Working with kids, from early childhood to now

Slinging mud at walls: A lovely woman named Caz Phillips just sent this photo of a project she did with a school in Sussex, UK, in 2010

Since the first edition of Dig Your Hands in the Dirt, the number of teachers slinging mud at schools has grown — probably exponentially. I would love to collect new photos and projects for the next edition. If you’re making beautiful things with kids, mud, and/or communities, please do get in touch, and/or post your project and pictures.

“Play is serious business, “as Erik Erickson said — and as anyone knows who has played their way out of childhood. What better medium than mud to restore to work our starved capacities for celebration, for joy, for sharing and cooperation — all the things that we first learned at play?

— Kiko Denzer

Earth Oven builders in Ecuador, Manuel (10), Juan Carlos (6)

manuel:juancarlosA builder in Alaska sent me this story about an earth oven she built in Ecuador, with two helpers. At the ages of 10 and 6, they are clearly competent. Margaret writes:

Winters in Kodiak were beginning to get to me.  I had it in mind to snow goose it away in a warmer climate for the coldest, darkest part of winter.  Alan and his girlfriend, Loretta were due to get married on their farm [in Ecuador].  They invited me to the wedding.  And so I went.

I had always said to Allan that if I did ever get to Ecuador then I would build them an oven.  What a fine wedding present that would be ……

The boys were on holiday from school and I guess curious as to what this strange white woman was doing scrabbling around the local countryside in search of flat sided rocks with which to build the platform for the oven.  Every day the family would join us and we’d pile into Alan’s little truck and go in search of the perfect rocks.

When it came time to start the actual build, Manuel and Juan Carlos became cherished members of the work force.  Every morning they would be waiting patiently either by the front door or the growing pile of rocks.  We marked out foundation and began to dig.  Then came mixing the mortar and choosing which rock would go where.  Manuel and Juan Carlos were by now so a part of the build that it was only natural that they would be participating at every stage.  We didn’t share the same language so everything was shown by example.  I showed how best to select the rocks and how to set them on top of each other being careful to span the join of the rocks they were covering.  The boys caught on very quickly.  Manuel and Juan Carlos working as a team, choosing very carefully which rock was going to go where, disregarding any they didn’t feel fitted ‘quite right’.  They soon learnt that the long, thin rocks that I had rejoiced so much when found were the ‘tie’ stones and they understood straight away the principal.

With the platform came the mess.  At the end of every session came clean up.  Both boys armed with wire brushes and scrubbers happily plugged away, still not realizing or conceptualizing quite what it was that we were building but getting into it just the same.

man:juanCThen came the oven itself.  The family were now thoroughly absorbed in the whole process so when the word got out that we needed clay and sand and granular finings, materials began to pour in.  Including some very, very much sort after red clay that came from one particular far off mountain.

And so the mixing began.

Friends and neighbors flocked.  It wasn’t long before everything in the near vicinity became coated, caked and splodged with the gooey red clay.

I helped the boys make the form which they patted until smooth and firm to the touch.  When it came to starting the actual oven itself, it was very obvious that the boys were desperately keen to stay in on the action.  Things there on in happened very naturally.  Manuel adopted the post of ‘ Head Oven Builder’ and Juan Carlos and myself as his chief apprentices and tenders.

man:juanC2I saw in both boys the blossoming pride and sense of achievement at the end of each stage of the build.  I saw their dedication and commitment to do their best at every turn and their willingness to see each stage through even though it sometimes got late and it was obvious that they were tired.

When it came time to carve out the door and dig out the cavity, Manuel automatically assumed the job and the responsibility be his and rightly so.  I stood back, silent, hardly daring to breath, nerves stretched to breaking point as I watched Manuel began to confidently scoop out the sand form.   I watched as without any word of instruction, Juan Carlos positioned himself with the squeaky, old, rusty, lopsided wheelbarrow to take away the sand that was coming out.

manuel2Between them, Manuel and Juan Carlos designed and built the rim around the oven door, Manuel making sure over and over that the door be a perfect fit, which it was…..

Oh, the boys were so proud when we lit the first small fire.  We kept it going off and on for a couple of days and then we fired it up proper.  And of course, it was Manuel with the help of his younger brother who fed it until it was a smokeless flaming blaze of molten orange and red.

The boys are older now.  But by all accounts still passionately proud and fond of their oven …… the oven that they built. They have reportedly assumed propiety rights to attending and baking in the oven!  And word is that both  boys have baking down to a fine art!

Cardboard dulcimers at summer Camp

boy&dulcimerThanks to the folks at Farm and Wilderness camps, here’s a lovely video of one of the campers and his new “axe,” and more pix of music-making campers on FB, here.

To make your own, download a pdf of the book, Make a Ray Jacobs Rocky Mountain Dulcimer, here. The paper version is on sale through the HP bookstore.

My brother went to the Farm & Wilderness Camps in Vermont when he was a kid. Now his daughter is the camper, he helps out teaching woodwork. I sent him the dulcimer book, and he helped about a dozen musicians make their own instruments, not just campers, but counselors as well. I hope the idea will get passed around. The sound is so good, and they’re so easy to make. If you like it, please do share the download freely — it’s published under a creative commons license to support sharing.

Hug Hut at Muddy Creek School, Philomath

Muddy Creek charter school in Philomath commissioned this mud project as the initial step in creating an “outdoor classroom.” All 60 kids, K-5, participated in 2 days of playdough brainstorming and design, and six days of mud. Parents and neighbors contributed random prunings of willow, fruitwood, and forsythia that we wove into a rough hut; the mud came up out of a hole in the ground, and we ended up making a lovely cob bench and this “hug hut.”

The hut was designed to “last” for just one winter, and then get torn down so new students could make their own — instead of taking care of someone else’s work. I am trying to convince teachers and parents to replace or augment academically defined “art curriculae” with a culture of creativity, where every year, not only will individual students get to “express themselves” and “make things,” but all school citizens may share in re-making the school as a warm, inviting place to live and learn. The foundation of all culture is not the things we make—why burden future generations with mandatory maintenance and obedience to a single vision?—rather, let’s pass on the skills and stories by which our children can live and celebrate their own lives in joyous relation to the lives and stories of those who went before them.

The hug arrived completely unplanned and uninvited—perhaps it was a response to the uninviting “no trespassing” sign that marks the boundary between the playground and the adjoining property (just visible in the upper right corner of the photo above).

The source of our inspiration was this fuzzy, lumpy, perforated pile of mud that pretty much followed whatever shape the underlying sticks gave us. The finished hug was a bit of a surprise, but once we saw it, it was clear what we needed to do: Spike defined the regal roman nose on the yellow figure, and all we had to do to bring the red figure to life was outline the head, and clarify the eyes, nose and mouth. The arms were there—they just needed hands…

We started with homemade playdough, and as many ideas as we had kids.

The idea of a small, enclosed space was popular with at least half the kids, each of whom applied their own  embellishments, sculptural shapes, and stories.

We looked at all the work and considered our options, given a short time frame and limited materials…

The first four sticks seemed impossibly mobile and indefinite, but every additional stick lent strength and shape to the growing form…

leaves on the sticks helped define the shape and fill in the gaps…

but the bigger gaps made for nice windows, both large and small…

There were a few kids who really didn’t take to the mud, but we had other jobs, like stripping the bark off trees that were donated for a “challenge walk”—balance beams that will be set on blocks to mark out the edges of the playground, provide for shady seating on hot days, and a path from here to there…

Most got dirty, and when they did, they got happier, too!

The bench takes shape under expert hands. I’ll be curious to learn how many kids make mud at home this summer…

The hut takes shape…

The principal: not sure she wants that kind of hug…

In addition to books and desks for every student, this school also provides shovels, wheelbarrows, and other real tools suitable for doing real work.

Parents and other community volunteers make such projects possible; there are always more details and more work than one person can manage alone.

Many hands…

Light work…

applying color: both red and yellow are local soils mixed with water and just a bit of cooked flour paste for binder.

The finished bench, with concrete cap.

Cutting rebar for setting the beams of the challenge walk… The kids devised the clever system for clamping the metal while cutting.

The nature of childhood, it seems to me, is to seek shelter and observe the rest of the world. Such observation is the basis for all other learning.

And shouldn’t shelter feel like a hug?

The earth embraces us, in a mud hut, on an earthen bench, or in a circle of stumps.

Hawaiian School Garden oven

Mud ovens in Hawaii:

“These bricks, stacked and left to dry for about 2.5 weeks, are the start of a future earth oven at the campus’ Ulumau School Garden. The oven will be used by HPA (Hawaii Preparatory Academy) students, staff and their ohana to bake breads and pizzas, as well as to cook vegetables grown on site, said Koh Ming Wei, HPA’s sustainability curriculum facilitator.”

“HPA’s Hawaiian studies teacher Kuwalu Anakalea appreciated how the process included everyone’s mana. For her, the oven will serve more than tantalizing delectables. It cooks up a sense of community and value for building techniques by indigenous cultures, she said.”

New Community Oven in New Jersey

HANDS stands for Housing and Neighborhood Development Services. They work out of Orange, New Jersey to try and reclaim dilapidated houses and other “eyesore properties,” and return them to the neighborhood as affordable homes and community assets. They also work with individual people and neighborhoods, and are creating an Arts District in a former industrial area called the Valley. A recent Google Alert brought in notice of a new community oven they built, and the following story from their quarterly report:

It started as a dream idea of our Executive Director, Pat Morrissy: “Let’s build a community outdoor, wood fired oven where people can bring bread and pizza dough to bake together outside!” The idea caught on and the Earth Oven was begun. A local student of landscape architecture drew a plan, the proprietor of a brick oven pizzeria consulted on the design and a local expert on building with mud scouted the best place to dig for clay soil. The Earth Oven was built by community volunteers of all ages who have taken part in the cement mixing and pouring, constructing the base, mixing the mud with their bare feet, creating the structure with sand and building the dome.

Oven “founders,” from left, are:
Jessica Mathelier
Patricia Rogers
Dan Richer
Molly Rose Kaufman
Anj Ferrara
Stephen Pansci
Jonathan Foster

For more of their marvelous story, go to

Mural Video, student-made, Woodburn High, 2005

School murals / the joys of mud

Murals offer a quick and dirty way to introduce a school to the joys of mud. Unlike play sculptures and benches, they require no foundation, minimal prep, and not much mud, either.

photo by Ryan Gardiner

The typical approach to murals demands a narrative theme — on my first one, I suggested “creation and the four elements” (we were working with earth, air, fire (sun), and water, after all…).

It worked fine with the kids, who made something that looked much better than the industrial brick wall under it. Some parents got a bit worked up, but by the time I heard about it, a creative volunteer had welcomed them to teach an impromptu unit on comparative religion.

On the next mural I took inspiration from the women of Basutholand in South Africa, whose work I’d seen in the book, African Painted Houses, by Gary Van Wyk (these two photos are his, from the book).

Rather than propose a theme, I simply asked the kids to abstract geometric designs from their own drawings of local flora. Then I chose a handful of designs to assemble into a composition that we put on the wall. The process was as simple as the meaning, which came down to the kind of hospitable welcome flowers offer to anyone nearby – and forcing no one to accept a single interpretation of our multi-faceted universe. The result was nearly as beautiful as the plants and flowers that inspired it.

For the women of Basutholand, such murals hold a central place in a long-standing spiritual tradition. Home, and the spaces around it, make sacred vessels that contain and nurture us the way a mother’s dark, enclosing womb nurtures her child. The murals tell a story about how human culture marks the land. In the Basutho language, you don’t say a people are civilized, you say that their land “has lines on it’s face” – that it shows the marks and patterns of working humans who claim their place to satisfy their needs. As the earth answers our work and washes away our marks in an annual cycle of rain and wind, so does it wash away the murals, the making of which becomes an annual rite of renewal and re-connection.

The Basutho example not only offered a unifying theme that avoided divisive questions about “teaching religion in schools,” it also offered potential solutions to two other problems with making art in schools. The first one revolves around the tenuous place of the arts in school curriculae. By treating them as ancillary to reading, math, and science, schools deny Aristotle’s truth that “what we learn to do, we learn by doing.” Murals and other large-scale art projects, however, focus the entire community on a theme common to all, and provide a golden opportunity to crystallize individual lessons by shaping them into a shared story.

Student can work out design ideas and get familiar w/materials by working on a scrap of sheetrock — which they can take home.

The second problem is that art creates storage and maintenance problems. The substantial physical products of student work either have to be small enough for students to take home, or “good” enough to warrant a permanent spot on a wall and a long-term allowance in the annual maintenance budget. But it’s easy to convince most people that murals made of mud will be not only beautiful, but also impermanent, easy to “wash away,” and low-maintenance. Experience proves these to be true. The murals age well. The more exposed ones wear away slowly under the action of wind and rain or little fingernails, until it’s time to wash them away – and then they’re simply gone.

Students at the McKinley School in Salem, OR work on a mural of their own design

The greatest opportunity of such murals, however, poses challenges and rewards much greater than “teaching religion.” By far the greatest success would be to transplant the arts into the perennial culture of the school by making of them an annual rite, like the Basutho renewal of their house murals. Many schools make a rite of annual sports events or annual class trips or (in Oregon, at least) what they call “outdoor school,” whereby a whole class takes a week at the end of the year to go camping. By making an annual rite of removing and re-making a mural, schools could substantially enrich their local culture. Those who made last year’s mural would train and assist a new team the next year. The entire school could be involved in refining, re-defining, or re-envisioning a theme. Teachers could build enthusiasm and energy for the event by adapting their other curriculae to the shared subject. Students would become teachers, and all would share in developing a local tradition based on real skills and knowledge. And there would be far fewer divisive questions about committing the entire community to one permanent and eternal piece of art because every year would provide a new group the opportunity to tell the same story in their own way. And finally, the matter and spirit of the earth itself would take its rightful place as both source and symbol of eternal renewal. Old mud can be made new simply with the addition of water. Or it can be returned, usefully and joyfully, to the ground out of which it came. Either one would celebrate, beautifully, the same, essential truth.

here’s a gallery of murals; click on the thumbnail to see the entire photo:

Dig Your Hands in the Dirt: A Manual for Making Art out of Earth

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As you might suspect, a book with this title features many photos of barefoot kids happily stomping in the mud. Mud huts and mud pies conjure up pictures of primitive peoples and childish pleasures. But then you realize that the kids aren’t in Africa, but in Washington DC, Chicago, Portland (Oregon), and Berlin. And they aren’t all kids!

Looking past the pictures of giddy, muddy fun, here is substantial and serious inspiration and practical lessons for artists, teachers, students, and designers, as well as builders interested in natural materials like adobe (and, more recently, it’s British counterpart, “cob.”)

The book begins with a color section of stunning murals based on traditional south African pattern design, a monumental labyrinth and sundial, a whole earthen park (in Berlin), large-scale sculpted benches and structures, model villages and even tiny bird-houses of mud sculpted on woven frames. In Portland, Oregon, earthen art has become part of a city-wide strategy for building community. In Berlin, earth-artist Rainer Warzecha has worked with kids over ten years to fill a whole park with earthen sculptures as big as small houses.

A comprehensive technical section spells out the details of finding the right mud and mixing it in more ways than you can cook eggs. Photos, captions, and illustrations provide many explanatory examples. Extensive resources offer sources for further study.

Between the technical and the inspirational is a chapter on “design as process and pattern” that begins with the claim that “art is a social activity.” Given the preceding photos and stories, it’s hard to argue, but for those to whom the creative process is a mystery, Denzer offers a simple approach for building common goals and vision. Then, with illustrated examples from his own work, he explains how to translate simple, natural (and easy to draw) patterns into sophisticated and complex designs that transform bland and anonymous modern buildings into real places to shelter real communities.

Now the photos take on a new significance. Simple “decoration” really can change the spaces where people live and work. And the experience of changing their environment can also change people – as Denzer relates in several compelling stories about teaching in institutions around his home state of Oregon.

Here in the dirt is a democratic material by which to make serious and beautiful art, and a democratic process for creative collaboration. Rather than “art for art’s sake,” Denzer aims at communal beauty, beyond the rarefied atmosphere of galleries and criticism. Art is, he says, “experience by which humans learn.” Beauty is fundamental principle that connect us to the world we live in. “Finding and claiming beauty,” writes Denzer, “is a fundamentally positive act that helps unite a fragmented world, and makes sense of harsh and confusing realities….Art helps join us, harmoniously, to a whole.”

Brief, elegant, wonderfully and generously illustrated with drawings and 32 pages of color photos, and very affordable, at $12.95, this is a book for teachers, parents, builders, artists, and kids of all ages.

  • a book for teachers, parents, builders, artists, and kids of all ages
  • synthesizes craft, beauty & inspiration with practical ideas that build awareness, skills, knowledge, and confidence
  • instructions make lo-budget art into a practical option for anyone
  • real world insights demonstrate how beauty can make things better
  • simple, lo-tech methods open the border between art and architecture

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Advance Praise for Dig Your Hands in the Dirt: A Manual for Making Art our of Earth:

I love this book! Kiko Denzer is an imaginative teacher with a great sense of design who clearly inspires children to create beauty from the humblest of all art materials–mud! Just reading his exercises makes you want to get right down into it. Every grade school teacher should seize on this book to enrich their students’ lives.
– Dr. Betty Edwards, Professor Emerita in art, California State University, & author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

This is a manual on how to create low budget public art with earth. Rather than a cookie cutter approach, it offers a fascinating process to help you see and understand pattern in nature. The resulting designs are utterly consistent with the process of natural design. It’s an invaluable and unique tool. Use it to involve kids, families, and schools in positive change.
– Ianto Evans, author of The Hand Sculpted House, co-owner/founder of Cob Cottage Co. and N. American School of Natural Building, landscape architect, and teacher.

This book…teaches practical skills that empower children to create everything from playgrounds to school walls using the simplest of methods…. [A]dults will be inspired…, and will find the technical information useful…. With engaging text and evocative photos and drawings, Kiko shows us how to build with nature and community. …the best book on doing art with community that I have ever seen. I found it an inspiration.
– Joseph F. Kennedy, architect, teacher, & editor of Building Without Borders & The Art of Natural Building

…an excellent tool for anyone who is interested in the design and creation of ecological art and places, in natural building, and in working creatively with children of every age.
– Mark Lakeman, architect, founder/director of City Repair

…Everyone becomes an artistin a creative group process that teaches design, application, architecture, and cooperation using the first art we all love: MUD PIES!”
– Ann Wiseman, teacher, & author of Making Things

[T]he mud wall mosaics….are stunning, transforming hostile barren school walls into somewhere you might actually want to spend time…. [Earth] is a remarkable material, and Dig Your Hands in the Dirt is a very useful resource of ideas and possibilities…. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
– Rob Hopkins, The Hollies Centre For Practical Sustainability, Ireland.

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wheat harvest





boys, their cousins (and Uncle) from England all helping — for a few minutes, at least. Won’t know yields until I get the grain threshed and winnowed. It looks better than the past few efforts, but still not the 300 pounds I was aiming for when I fenced off the 3,000 sq. ft.