Water play is a fantastic sensory experience for young children and provides plenty of nuanced opportunities to learn through play.
This article covers why it’s so valuable, along with some ideas to help rejuvenate your water play provision, such as adding new liquids, exploring floating and sinking, and even a recipe for glow-in-the-dark water.
Since the dawn of time itself, children have played with water.
OK, well since the dawn of early years education at the very least. Water play is a hugely popular part of many early years settings, and it’s easy to see why.
Sensorily stimulating, naturally fascinating – it’s a fantastic resource that can be used to extend learning in all sorts of directions.
But like any popular piece of your continuous provision, it’s also easy for your water play area to be neglected. So if you’re feeling like it’s time for a refresh, down below you’ll find some great ideas to help you rejuvenate your water play. But first, a refresh on what makes water play so magical in the first place.
Why do children enjoy water play?
One of water play’s main benefits is its sensory nature. The feeling of exploring water can stimulate nerve endings in children’s hands and bodies, giving them constant sensory feedback.
This, in turn, increases brain stimulation, which can often lead to more concentrated play, the perfect state for deep learning to be going on. While certain activities like splashing, jumping in or squirting water can be more exhilarating, it’s often something that children find calming too.
Just like how we can get some much-needed relaxation time from a bath or swim, younger children often find running their hands through the water, pouring or exploring it in other ways to be a calming experience. All this makes it a great candidate for focused, more solitary play, as well as a cooperative activity.
What is water play?
Although often done inside a large water tray at a child’s level, water play doesn’t have to be just that. In general, it describes any opportunity that your environment gives children to play and explore water. It could also be things like:
Water squirters (a great way to introduce early mark-making)
Jumping in puddles
Playing with chutes, or guttering
Exploring ice and snow
Seeing how different liquids behave or mix with water
Pouring and scooping
With the right provision in place, It’s something that babies and preschoolers alike can enjoy and learn from.
The benefits of water play
This natural propensity for water play amongst our youngest is also part of the reason why it provides so many opportunities for development, right the way across the spectrum of development.
Questions to help you audit your water play provision
The best (and only) way to make impactful change to your water play provision is to start with observations. That’s all an audit really is – looking at and understanding what’s going on right now, and making some decisions about what needs to change.
Take some time to see how children are interacting with the environment that you’ve created, and ask yourself some different questions to work out what needs to stay, what needs to go, and what needs to be changed. Things like:
Are some of the resources starting to wear or deteriorate? Should they be replaced or changed?
Are all the resources offering something similar or is there a diverse amount of things that can be explored?
Do all the resources add something to the play, or are some of them being widely ignored?
Do the resources offer enough challenge to the differently-aged children playing with your water play area?
Do all children engage with the area? Do any look bored, disengaged, or avoid it altogether?
Is there curiosity and novelty in the resources that support your water play?
8 ideas to extend development in your water play provision
Now that we’ve clarified how and why water play is so beneficial, let’s take a look at some ways your water play areas could get a spruce up. We’ve trawled the internet for some inspiring ideas, and here are our eight favourites.
In this fantastic set of watery activities from 2012, we particularly liked the first entry, that he calls rainbow rain. It’s all about combining water, shaving foam and food colouring to see fantastical swirls of colour erupt through the shaving foam clouds into the water.
But you don’t need to stop there. Why not think about some other liquids that could be combined with your water play to make interesting textures and effects – oil, milk and all manner of other liquids could be a great chance for children to explore mixing, viscosity and how liquids act differently with each other.
Any practitioner that’s ever come into the bathroom to find overflowing taps and a few sopping wet socks knows that children are fascinated by controlling the flow of water.
One safe (and slightly less floody) way to let them freely explore this is with a water butt. It’s also a great sustainable way to collect rainwater for playing with and watering the plants. The always fantastic Teacher Tom also has a great idea about repurposing an old water pump to let children control the flow of the water they’re playing with.
Of course, another popular way to let children control the flow is to…
3. Build a water wall (or start with some guttering)
As you’ll see from the picture below, building your own water wall isn’t as hard as you might think. And the endless joy and interest that children get from controlling the water as it flows is a joy to see.
If you’re not ready to build (or buy) your own yet, you can start by adding chutes or guttering to your existing water play area, letting children see what happens as they channel the water through the pieces of pipe.
4. Try out sponges and cloths for fine motor control
Adding sponges and cloths to your water provision can be a great way for younger children to develop fine motor control and strengthen those little finger muscles.
At the same time, it’s an interesting experience for them to explore what happens as they squeeze and the water comes out between their fingers. A simple, but effective way to up your water provision for the younger children.
5. Model age-appropriate vocabulary
As with any good, open-ended activity, water play is a fantastic way to model language and vocabulary for engaged, concentrated children.
For the younger children, you could start by talking about the simple actions they’re performing like ‘squeeze’ and ‘pour’, as well as naming some of the objects they’re using.
As the children get older, you can start to use some more scientific or conceptual terms, such as talking about objects being ‘full’ or ‘empty’, or talking about the water ‘flowing’. Once you’ve got the children talking, it’s also a great opportunity for them to practice their communication too, describing their plans, making predictions, or talking you through what they’re doing as they’re doing it.
6. Collect items from a walk and explore whether they float or sink
Out on a nice walk? Why not get the children to pick up things they find, like leaves and pine cones, stones and twigs, and then explore what floats and sinks when you get back?
They might not quite grasp exactly why the two things behave differently (I’ll be honest, it still stumps me), but it’s great fun to guess together and see how they can explore their different ideas about light and heavy, flat and thin with their predictions.
When you’re going through your audit, one thing you might notice is that all of your pourers, scoopers and holders are a little…samey.
Make sure you mix it up by having a bunch of differently-sized containers so that the children can learn about shape and space, and how different containers might take surprisingly difficult amounts (it’s always exciting to see the looks of wonder as a big long thin container carries less than a short flat one).
As an added extra, why not take the time to mark various points on the containers so the children can start to explore concepts like half-full, and further explore the different volumes of the containers.
8. Try out glow-in-the-dark water (yes really)
Another cracker from ABCDoes. To try out this activity, you just need to get your hands on a black light (you can easily find them on Amazon), some highlighter pens, and a few plastic containers.
By colouring the water with the highlighter ink, they’ll glow brilliantly under the black light. In the rest of the post, Alistair has some great ideas for all the different activities you can try with this simple little tool.
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice
Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.
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