Preschoolers

Water play – Learning isn’t supposed to be this fun

During the hot summer months I’m always reminded of how much children love water. Whether it’s playing with a watering can or splashing around in a kiddy pool, kids clearly have so much fun when they’re around water (and you see it when it’s not summer too of course!  The sink, the tub, or just your glass of water probably elicit similar joy and curiosity.)

But water’s not just fun and sillyness, it’s also a fantastic tool for learning. Children learn through sensory experience: What they taste, smell, hear, and feel develops their understanding of the environment. When children play with water, they are constructing knowledge about the states of matter, buoyancy, trajectory, gravity, solubility and, most importantly, cause and effect.  

These incredible learning opportunities combined with the fact water is cheap and readily available, means that it is always in my toolkit when I’m thinking about easy, stimulating playtime activities.

In this blog I want to share my top tips to help you take full advantage of water, get the most out of the learning opportunities, and hopefully broaden your sense of what water play can look like.

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1). The Materials; Go green and keep it simple

One of the best things about water play is that you can create the most stimulating toys from materials already in the home; empty plastic shampoo containers, spray bottles, sponges, funnels, a turkey baster, measuring cups, mismatched Tupperware (lids or containers), colanders and strainers, tongs, straws, old water hose tubing, brushes, marble run playsets, etc..etc..

Think about:

  • Things that hold water such as bowls, pans and spoons.
  • Things that float and sink such as wine corks, tennis balls, pebbles, and coins, (always being mindful of choking hazards).
  • Things that melt, dissolve and disperse such as ice, salt, and food coloring.
  • Things that manipulate water such as straws, cups, and sponges.

Sometimes you’ll be able to go big and bring the toys into the bathtub or kiddy pool. You could even fill up different sized bins and pots outside with a water hose. Other times you’ll want to keep things more confined and just have a few Tupperware containers or bowls, using a towel as a matt.

These everyday items will become the materials for your child’s explorations, problem-solving and experimentation.

2). The Scientific Method

If you watch a child playing with water, whether they’re a toddler or a child of elementary age, you’ll see them constructing their own simple experiments.  By doing this they will, of course, learn the practical knowledge of water and physics, but even more significantly, this play encourages the natural inclination toward the scientific method. Your child is learning how to test their ideas about the world around them, to observe, and to problem solve – all while working independently and happily in your own backyard or bathtub, or over a towel with bins and bowls on your kitchen floor.

Don’t go overboard with the materials: Overwhelming the space with too many tools can actually hinder creative experimentation. Stick to a single process or action: pouring, transferring, dissolving, melting, floating versus sinking, and select materials for this particular exploration.

Finally, make sure you have plenty of time as water play works best when your child has the space to work at their own pace and follow their own curiosities. As they spend time with the materials you’ve chose you may be able to see their experiments develop, showing the learning that’s happening.  This time to experiment will also build their sense of autonomy, helping them feel confident and capable. And of course, if you spend a bit of time setting up an engaging water play activity that they can do alone you’ll have time to be able to do the 100 other things you need to do! (Or maybe just relax :)

3). Mix It Up; Think of all the Senses

Water play can be so much more than splashing around if you think about how to engage different senses. Get creative!

Touch and motor development. For younger children, put a tray on the kitchen table, fill it with ice, and give your child some tongs or just let them use their hands. For older children (say 4 years onwards), buy a few pipettes. They’re great for fine motor development (necessary for writing) and easy as part of smaller-scale water play.

Visual.  Grab a container of water and paintbrushes and let your kids draw on cement; they’ll be learning motor skills for drawing and observing the evaporation. Another idea; using small jars with pipettes a child can experiment with mixing different solutions: For example, one jar filled with cooking oil, another with water, another with water and food coloring, or with a variety of colors.  In general, just a little bit of food coloring in any water play can go a long way!

Sounds. Fill different jars with different amounts of water and let your child tap them with a spoon, or for older children fill bottles and make your own mini wind section of an orchestra.

4). Interacting together; Scaffold the learning

If the fun of the water play is enticing for you too, then it’s a great opportunity for you to play alongside your child and watch how they interact with the world around them. You can scaffold their learning by narrating their play, or by modeling your own experiments.  

  • You can help them with new vocabulary: e.g. “It’s floating.
  • You can ask questions:  “I wonder if this will float, too?” , “What happens to the salt?”
  • You can state your observations: “This feels cold/smooth/warm/rough.”

Don’t take the lead though. Let them lead their learning as they will be more engaged and therefore learn more. They’ll also feel seen and validated, and there’s no greater motivation than that!

So next time you’re stuck for an activity that’s fun and a great learning tool, think about being creative with water play and think about making a MESS

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