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Water play: A key to children's living-learning environment



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When it comes to play materials, children don't mind getting messy or wet. That's why water play is both enjoyable and educational and perfect for hot days that call for cooling off. Indoor water play can go on all year long, and like outdoor play, helps children develop eye-hand coordination and math and science concepts. It may also enhance social skills and encourage cooperation. There is no right or wrong way to play with this familiar, inexpensive "toy" that comes not from a package, but from our very own environment.

Whether it be toddlers or school-agers, there are safety factors to consider when playing outdoors. Adults should monitor children carefully to prevent slipping or overexposure to the sun. As with all outdoor activities, be prepared for bee stings and knee scrapes. Indoors or outdoors, any container of water is a possible hazard and must be supervised at all times.

Water tables, while great opportunities for children to compromise and work together, must be carefully maintained to prevent germs that can grow in warm and wet environments. If teachers keep water tables, they must be sure the tables are cleaned and disinfected with bleach solution and filled with fresh water at least daily. Children should wash their hands before playing at the table, and toys should be washed and disinfected daily. Many teachers prefer large plastic tubs for individual children, sometimes set within an empty table that catches spillover. These can be disinfected more easily, and make clean-up quicker and easier.

Adults should look for cues in children's waterplay for opportunities to stimulate fantasy play. Add objects from home, school and nature. Pose open-ended questions, make sure children have challenging and interesting options, and give them the opportunity to evaluate and tell others about what they did and learned through play.

If a child makes a boat out of a squeeze bottle, we may be prompted to join in their pretend-play. But, use judgement in choosing when to step in and ask questions and when to stand back, listen, and enjoy. Fantasy play is an important and sometimes private part of children's development. Don't be discouraged if caregivers aren't invited to participate every time.

Here are some ideas for waterplay:

  • Individual water tubs at a table make great activity centers. Begin with water only, then add playthings as children's interest wanes. Begin with spoons and shovels, then move on to sponges and measuring tools. Sand and shells are great for children to touch and explore.

  • Children will love to "paint" water on outdoor pavement with buckets and paint brushes. Older children may paint the letters of their names. Younger children will be content making back-and-forth strokes. Either way, a few minutes in sunlight, and watch it evaporate!

  • Squeeze bottles of water offer a variety of play opportunities, and help children develop eye-hand coordination. Children may look for the best way to squirt long or short distances. Or, they may create designs on the water's surface.

  • Assorted containers, funnels, and plastic tubes will help children learn to measure, and are key for the early development of math and science skills. Curiosity leads to experimentation: Which objects will float? Which ones hold the most liquid? Gradually, children build their vocabularies (empty/full, shallow/deep) and learn how to categorize.

Water play helps children understand and enjoy their living-learning environment. If parents and caregivers become comfortable with water as a tool for young children's education, more ideas for learning through this natural medium will surface.

Additional Resources:

Crosser, S. 1994. Making the most of water play. Young Children 49 (5).

Hill, D.M. 1977. Mud, sand, and water. Washington, DC: NAEYC. #308/$3.

Planje, A.C. 1997. Playing with water in primary ways. Young Children 52 (2).

National Association for the Education of Young Children Web: http://www.naeyc.org/naeyc 1509 16th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036-1426 202 232 8777 800 424 2460 FAX: 202 328 1846 .

For more information, contact:

National Association for the Education of Young Children
1509 16th Street, N.W.,
Washington, DC 20036-1426
Phone: (202) 232-8777 or (800) 424-2460
Fax: (202) 328-1846
Web: http://www.america-tomorrow.com/naeyc/


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Copyright © 1997 by National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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