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Water Play: Wet and Wonderful
By Angie Dorrell, M.A.

Splish, splash, bubble, bubble, pop! Water play, both indoor and outdoor, is a unique activity for children because it’s always available, open-ended, and provides opportunities for extended learning. The following ideas, written for preschoolers, will give you more detailed information about the creative learning that takes place during water play, hints for easy water play, and ideas for fun outdoor water activities, many of which can be adapted to indoor experiences.

All They’re Doing Is Splashing, Right?
Wrong! Water play fosters learning in all developmental areas. It provides opportunities for children to experiment with math and science concepts, strengthen their physical skills, advance their social and emotional skills, and enhance language development (Crosser, 1994; Hendrick, 1996).

Problem-Solving Skills. As children manipulate water play materials, they begin to understand why and how things happen. For example, given sinking and floating objects, a child will soon discover that just because something is large in size does not mean it will sink.

Math. Children begin to understand and experiment with concepts such as more/less, same/different, many/few, empty/full, before/after, greater than/less than, and counting (Crosser, 1994). Science.Water gives children an avenue to contemplate issues such as: What makes rain? Where does water come from? What makes mud? (James & Granovetter, 1987). Children also learn physics principles such as the effects of force (increasing the water flow through increased force); effects of gravity (water runs downhill); and change in state (solid, liquid, gas).

Physical Development. Water play encourages the development of eye/hand coordination through pouring, squeezing, stirring, painting, scrubbing, and squirting. Children strengthen their gross motor skills by running, dodging water drops, and hopping through a sprinkler. They widen their sensory experiences as they put their hands in different textures (gritty, squishy, and slimy) and different temperatures (warm, cool, and cold) (Hendrick, 1998).

Social and Emotional Development. Water play is one of the most relaxing activities children can experience. After all, many adults relax in a warm bubble bath or hot shower! Water play relieves tension by encouraging children to release their emotions with pouring, pounding, and swooshing. In addition, social skills expand as children play cooperatively; negotiate; and share equipment, space, and materials.

Language Development. Children learn new vocabulary such as sieve, funnel, eggbeater, stream, bubbly, moisture, and evaporation. Water play is such a meaningful experience for young children that it can be extended to writing experiences as well. Children may draw pictures of sprinkler play, then dictate a description or story to the teacher. Another valuable writing experience involves the teacher writing down children’s predictions, such as how long it will take ice cubes to melt in the sand box or how many babies one batch of soapy water will wash.

Creative Development. Water encourages children to use their imagination. As the children play, they may pretend that they work at a car wash or live in a castle. Water also encourages children to try out new ideas and solutions to problems in a safe environment.

Tips for Successful Water Play
Because of its perceived mess, water play is not always encouraged in the early childhood curriculum. However, just as with any other worthwhile activity, a little planning and foresight considerably reduces the mess. The following tips will make activities involving water fun, yet easy to manage and clean up.

  • If parents need to bring in special items, communicate with them a few days before the activity. Provide extra items as needed, so every child can participate.
  • Every child and teacher should have a complete change of clothes.
  • If the weather permits, wear swimsuits and allow hosing off for easy clean up. Otherwise, supply plastic smocks or aprons to protect clothing.
  • Apply sunscreen to everyone before going outside. Reapply often. (This may require special permission slips. Check with your state regulatory agency.)
  • Offer indoor and outdoor water play often. Limiting water play to one “water day” a week doesn’t offer the children enough exploratory opportunities.
  • On very warm days, offer water play under shade as well as in the sun.
  • Provide a dry area where the children can lie in the sun or wrap up in towels to dry.
  • Stop outdoor water play in time for children to dry off before going outside.
  • Even with all the water around, don’t forget to offer plenty of drinking water to the children. For a nice change, have the children squeeze lemon juice into candy or ice cube molds. Freeze the juice. After it’s frozen, have the children place one or two cubes in cups (write their names on the cups), and fill with water. Add one or two sugar cubes. As the juice cubes melt, the children will have homemade lemonade!
  • Use large plastic containers or buckets to store water play accessories.
  • Always dump the water out of any containers before coming inside.
Outdoor Water Play Ideas
Listed below are some outdoor dramatic play themes as well as a list of suggested play materials.
  • Fun in the Sun– Add water to the sandbox, towels, beach bags, containers for sand molding, child-size beach chairs, and sunglasses.
  • Bath Time– Warm, sudsy water, clear water, dish tubs or water table, washable baby dolls, washcloths, bath toys, and towels.
  • Bakery– Sand or mud, dirt, water, pie tins, plastic spoons, plastic knives, craft sticks, grass, small sticks, leaves, and cottonwood.
  • Firefighter– Water, hats, boots, gloves, windbreakers, garden hoses or plastic tubing, and buckets.
  • Paint Shop– Buckets of water, different sizes of brushes used to paint houses, rollers, sidewalk, walls, fence, etc.
Water Table Add-Ins
The water table is not just for indoor play. Bring it outdoors or use any large plastic container the children can reach into or a small plastic wading pool placed on a low table. Try adding some of these materials to water to expand children’s learning.
  • Sand or aquarium rocks, scoops, water play animals
  • Squirts of detergent, kitchen utensils such as wooden spoons, eggbeaters, slotted spoons, plastic ladles, sieves
  • Dirt or sand for islands, some water, plastic trees, waterproof manipulatives
  • Add scent to the water with extracts and small amounts of food coloring that corresponds with the scent. For example, red food coloring with peppermint scent and yellow food coloring with pineapple extract. Add appropriate props: On pineapple day, add real and pretend fruit; on red day add only red items.

Angie Dorrell, M.A., serves as a NAEYC accreditation validator and former commissioner. She is the proud mother of two young daughters.

Recommended Resources
Crosser, S. (1994). Making the most of water play.Young Children (July): 28-32.

Hendrick, J (1996).The whole child: Developmental education for the early years.Columbus, OH: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

James, J.C. and Granovetter, R.F. (1987).Waterworks: A new book of water play activities for children ages 1 to 6.Lewisville, NC: Kaplan.

MacDonald, S (1998).Everyday discoveries: Amazingly easy science and math.Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.

Miller, K. (1989).The outside play and learning book.Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.

Schiller, P. (1997). Brain development research: Support and challenges. Child Care Information Exchange (September): 6-10.