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Dr. Rebecca Palacios

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Learning Through Water Play

Posted: 03/14/2012 10:32 am

Water fascinates young children. Whether the water is in small or large quantities, however, it is always important to think about safety when water is involved and to ensure that young children are properly supervised. With this in mind, let's talk about water play.

A small bin full of water placed on a table affords hours of learning. I have found that when my class of four year olds were involved in water play experiences, there was no such thing as limited attention span! It's a simple three step process:

1) Provide objects for children to explore with, such as:

  • plastic measuring cups that float
  • ceramic cups of similar size that do not float (non-fragile)
  • tubes
  • small pvc pipes
  • sieves
  • boats
  • plastic bottles
  • measuring spoons
  • feathers
  • rocks
  • funnels
  • small plastic toys
  • wooden blocks
  • old-fashioned hand mixer

2) Join in the fun:

  • Fill up and pour out of the containers.
  • Use the measurement lines on the measuring cups to develop language: full, empty, half-full, 1 cup, 2 cups.
  • Compare objects that float with those that sink.

3) Talk about what you and the children are observing, for example:

  • Since it is a liquid, water changes shapes to fit whatever container it is in.
  • Some things float on water and some things sink.
  • The way an object is shaped can help determine whether it floats or sinks

Sometimes, step 3 is difficult to do in the midst of the activity, because the children can become so engrossed that they don't have time for you! That's a good thing, so what I would do in my classroom was to take a few pictures of the children as they played; then I showed the pictures afterward and posed questions about what they were doing or what they observed. This discussion helps children to construct understandings and learn to describe ideas like liquid, density, buoyancy, measurement, matter, and weight -- all physical science concepts that they will need in the later grades. They won't yet necessarily be able to use or understand those words, but through exploration, children will have gained experience with the concepts that the words stand for.

Of course these days you don't have to limit yourself to still pictures -- you can capture and present short videos that illustrate the things you want the children to observe and discuss.

You don't have to do this activity with a bin or water on a table; it can be perfect for bath time and the subsequent bedtime conversation.

As with many science topics, there are some wonderful children's books about water; one of my favorites is Water's Way by Lisa Westberg Peters. Share this book with your child to help develop his or her understanding about evaporation, condensation, erosion, and how water flows -- through text and pictures that are designed for a young child's reading level.

Here are some other ideas for water explorations:

  • Place a small amount of water in a plastic bowl. Give your child a thick paintbrush and have him "paint" with water on a sidewalk at a park or on the concrete slab in your backyard. Talk about the his or her disappearing pictures or letters, which is a great lesson about evaporation!
  • Buy an eggbeater or hand mixer at the dollar store. Have your child play with bubbles not just by blowing bubbles, but also by placing dish detergent in a large bin and using the beater to make lots and lots of bubbles, This will also promote hand coordination practice for your child!
  • Place ice cubes on a napkin and have your child watch the ice melt. Have him or her hold the cube for a minute or so and discuss how his or her warm hand makes the ice melt faster.
  • During bath time, talk about sponges and how they absorb water. Compare and contrast the sponge with the soap and how it does not absorb water. Compare whether they both can float. Try floating and sinking other objects. Ask questions about why they think this happens and how weight and shape make a difference.


Remember, you don't have to be a science teacher to teach concepts like these to young children. All you have to do, really, is create or put them in an environment with interesting things to explore and objects to explore with, and then be as curious and interested in what they see, hear, touch and do as they are. Meanwhile, you will be planting seeds of understanding about physical science concepts that children will formally encounter in school before too long.