Park and recreation professionals are searching for more cost-efficient ways to build outdoor playgrounds that promote children’s physical activity, connect them with nature and attract more users to parks. Aside from installing the traditional “post-and-deck” playground, utilizing unused or vacant land in the park to develop a unique mud obstacle run for kids may be an alternative. “Mud University” is one such effort that has transformed some of this underutilized space to provide a temporary outdoor playground for children and youth.
Mud obstacle running — sometimes referred to as obstacle course racing or OCR — is a relatively new phenomenon whereby participants complete a series of obstacles or challenges during a run that often, although not always, includes mud. Some of the more famous examples of mud runs include Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and the Spartan Race.
OCRs are a big business. For example, from 2010 to 2013, Tough Mudder had more than 1 million participants. At approximately $60 to $150 per entrant, the potential revenue is significant, and there are few indications of this trend in participation stopping anytime soon. So, if such courses are big business, why shouldn’t parks and recreation areas cash in, too?
Until recently, mud obstacle running was an adult-only event. Yes, sections of the course might include an option for kids, but little effort has been made by these established mud-run companies to offer such experiences specifically to children and youth. This is surprising, given that mud and kids seem to be such a commonsense match. That changed in 2014, with the arrival of Mud University in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Mud University, with the slogan “Fun in the First Degree,” was developed to encourage children and youth to get outside and be physically active in a fun natural environment. The first Mud U was held in April 2014 at Lake McMurtry in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a publicly owned recreational area. Over the course of two days, 533 children aged between 6 and 13 completed the 15-obstacle course, which measured 1-1.5 miles depending on the participant’s age. With the success of the inaugural Mud U, an additional fall event was offered, but with a 50 percent increase in participation to more than 800 kids. Interestingly, more than 200 of the inaugural participants returned to complete the second event.
Mud U required an enormous amount of management and organization, but several steps were implemented to ensure that the two events ran smoothly and safely. First, to avoid saturating the course, participants chose a particular wave time on either of the days. Waves were limited to 10 participants, which helped to alleviate congestion on the course. Second, volunteers were recruited and placed throughout the course to assist participants where needed. In these events, parents were not permitted on the course, as one aim was to encourage participants to work together. Therefore, the use of volunteers was vital to Mud U’s success. Third, participants and their respective adult were required to wear matching wristbands bearing the adult’s cellphone number to be used in the event of an emergency.
Use of Resources
Mud U provides an example of how an underutilized area can be transformed into an extremely popular outdoor playground. In this case, the course was developed using some of the bike trails already in existence, deviating from them at times. Some of the obstacles were erected near but off of the trail, in order to avoid disturbing the trail itself. Example obstacles included a mud pit, climbing net, log walk and a rope bridge. An unused hayfield provided a location to include a variety of different obstacles including shooting an oversized slingshot at a target, climbing over hay bales, running and hopping through a tire course, walking on planks as a team, and finding a coin in a mud puddle. Finally, when participants had completed the course, the lake was conveniently available for them to wash off.
Almost all of the structures used for obstacles were made from the surrounding resources. Cedar trees were cut down to create fencing and obstacles. This helped to keep the initial cost of building the obstacles reasonably low. Water-based obstacles were developed from natural ponds and gullies within the terrain. Less construction meant less environmental damage and time needed to deconstruct the course after the event.
How each park organizes a children’s mud run might differ — in this case, the collaboration between Lake McMurtry Friends Inc. (LMF) and Flying Squirrel LLC (FS) was organic. The LLC was initially created to ensure adequate liability insurance. For the first event, an agreement was made between LMF and FS to share in both costs and profits based on initial outlay of expenses, where LMF took the primary financial burden but also received the majority of revenue. Within this agreement, each party was accountable for specific responsibilities. For example, LMF was responsible for physically building the course, securing food options, raising sponsorships and marketing the event. FS was responsible for managing the website, registration, securing photographers and recruiting participants and volunteers.
Following the success of the first event, responsibilities for both parties were re-evaluated. For the second event, LMF was contracted by FS to only carry out course building and event-day responsibilities, and cost and profit sharing did not occur. This worked to the benefit of both parties. LMF was guaranteed a specified income and was able to dedicate more time to its daily park activities. Although FS was burdened with greater responsibilities, profits were not shared.
An outdoor playground need not be a permanent structure, and it is important to consider the benefits of developing a mud obstacle run. If the responsibility of a park is to increase its use, such events do just that. In the above example, it is estimated that more than 3,500 people visited Lake McMurtry specifically for the two Mud U events. Further, using post-evaluation surveys, it was determined that 70 percent of participants and volunteers had never been to Lake McMurtry before, even though 50 percent of them lived within 20 miles of the lake. Therefore, the lake had almost 2,500 new visitors in just four days! This provides evidence that a focus on children’s play can breathe new life into a park or recreational area.
Whether a park should be the primary party responsible for developing, constructing and running an event such as Mud University is open to debate, but based on our own experiences, we recommend that developing a relationship with an outside entity and contracting with them provides the most cost-efficient solution during the economic downturn. However, choosing an outside entity should be carefully considered in terms of long-term environmental impacts and the priorities of the entity. Some of the larger mud-run businesses may be more concerned about profit margins than seeing hundreds of happy smiling faces enjoying the outdoors.
Natural environments provide a dynamic and rugged playground for young park visitors to explore and develop their motor skills, muscle strength and agility. Mud obstacle runs foster team building, leadership and the development of social skills. Progressing through this problem-solving adventure in a safe but challenging natural environment not only strengthens the bond between children and our land, but also helps to develop their self-confidence. Here’s to our next generation raising their gaze from digital devices, going outside and having “Fun in the First Degree” with our outdoor playground!
Timothy Baghurst, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Physical Education in the Program of Health and Human Performance at Oklahoma State University. I-Chun “Nicky” Wu, Ph.D., is a Research Professional at Oklahoma State University in the Leisure Studies Program.