Water play is a tremendously fun sensory play option for toddlers and preschoolers, and is a low-cost activity station, which is relatively easy to clean up. (You’ll want to have a lot of towels available, but it’s easier than sweeping or vacuuming around the sensory table! You may also consider offering smocks to keep clothes dry.) You can learn about the benefits of water play at the bottom of this post.
I had more ideas than I could fit in, without making this post even longer than it is, so I have included LOTS of links: some are links to more pictures or to articles with lots more details on that idea, and some are affiliate links that take you to Amazon where you can learn more about the item or purchase it (I get a small affiliate bonus, at no additional cost to you). Check them out!
Water Tables and other Containers
Many of these activities work well in the bathtub at home, or you can set up a sensory sink. You can use a wading pool outdoors. You can use a big shallow plastic tub or underbed storage bin, either on the floor or on a table. Or even just a cake pan or a pot on the kitchen counter will accommodate a lot of water exploration (read about 1 inch water play). For home use, any of these options will suit your needs just fine. Even though you can find lots of cheap water tables, you don’t need to buy any specialty equipment, especially because all those plastic toddler toys will end up in a land-fill someday.
For a day care or preschool that will use this option regularly for a long time, it’s worth investing in a good water table. Make sure it has a drain in the bottom and that it’s easy to lift the tub up out of the frame to dump it. (It’s nice to have options.) Also wheels are helpful for moving it around either empty or full (ideally, locking wheels so it won’t roll when kids lean on it). And it’s nice to have a table with a cover so on days you don’t want water play, you can put on the lid and use it as an extra table. Pay attention to the height: for toddlers choose an 18 inch table, for preschoolers, a 21 to 25 inch table. Some tables are adjustable. If you’re choosing one for an outdoor location, choose a plastic table rather than wood.
You’ll see some multi-compartment tables. These can be fun, but think carefully about what you put in each bin – any materials you put out will be completely intermixed by the end of the play session!! You can also re-create the benefits of this multi-compartment table just by putting a small plastic tub or two inside your regular table.
Think about where in your room to place the tub – near a water source for ease of filling, and near a drain for ease of dumping. But not near the snack table or the sensory table! See clean-up notes below.
Tools for the Water Table
Think of all the possible ways to move water around…
- things to scoop and pour with: scoops, measuring cups, spoons, ladles, watering cans. pitchers
- containers of all sizes and shapes to pour in to, to pour out of: cups, bottles, buckets, ice cube trays, plastic egg cartons
- things to pour through or down: funnels, PVC pipes, pipe building toys, bath pipe toys, gutters, ramps
- tools that pull up water and push it out: syringes, turkey basters, pipettes, eye droppers, toy pumps, bilge pumps, siphons (how kids use these), a nasal aspirator (a new one, not re-used!)
- things you fill with water and squirt it out: squirt guns, hand soap dispensers or shampoo bottles with pumps, squirt bottles full of colored water
- things that will float till they absorb water, then sink, then are fun to squeeze the water out of: sponges, pompoms
- things water pours through: colanders, strainers, slotted spoons, plastic containers with holes poked in the bottom, latch hook net or plastic embroidery canvas
- water wheels (purchase one or make one from plastic spoons or cups), or build a K’NEX water wheel. (Note: for toddlers, choose a water wheel that’s fairly short – if it’s too tall, they can’t reach high enough to pour water in the top.)
- things to stir with: whisks, egg beaters
Learning how to use a wide variety of tools is part of STEM learning – the T for Technology doesn’t just mean computers! It also includes any tools humans have invented to make work easier. This collage shows some ideas for STEM learning in the water table.
Ideas shown, with links to sources
- Turkey baster and ice cube tray – a great way to build motor skills
- A bridge made of craft sticks to run toy cars over and toy boats under – we use this in our class on Bridges and Tunnels
- Cork sailboats – these appear in our Wind and Flight class, and we build them on Sink and Float week
- Gutters connecting a water table to a tub of water are always a delight
- We use a balance scale when we study Levers in our Simple Machines unit
- Pipes. In our Build a House week, we replicate all the phases of house construction, including plumbing
- Pumps—we use this in gravity week as we talk about how we invent things to help us work against gravity
- Spoon water wheel – I built this for Wheels and Axles week
Toys and other ways to enhance water play:
Although a tub of water and some scoops and buckets can keep a kid entertained for a surprisingly long time, it’s even more fun to mix in other items which enhance learning, add fine motor challenges, and inspire imaginary play. For ideas: Look around your classroom and your home. Go to craft stores, dollar tree, Goodwill, hardware stores, and garage sales, and wander around and wait for inspiration to strike! For example, at the top of the post, I included a photo from “And Next Comes L” which shows plastic shot glasses and test tubes from the dollar store. Anything that’s safe for children to touch that won’t get ruined by water can be fair game. Here are some suggestions:
- Washing station:
- toy fruits and veggies, or real fruits and veggies such as oranges and carrots, and scrub brushes to clean them with
- toy (or real) dishes, pots, and pans, a scrub brush, a bottle brush and some dish detergent, a tub of rinse water, a drying rack, and towels for a dish washing station
- baby dolls, washcloths, and baby shampoo bottles filled with water
- doll clothes, bubbles, and a clothesline
- toy cars and sponges for a car wash
- Natural materials: rocks, flowers, leaves
- Try filling the water table with snow and letting it melt as the children play (toddlers may prefer playing with snow indoors to playing outside in the cold)
- Ice – make blocks of ice to float in the water or offer blocks of ice with salt and water to sprinkle on to melt the ice and toothbrushes to scrub ice crystals away. (We do this in our States of Matter class – first we freeze “treasure” into the ice that they work to excavate)
- Sensory materials – you could mix in sand – then let it dry for later re-use. You could mix in food items such as rice or beans, but if you want to re-use them, be certain they are thoroughly dried afterwards so they don’t have moisture to encourage bacteria growth. You might be able to dry them well in a low temperature oven?
- Small worlds: Small world play is when children use miniature items to act out ideas from real life or re-enact stories. Examples are playing in a dollhouse, or driving toys cars around a pretend town, or playing with toy horses in a stable made of blocks. Whatever small toy play your child enjoys can often be mixed with the water table: whether that’s a Shopkins swimming party, or a water tank for their water Pokemon to train in. Learn more about small worlds.
- Floating items, and tools to catch them with – fishing nets, tongs, etc.
- Aluminum foil to sculpt boats from, styrofoam trays to float toys on
- Magnetic items (pipe cleaners, magnetic letters, toys with magnets attached) and a magnet on a fishing pole
- Plastic lids with ladles and strainers (see pictures)
- Or any of these items:
Ideas shown, with links to sources
- Cranberries and oranges make a beautiful combination
- Glow in Dark Stars are fun when studying astronomy Use a black light flashlight to “charge them”, then turn off the light.
- For almost every holiday, you can find some fun decor item to use, such as these hearts. In springtime, add flowers
- Check out the plastic eggs, ladles, and the egg tray to pour them into
- Foam letters and foam puzzle pieces are fun, and the added fun is that when they’re wet, you can stick them to a nearby surface like the lid for your tub, a window, or a white board
- Try ball pit balls, ping pong balls, or golf balls
- Almost any bath toy will work, such as these fish
- Rubber ducks are always fun – you can add magnets, and catch them with a magnetic fishing rod
- Toy boats can be combined with bridges or other structures
Think about what you can mix into the water to enhance play:
- water beads (click on that link to learn ALL about this fabulous material)
- color: liquid watercolor or food coloring
- fragrances: essential oils, scented soap, herbal tea, spices (note: don’t overdo scents – many people get headaches from them, especially artificial scents)
- check out a fun idea using tea bags and warm water
- temperature: start with a cup of hot water, a cup of ice water and a container to mix them into. Or water balloons and ice balloons floating in water.
- not glitter – it’s pretty to mix in, but bad for the environment 😦
Here are some fun inspirations to help liven up water table play.
Ideas shown and links to sources
- Pipe cleaners and magnet wands
- Use pipettes to fill plastic lids (your young students will learn motor skills, your older kids can do target practice for building hand-eye coordination)
- Make ice cube boats
- Clothesline – another great idea from Tom Bedard
- Make a cow udder with a latex or non-latex glove. If you’re ambitious, you could make a cow to go with this… I’m personally more likely to just tie the glove to a string and let it hang over a bucket where kids can “milk” it.
- We use water beads and in a marble maze for gravity week
- Foam blocks: When wet, they stick together, so you can build floating boats or other structures
- Small worlds can combine sensory materials and water with toys and imagination. Here’s a small world with plastic toys and natural materials
The blog Sand and Water Tables by Tom Bedard is full of fabulous ideas and thoughtful reflections on sensory play. He assembles what he calls an “apparatus” out of found materials to take water play up a level. Here’s a collage of ideas to inspire you.
- Wrap a tube around a tall column like this corkscrew water slide
- Raid the kitchen for racks, bottles, funnels and containers
- Encourage children to build a tower and pour water over it to see how the water cascades
- PVC fountain. Water sprinkles out over the table. Note: the description says it’s hooked up to running water from sink… I wonder how they kept it draining so it didn’t overflow…
- Some apparatus seem complicated, and it seems like you need a knowledge of power tools to assemble them. I love that it can be as simple as a milk crate with some funnels duct-taped on.
- Here are PVC pipes which drain water from the trays to buckets below
- And a frame of PVC pipes and funnels
- A wood frame with funnels and tubes
Imagine a vertical surface, with tubes, gutters, and funnels strapped all over it. Kids pour water in, and it flows down through all the pathways to a tub at the bottom. Then they scoop and pour it again! Water walls are tremendous fun, but can be quite messy, so they’re best for outdoor play. Here’s some inspiration:
Ideas and links to sources
- Water bottles on an upright post
- PVC pipes and other items on magnets on an oil pan
- Water bottles, tubes, and tubs on a metal grid
- Watering cans with tubs, tubes, and funnels on a picket fence
- Tubs and tubing on a old folding bench
- Pool noodles and pipes on a chainlink fence
- A miniature water wall with an eye dropper and straws
- Lots of items screwed to Plexiglas in a PVC frame
- Water bottles, tubes, and funnels on a peg board
This page has links to several more ideas: www.letthechildrenplay.net/2011/10/ideas-for-water-wall-at-preschool.html
If you’re playing outside with swimsuits on, few limits are needed! (Except: don’t spray or splash your friends without asking first to see if that’s OK with them.)
But, when you’re indoors and in school clothes: set clear expectations for behavior and be clear what the limits are. Teach them what to do by phrasing things in positive terms: say “squirt the water in the table” instead of “don’t squirt it on the floor.” Or “stir with your hand like this” instead of “don’t splash.” Or “hold the bowl over the table when you pour into it.” If there are accidental spills, show a child how to mop it up with a towel or short handled mop. If the child is intentionally spilling, either work with them to modify the play so that they can still have fun without making a mess, or, move them away from the water table. If several children are having issues on a particular day, you can put the lid on the table (or empty it) and try again on another day.
Clean-Up / Health & Safety
Start with a clean tub, clean water, and clean materials.
Keep it as clean as possible: Be sure children and adults wash their hands before starting with water play. Don’t put the sensory table near the water table if you don’t want the materials to mix. Don’t put the water play area near the snack table or you’ll have crumb-covered, sticky hands going in the water! Discourage sick kids from playing in the water table, or get them their own tub of water. If a child mouths a toy, remove that toy from the water play area to be cleaned later. (Check out my post on sensory bins during COVID for additional thoughts.)
Avoid slipping hazards and water damage: Water play on carpeted floors is not a good idea, because the carpet will get wet and stay wet for a while and may damage whatever surface is underneath the carpet. (If you only have carpeted floors, consider placing a tarp or shower curtain under the water play area.) But, all non-carpeted floors can get slippery when wet. So, keep some towels or chamois cloths nearby to wipe up spills, and/or use a non-slip bathroom rug at the table – be sure it’s a machine mash/dryable rug. so you can easily clean it on a regular basis.
Clean-Up: Empty the table after every use. Don’t leave standing water in it to grow bacteria. Clean the table and tools with mild detergent. Disinfect with bleach water and rinse well. Air dry. More info: www.simcoemuskokahealth.org/docs/default-source/jfy-childcare/Water_and_Sand_Table_Guidelines
Benefits of Sensory Play
In our academically driven world, parents may see water play as “just play” and wonder ‘what’s my kid actually learning’? There’s all sorts of benefits of all play-based learning, but here are just a few things kid learn through water play:
- Life skills: Kids learn skills like pouring, scooping, washing.
- Motor skills, strength, and hand-eye coordination.
- Spatial understanding – the meaning of empty, full, volume, weight – will the water from this container fit inside that container?
- Social skills – As they play together around the table, children socialize, negotiate sharing tools, discover ideas together
- Language learning: names for all the tools, words like flow, spill, dribble, splash, trickle, gush, and more
- Mixing in toys can lead to fun imaginary play
- Water play appeals to all ages and abilities, is relaxing, and fun
Learn more about what kids can learn and how to maximize it at www.communityplaythings.com/resources/articles/2005/making-the-most-of-water-play.
The single best source I found for water table ideas is: www.communityplaythings.com/resources/articles/2005/making-the-most-of-water-play
Be sure to check out my Ultimate Guide to Sensory Tables
And, of course, you can search Pinterest for countless ideas for water play.