Plunging into the creative world of water play

Published on Tuesday, 09 February 2021
Last updated on Monday, 08 February 2021

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Whatever the season there’s always an opportunity for children to have fun with the splish, splosh, splash of water play. With the warm weather in full swing, we’re diving into outdoor play ideas to heighten learning moments and as an opportunity to revisit the key benefits of water play in fostering a child’s development.

Play is one of the most important aspects of a child’s early life and water play is brimming with benefits. Water play offers children the chance to emulate what they see and to practice their skills, it offers an outlet for creativity and experimentation, and helps them learn how to interact and communicate with others. 

A range of creative and sensory experiences emerge from using water in play-based activities, and children are drawn to water as it is an open-ended activity, allowing them to make discoveries and explore possible outcomes. There really is no right way or wrong way to play with water and no finished product that needs to look a particular way. 

In addition, water can offer intentional learning outcomes in areas such as science and math or it can be used in unstructured child-initiated play to foster curiosity, imagination and experimentation. Water provides an inexpensive and wonderful way for children to connect with nature, and its versatility means educators can include a variety of objects to enhance learning such as items from nature, recycled kitchenware, sponges and bubbles.  

Playing with water supports learning across all strands of Te Whāriki, including the exploration strand, where children gain confidence in and control of their bodies, and where they learn strategies for active exploration, thinking and reasoning.

In addition, water play gives children the opportunity to develop useful social skills while playing alongside other children as part of the contribution strand and, where conflicts arise, there are opportunities to practice problem solving. As part of the belonging strand, they develop ideas about the limits and boundaries of acceptable behaviour. 

In 2015, we published the popular article, Enhancing learning through water play, by Dr Sandra Crosser. Detailing play-based learning outcomes, how to set up water play and the role of the teacher, this article highlights key aspects of Dr Crosser’s piece and provides extra fun ideas for educators.

What children can learn from water play

By thoughtfully planning the environment, offering many visible choices, based on the children's skills and needs, educators can foster a child’s learning and development in different areas, including:

  • Cognitive development - Given ample opportunities to manipulate materials in the environment, children build frameworks through which concepts are developed. Key to this is providing time and opportunity for lots of exploration so a child can formulate meaningful concepts. While water play promotes problem-solving and thinking skills in general, it is particularly well suited to the development of concepts in mathematics and science.

  • Mathematical learning - Water play provides an introduction to higher-level thinking concepts like volume through pouring and measuring activities when using appropriate materials.  Children can learn concepts of “more than”, “less than” and “half full”. Counting skills can be enhanced as children count objects in the water or catch fish (not real ones) in a net. 

  • Scientific concepts - Water play leads children to ask questions (Chaille & Britain 1991). What does it do? How can I change it? Curiosity leads to experimentation and developing problem-solving skills. Children become with STEM concepts like motion and flowing water.  Children have the opportunity to make predictions about what objects will sink in the water and which items will float. 

  • Physical skills - There are many opportunities to develop fine and gross motor skills across age ranges. Children increase their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination through actions like pouring, squirting and lifting. Small muscles get a workout as plastic tubes are fitted to funnels, medicine droppers are manipulated and sponges are wrung dry.

  • Sensory exploration - Children learn with hands-on materials and take in new information through their senses.  Sensory experiences can assist some children with calming themselves. 

  • Language development - Young children typically play together in these areas, develop intricate pretend play ideas, and ask one another questions.  These areas also give educators plenty of opportunities to engage children about their creations and pretend play.  Educators can ask children to answer with the most creative responses by starting their conversations with statements like “I wonder what would happen if…” and “Tell me about…” Children learning English as a second language particularly benefit from the language interaction that flows when they work together or side-by-side.

  • Social skills - Water play may be solitary, parallel, associative, or even cooperative play with a group goal. This provides many opportunities for children to learn how to take turns and share.  

What is the role of the educator?

Educators play an important role in water play, both in keeping children safe through supervision and in ensuring that they gain the most out of the water play area. 

Here are some specific guidelines educators should follow when setting up and facilitating sand and water play:

  1. Set up water play in a safe area and reduce the risks of slips and falls.

  2. Structure the play area so children have interesting, challenging, and puzzling materials to stimulate their active play. Rotate materials regularly

  3. Ask open-ended questions, engage in active listening, model the use of new vocabulary, encourage prediction, and thoughtfully observe what children do.

  4. Help children find answers to their questions about sand, water, and other sensory materials through books, websites, and other resources.

  5. From time to time, debrief the children – give them the opportunity to tell others what they did and learned at play.

  6. Occasionally help a few children evaluate their efforts and plan for what they can do next time.

  7. Observe and monitor interactions of children with each other and with the sand, water, or other sensory materials.

The educator’s role also involves communicating to parents the value of developmentally appropriate play (Taylor 1991). Tell parents about the marvellous things their children are learning at your water-play centre. Invite them to visit and observe for themselves the joy and satisfaction children exude as they play and learn. Provide them with ideas on how they can extend the water play experience at home with their child and highlight the important learning benefits.

Water Play Activities 

  • Sink or float experiment  – This easy water play activity is a fun way to teach toddlers and preschoolers how to make predictions and draw conclusions about density and buoyancy. 

  • Water painting – Provide rollers and big paint brushes to paint water on an exposed wall, pathway or fence, or use smaller brushes so kids can practice writing their names or letters.

  • Water wall: Use a few recyclable containers to create this fun STEM activity. With some direction children can learn concepts of gravity, angles and water flow, and it’s a way to keep cool on a hot day.

  • Frozen soup: Freeze coloured water into ice cubes and blocks for some sensory play that allows for many unstructured learning experiences. 

  • Sand and water ocean sensory bin:  Create a mini beach and let the children immerse themselves in imaginative play. Add some ocean creatures and talk about the animals and the world they live in 

  • Creative book play: It’s easy to set up a scenario from a book to create a small world storytelling scene in the water, such as Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale .

Water is a precious resource for learning in the early childhood classroom and outdoor area. And when water play is over, children can learn the valuable lesson of recycling by using the water on the garden to help grow the plants.

References and further reading Enhancing learning through water play  

Childcare Extension: Planning a Successful Sand and Water Center

Ministry of Education: Water play – Korikori wai 

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