Water is one of the most basic raw materials for play. It’s readily available, open-ended, and developmentally appropriate. There is no right or wrong way to engage in it. Water can spark curiosity, imagination, and experimentation.
So, when it’s 80 degrees this summer and your kids want to get out, throw on their swimsuits and SPF because we’re going for a dip.
Developmental Pros of Water Play
Sensory Processing and Motor Skills
Toddlers engage with their surroundings through active exploration and cause-and-effect, using all their senses. Water provides a safe tactile experience, allowing children to learn about temperature (hot, warm, cool, cold). When different materials and textures are added, we explore what is hard, soft, squishy, slimy, slippery, etc. Water can also be soothing as it has a soft feel and comforting sound.
As they grow, gross and fine motor skills develop as well as hand-eye coordination. Children use large muscles when running and jumping through sprinklers, filling and pouring buckets of water, or throwing water balloons. Small muscles are utilized when children playing using medicine droppers, squeezing bottles, pouring water from cup to cup, and wringing out sponges. Eye-hand coordination can be addressed by using tools to retrieve submerged objects or to manipulate water (tongs, fingers, whisks, squirt toys, etc).
As children manipulate water, they can observe its properties and interactions with other objects. They may notice certain items like paper or twigs float, while rocks and sand sink. This play encourages them to use imagination and critical thinking.
When children play, they use and learn language naturally. Water play introduces new words, such as drenched, soaked, splash, flow, damp, or wet. Water play also allows for conversation about what they are doing, feeling, and seeing. Being completely soaked outside with clothes on is a very different sensation compared to bath time.
In addition to creativity, kids learn social skills with water play. They discover what happens when they collaborate on ideas and materials, being considerate of space and needs of others when playing in the sprinkler, or sliding down a Slip ‘n Slide, or playing tag with water cannons.
Water play also releases energy, which can be both revitalizing or relaxing. Activities that are repetitive, like scooping and pouring out water, or jumping in and climbing out of the pool, can increase their focus and also help them relax and organize their thoughts.
Science and Math Development
Playing with water lays the foundation for understanding certain scientific and mathematical concepts. They start counting, learning measurement and volume (full, half-full, half-empty, empty), detecting motion (fast, slow, linear, circular), and noticing changes in states of matter (solid, liquid, gas). They also begin to understand basic gravity. All these observations provoke curiosity, questions, and experimentation within their environment.
How many ways can we water play?
- Let your child lead. When it comes to water, your child will know what they want to do. It may be just throwing rocks in a nearby creek or pretending to be a mermaid. Follow their interest and ask them questions about it. Being present when they play lets them know that you value them and their ideas.
- If water is involved, let them help. Water play can be everywhere and anywhere. Let them participate in household tasks that require water, like watering the plants, washing the car, or giving the dog a bath.
- Make it year-round (if possible). In Norway, they say there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. Outdoor water play can happen any time. If it’s raining, let them put on a raincoat and galoshes and they can run outside and find puddles to jump in. Snow is also considered water, so in addition to making snowmen and sledding, bring snow inside and melt it, or make snow creams and slushies (just use fresh, clean snow).
- Take advantage of bodies of water. This includes pools, lakes, oceans, water parks, lazy rivers, etc. Submerging your body in water promotes body awareness as well as muscle strength and endurance. If they are in natural bodies of water, they can also observe things like wildlife. Do they see fish? Different bugs? Ask your child why ocean water tastes salty, or how waves and tides work.
- Change up the tools and materials. Water tables can come with play accessories, but you can also make it interesting and add some different items to spark curiosity and creativity. Get a whisk from the kitchen, action figures, water beads, or shaving cream. If it’s cold, try freezing different things in ice.
- Let them help clean up. When water play is all done, have your child help empty the containers, take care of their wet clothes, put away the water toys, and or wipe up any spilled water.
Constant adult supervision is necessary when children are around water. With your child’s brain firing on all cylinders during play, they may not realize what can be dangerous. It’s important to note that even though your kid may be taking swim lessons and know how to splash around and blow bubbles, they are not yet “water safe”. Be cautious of slippery areas and have size-appropriate life jackets or floatation for safety.
Water provides so many opportunities for your child to learn and grow with minimal effort. Let them go out and explore. Just have a lot of dry towels ready when they’re done!
“Making the Most of Water Play“, Sandra Crosser, Ph.D. Child Care Resources, June 2015.
“Water Play: Wet and Wonderful“, Angie Dorrell, M.A. Early Childhood News.
“5 Interesting Benefits of Water Play in Early Childhood Development“, Kids Club Childcare.
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