The Mud Club is one of the most inspired inventions I’ve ever encountered, ranking for me alongside jazz and penicillin. Lin and I went this morning with Alexander, our energetic and adventurous three-year-old grandson.
The Mud Club happens on a Saturday morning on a patch of land beside the swings on Clapham Common. It provides a series of sites for children to play, two of which are based on mud. Children, preferably but not necessarily dressed in Wellington boots and a one-piece waterproof suit clamber into a pool of mud and can dig, splash, fill pots with water, pot, walk along a slippery plank, or do whatever they want. There are no rules at the Mud Club (apart from each child must be accompanied by an adult), but the resulting anarchy is the most tremendous fun. We watched a child of about 18 months covered in mud slide with glee into the water at the centre of the mud patch. Another child slapped his spade on the water splashing everybody, while another small boy took a swig of mud from his spoon.
One of the most popular sites is the small muddy pond that has frogs. Children surround the pool with sticks, trying to poke the frogs, which seem remarkably unbothered.
A table is filled with dishes, saucepans, and tea pots. Children crowded around the table mix all sorts of potions and poor them from one pot to another. Another site features painting, only with water not paint. Alexander painted a whole plank.
There are several sites for digging piles of woodchip. Spades and wheelbarrows are provided. Children fill the wheelbarrows, wheel them away, and dump the woodchips wherever they want. One child finds two worms and calls other children to see them. Alexander is impressed but thinks they are “nakes.”
Two tables provide water play and are very busy. Alexander likes filling a pot with water, pouring it into an elaborate arrangement of drainpipes, and watching it flow down. He finds a point where he can make a primitive waterwheel turn.
There are two tents, one a wigwam and the other a long tent open at both ends that children can crawl through. At another site frying pans hang from a line and can be banged. Surprisingly no child is banging the frying pans. I long to have a go, but Lin restrains me.
There must have been 50 children at the club, which runs from 10.30 to 12. We are there for more than 90 minutes and during that time I hear only one child cry–when he hits his head on a wooden swing. Nor are there any fights or disputes, somehow the children agree a set of rules that means everybody has fun and nobody is upset. Perhaps it’s the sheer range of possibilities, more than can be experienced in 90 minutes. This is the Communist land of surfeit imagined by Marx, although it looks more like joyous anarchy.
I met the man, David, who created the club and asked him where he got the idea. Surely he must have copied it from somewhere. But no: rather he followed children around and watched what they liked to do–and then devised the range of sites and activities. I wish I’d ever imagined to create something so original and joyous.