, I am the only one who has done Froebel training last year at Roehampton University. Therefore, I realised to be a Froebelian Nursery, we need to be all on board and understand the Froebelian principles and see the children’s play and the setting with a Froebelian lens. Hence, I asked the other Interim manager in January this year if she was interested to take part in Forest School training and she was and she started her training straight away.

First, I shared my observations about sand play, the enjoyment of exploring earth and mud kitchen play with the other Interim manager. She said she had seen that as well – that the children enjoy digging in the earth instead of playing with the sand. I mentioned my thoughts that nineteen years ago, there was a digging area in the outside garden where children could just enjoy using real children size garden tools. She remembered that area as well. and she agreed that it would be a good idea to recreate a digging area. I contacted our Head teacher who was the Head more than ten years ago and we discussed that through these direct experiences that children would begin to develop a sense and understanding of the world.

My next step was to discuss this with all my colleagues during a planning meeting. During our planning meeting I mentioned my observations and asked my colleagues if they had noted that as well and they did. One of my colleagues stated that for children to add earth to the sand tray is part of the Froebelian approach, however, we all agreed that sand looked like earth within a short amount of time and sand was not always accessible if we only open one part of the playground.

We decided to create another raised tray where children can explore the earth and add or take away the earth from around the tray and create a digging area where the mud kitchen is and move the sand tray to the other concrete area of the playground. Some of my colleagues thought it wasn’t a very good idea, and said, the other side will get messy with sand. We all shared our thoughts, concerns, and ideas and in the end, we agreed to try it out. This change meant that sand or earth are always accessible for children to explore.

‘Froebel stated that I wanted to educate men to be free, to think, to act for themselves’. (Froebel, in Lilley, 1967: 41)

Cited in Tovey, H. (2017) Bringing the Froebel Approach to your Early Years Practice. Oxon: Routledge.


Children have been capable in leading this change through non-verbal and verbal communication. I have noticed that it has helped children to develop all the seven areas of learning. Children gravitate to this digging area naturally when that area of the playground is open. Children often are keen to go and play with the open-ended resources of the natural world.

These are some of the children’s comments we have noted during their play:

  • “I made a birthday cake.”
  • “Do you want to come to my party.”
  • “I have made you a drink.”
  • “I found treasure.”
  • “I found roots.”
  • “Can you help me take it out” (a rock) “it’s really big.”
  • “I found a worm” Comparing worms or snails.
  • “I’m going to add this to my collection.” (a stone).

Observations my colleagues and I have made:

  • Between the children, it developed teamwork, it created new friendships by asking other children to help to dig out their treasure or inviting other children to their imaginary birthday party.
  • It develops concentration span. Children are exploring the earth for a very long time.
  • Children express their thoughts and ideas to their peers and support each other in their ideas.
  • It develops their mark making by using a stick to make marks in the earth.
  • Children compare their treasure or worms by size (develops their mathematical skills)
  • It gives the children the possibility to explore their senses.
  • It helps children with special educational needs to develop their play alongside other children.
  • Children were able to look and explore the natural world in much more detail, by using a magnifying glass.
  • And children were able to use their imagination and create a picture using leaves, sticks and little rocks.

I have noted that colleagues initiated and added flowerpots and cuttings when tidying to the digging area.

One of my colleagues did mention that a lot of earth comes inside the nursery. We will follow this up by asking the parents to leave their children’s wellies at nursery and buy a few wellies, so the children can change into wellies while playing in the digging area.

A Parent mentioned that they noticed a change in their child’s play,

Other parents noticed that their children wanted to bring in things they have found, for example, stones, leaves, petals  into Nursery,  and show it to their friends. They will then use their finding as part of their imaginary play while playing outside in the digging area.

Comment from a visitor was when I showed the digging area and mud kitchen: “that their child loves to play in the earth.”


Although this project is still developing, for example, if we want to use real children garden tools, we must create a risk assessment beforehand.

By working together with my colleagues and sharing their views and their findings.  My colleagues felt valued and listened to. Their views, experiences, knowledge, and expertise are a valuable aspect in the children’s education and to any change.

By working in close partnership with the parents, children were able to share their findings or their new gained knowledge with all of us at the nursery.

Less is more. By replacing the sand with earth and by creating another sand play area in another part of the playground. Children were able to observe, learn, explore, and extend their learning using the natural world they live in.

With great enthusiasm, children create a unity and connectedness with the different seasons by extending their understanding of what effect the different weather has on the earth, as well as the habitat and life of the different insects you can find.

Furthermore, this has given the children the possibility to explore with sand when only the concrete part of the playground is open.

I feel by taking part in this course and by creating this change it created a further understanding of working in partnership with my colleagues and the importance listening to everyone’s voice, children, colleagues, and parents.

Furthermore, I noticed that the colleague who started the Forest school training got very much involved and was the one who added the flowerpot and cuttings to the digging area and discussed her ideas with the other colleagues. I will extend this by creating opportunities for my colleagues and I to visit other Froebel Nursery schools. This will help us as a team to create an understanding of the Froebelian approach and this will support us to create new ideas to adapt our nursery environment and become more Froebelian.

Research implications

To be completed

Practitioner enquiry

To be completed

Leadership learning

To be completed

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

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