The benefits of water play and bucketloads of activities to try

Published on Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Last updated on Monday, 22 February 2021

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Water play provides oodles of fun for children, and it’s a splishy, splashy, sploshy way for under sixes to learn through play.  

A simple tub of H2O provides endless opportunities for your child to observe, experiment, discover and feel. There is pouring, squirting, sponging, bobbing, sieving, melting, swishing and lots more to do, and even though we think of water play as a summery, outdoor activity, it’s easy to set up water play activities indoors and all year round.

Here we look at the benefits of water play in your child’s early years and provide some easy ideas for water-based activities.

How does water play benefit under sixes?

Whether your baby is patting bath bubbles, your toddler is fishing for toys or your preschooler is painting with ice cubes, water play is a great way to hone your child’s physical, cognitive and socio-emotional skills.

Single children, siblings and groups can all engage in water play, and the Ministry of Education says this type of open-ended learning can help your child:

  • Learn to lift, pour and control water, e.g. when they fill and empty measuring cups
  • Learn to concentrate and problem-solve, e.g. when they work out how to make a toy boat sink and then float
  • Understand measuring, estimating and volume, e.g. when they fit one teapot of water into three cups
  • Understand the concepts of empty/full, heavy/light, float/sink and shallow/deep
  • Develop hand-eye coordination, e.g. when they pour water from a jug into a waterwheel, and
  • Learn to share and cooperate with others, e.g. when they take turns using a funnel or work together to build an underwater world in a sensory bin.

Water play can also:

  • Be woven into art projects, e.g. when your child squirts paint from a spray bottle or water pistol
  • Develop your child’s language skills, e.g. when they learn words like ‘sieve’ and ‘whirlpool’
  • Build fine and gross motor skills, e.g. when your child squeezes an eye dropper or runs through a sprinkler, and
  • Encourage pretend play, e.g. when your little one washes dishes in their ‘restaurant’, opens a perfume factory or pretends to be an ocean animal rescuer.

With simple equipment and grown-up supervision, your child can take their water play in the direction that interests them. Different ages can enjoy the same activity in different ways. And, all in all, water play is fun, flexible and educational.

How can parents easily set up a water play activity?

Although there’s the option of filling a paddling pool with pom poms or building a kiddie car wash, a water play station doesn’t need to be large-scale or laborious.

You can simply fill up the bath or put a plastic container on the back deck, and if you have to move the tub inside, then a plastic sheet underneath will contain the spill zone.

When it’s time to add playthings to the water, you can look for equipment around the house, collect materials from outside, or browse the shops for interesting and inexpensive items.

The Ministry of Education suggests:

  • Measuring cups, spoons, whisks, plastic bottles, colanders, sieves and funnels
  • Plastic, wood or metal items that won’t break or rust, e.g. bath toys, foam shapes, wooden blocks or toy cars
  • Sponges, waterwheels and watering cans
  • Squeezy bottles, e.g. shampoo bottles that have been rinsed well
  • Natural items, like driftwood, shells, corks and small stones, plus
  • Soap or detergent to make bubbles

You can create a water play sensory bin on a theme that interests your child, like dinosaurs or mermaids; add an educational dimension with floating alphabet letters, or just let your child relax into scooping and pouring

Some parents add flowers or slices of lemon to a tub of water, and you can also:

How can parents support young children’s water play?

Your child will make independent discoveries as they play with water, but it is important to keep them safe as they do so. This means:

  • Supervising them as they play (even with small volumes of water)
  • Ensuring they’re protected from the sun (with a hat, sunscreen and sun-safe clothes), and
  • Making sure they’re not getting too chilly (you can move water play inside and add warm water in the cooler months).

In terms of learning, the Ministry of Education recommends that you chat about what’s happening as your child plays and encourage them to ask questions and explore.

Now is a great time to dip your toe into this kind of play, so turn on the tap and get creative with H2O!


The Ministry of Education

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