Water play offers valuable support for children’s learning and development. Explore its benefits in this guide by a children’s developmental therapist.
- Water Play Definition: sensory activity where children explore, manipulate, and interact with water, often at water tables indoors or outdoors.
- The benefits of water play include:
- Physical: Improves both fine and gross motor skills.
- Cognitive: Introduces early math concepts and fosters problem-solving and critical thinking.
- Sensory: Provides a variety of tactile, auditory, and visual experiences.
- Social and Emotional: Promotes social skills, cooperation, and emotional regulation.
- Language: Supports language development through sensory-rich vocabulary and storytelling.
- Adults can improve water play benefits by modeling sensory-rich language, encouraging imaginative storytelling, and modeling play ideas.
Definition of Water Play
Water play is a sensory activity where children explore, manipulate, and interact with water, often at water tables indoors or outdoors.
Water play is an incredible learning activity in early childhood, where children practice important skills like scooping, pouring, and filling. Supervised water play is a safe way for children to investigate cause and effect, exploring a connection between their actions and their environment.
Explore my favorite (and easy) water activities for babies and toddlers.
Why is it Important to Play with Water?
Water play nurtures holistic development in children, fostering physical and cognitive, promoting emotional regulation, stimulating sensory systems, and providing a foundation for STEM learning.
Water play is also an introduction to nature play, instilling an early appreciation for the wonders of nature.
Let’s explore the specific benefits of water play.
Fine Motor Skills
Water play supports fine motor skills like hand strength and dexterity through stirring, squeezing, scooping, pouring, and manipulating water toys.
How to Support Fine Motor Development
- Provide a variety of containers and utensils for pouring and scooping, such as measuring cups, spoons, funnels, cups, and bowls.
- Include water toys that encourage squeezing, such as bath toys or sponges.
- Support hand-eye coordination by introducing toys that require precision, such as funnels, tubes, or spinning wheels.
- Encourage children to practice transferring water between containers.
- Explore different textures in water by using sponges, sensory bath toys, or nature objects.
Gross Motor Skills
Participating in water play promotes large motor skills, such as balance, reaching, lifting, jumping, standing, and navigating obstacles.
Beyond the water table, water play activities such as sprinklers, kiddie pools, and buckets offer an even more gross motor movement.
How to Support Gross Motor Development
- Encourage children to run, jump, and move through sprinklers.
- Introduce activities involving lifting and pouring buckets of water.
- Create an obstacle course with a kiddie pool, slip and slide, wet sponge walk, or water slide.
- Throw and catch water balloons or other water toys.
Water play introduces early math concepts like measurement, volume, and spatial awareness through filling and dumping water into containers.
How to Support Math Skills
- Provide containers with increasing sizes, such as measuring cups, measuring spoons, and stacking cups.
Problem-Solving & Critical Thinking
Water play enhances problem-solving and critical thinking skills as children investigate challenges and experiment with solutions.
How to Support Problem-Solving & Critical Thinking
- Use open-ended questions to guide children through the planning process.
- Introduce challenges like using tubes to fill containers or redirect water flow.
- Share your thought process aloud during water play, providing a narrative to model problem-solving strategies.
Imaginative play adds an extra layer to water activities, allowing children to explore various roles and scenarios, planning and acting out storylines.
How to Support Pretend Play
- Provide themed water play toys such as boats, ocean animals, and arctic animal figures.
- Model storytelling and role-playing during water activities.
Water play invites children into a multisensory experience, offering opportunities to explore the unique textures, sounds, and visuals specific to water.
Water play offers many different tactile experiences, from exploring liquids to noticing the changing texture of wet sand and sponges.
How to Support Textural Experiences
- Offer interesting toys and materials such as sand, bubbles, sponges, and a variety of textured bath toys.
- Introduce sensory-rich vocabulary such as slippery, bubbly, crunchy (sand), and squishy.
Water play provides opportunities to explore the rich sounds of water, including splashes, trickles, pours, gushes, and drips.
How to Support Auditory Experiences
- Model different ways to explore water sounds by pouring, stirring, splashing, and dripping.
- Introduce sensory-rich vocabulary such as drip, pour, splash, gush, and trickle.
The reflections, distortions, movement, and diluting of substances in water provide engaging visual experiences for children. Water play is also an excellent opportunity to practice hand-eye coordination as children scoop and pour.
How to Support Visual Experiences
- Include drops of liquid watercolor or food coloring, ice cubes, or bubbles in water play.
- Encourage children to track objects while stirring or follow the movement of water poured into wheels, tubes, or ramps.
Social & Emotional Benefits
Water play supports children’s social development by providing a fun way to practice cooperation and teamwork skills in pairs or groups. Because water play is so appealing, children are highly motivated to collaborate and navigate conflict with others to participate.
How to Support Social Skills
- In the classroom, set up several water play activities at the same time, allowing children to play alongside each other without feeling overwhelmed.
- Join water play and gently guide children through conflicts like taking turns or collaborating.
- Model setting boundaries for children who prefer to play alone.
- Offer multiples of favorite water toys to prevent frustration.
Emotional Development & Regulation
Water play supports children’s emotional regulation, offering a calming or energizing sensory experience, building confidence, and experiencing a range of emotions, from joy to frustration to pride.
How to Support Support Emotional Regulation
- Be available for children during water play to provide guidance or celebrate with them.
- Demonstrate calming techniques like swishing your hand underwater or gently pouring water.
Water play promotes language development by offering a perfect opportunity to introduce sensory-rich vocabulary, encourage planning and collaboration, and describe observations.
How to Support Language Development
- Introduce sensory-rich vocabulary linked to children’s actions, like splash, pour, and squish.
- Narrate your own actions during water play, fostering language development with statements like, “I am going to dunk this sponge and then wash the boat.”
- Suggest imaginative scenarios during water play, prompting children to narrate stories and practice descriptive language.
Water play offers incredible benefits for children across all learning domains. Sensory play with water can target specific skills or developmental delays and provide a medium for self-regulation. Explore my favorite water activities for early learners.
You can make water play more successful and less hectic using tips from my Guide to Water Play.
If you’re interested in learning more about play, such as risk-taking play or sensory-seeking play, check out my Types of Play in Early Childhood article.