Water Play; What are children learning?

Children learn through play. By providing a fun, open-ended experience, water play has numerous developmental benefits. What are they? Read on.

eBusiness Institute Banner Generic


Water play is a great way for children to learn and develop. When they engage in water play, they are exposed to new experiences that help their skills across all developmental levels. They also have the opportunity to use both sides of their brain in order to solve problems. Water play is a great way to explore because it provides an open-ended experience. They can explore and problem solve in any manner that they choose, which allows them to use their creativity as well as learn about themselves and how they work through problems.

water play
Water play is one of the best open ended play experiences, allowing children to build their creative thinking skills and develop their imagination

Why is water play important in early years?

Children learn by exploring objects around them. Water play is a good opportunity for them to explore the properties of water, and engage in imaginative play. Water play is also a great way for children to learn about cause and effect. They can also learn concepts such as wet and dry, full and empty, and big and small.

Water play is an excellent opportunity to explore relationships between cause and effect. Children who allow creativity to flow through artful expression develop better cognitive skills than those who do not have this outlet. Playgroup WA list their top 5 benefits of water play here.

The benefits of water play in early years include:

  • Learning how to express creativity
  • Developing problem solving strategies
  • Improving language development
  • Developing gross and fine motor coordination
  • Increased confidence levels
  • Develops sensory awareness
  • Free use of imagination
  • Helps children to learn about the world around them.

Is water play sensory play?

Yes. When a child is in water, or playing with water, they are surrounded by lots of different stimuli.

Touch: They can feel the temperature and have direct contact with it when getting wet or pouring water on themselves. They can also feel how water changes other objects, such as a sponge – going from dry to soaked. Sometimes they can feel that the water changes from warm to cold.

Sound: There is sound from splashing water and the sound of water dripping or falling onto other surfaces. The sound of a spray bottle squirting, peers around them talking, squealing or laughing in delight, as well as the sound of water coming out of a hose or a tap.

kids first aid

Visual: They can observe how their own movements create ripples in water, and observe as water will fill a container or pour out of it. They can observe how particular items may sink or float in water, exploring the scientific properties of these objects, and hypothesising what will happen to other objects when in water, as well as watch how water changes the look of our clothes, our hair, and sand, or how it may change from clear to cloudy. They may also notice reflections in a pool of water.

Smell: Have you ever smelled rain? Or water coming out of a hose? There are definite smells I associate with certain types of water play.

Taste: While taste is not something you would usually associate with water play, most kids at some stage would have tried tasting or drinking the water they are playing with. Having said that, have you ever compared the taste of tap water to bottled water? Might be worth exploring with older children.

There are many educational approaches that advocate for sensorial learning such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia inspired learning programs, most of which would include water play as a key feature of sensory exploration play.

So what are the benefits of sensory play?

Sensory play is beneficial for a variety of reasons. First, sensory play provides opportunities to learn about senses and how they work together. They are able to explore different textures, colours, different temperatures or sounds through playing with water. Second, tactile input has been shown to have benefits on nerve connections in the brain which can increase cognitive abilities such as problem solving, creativity and memory retention. This type of play also encourages social development since the child notices others around them while engaging in these activities, as well as further develops language skills as children attempt to find the right words or phrases to describe what they are experiencing or how they are playing. It can also encourage problem solving and allow them to discover cause and effect relationships.

BabyToddlerandKids.com.au list the benefits of sensory play here: https://www.babytoddlerandkids.com.au/benefits-of-sensory-play-for-babies-toddlers/

water play
Water play is a full sensory experience, which in turn build sensory awareness, allowing for better cognitive outcomes

Why are children fascinated with water?

This is a question that has been asked for centuries, but research on this topic is still being conducted today.

The easiest answer? It’s fun!


Children are naturally curious about the world around them. Even as infants, they can be found fascinated with water because it is a new and different experience to their senses. As they grow older, playing in water can offer sensory play experiences that help develop cognitive processes such as cause-and-effect thinking and problem solving. In addition, since learning through play occurs at all ages, engaging kids in fun games involving water enhances fine motor development, which includes hand/eye coordination along with developing the small muscles needed to write legibly later on when school age.

As children grow older, water play offers fluid dynamics experiences that help develop better sensory processing and self-regulation skills. Sensory integration involves taking in information from the five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell and taste) and making sense of it with your brain to use for learning and physical movement. A child who has difficulty with neurological regulation may not be able to make sense of their body’s signals or process all incoming stimuli simultaneously; they can become overwhelmed by too much sensory input at once which results in poor behavior/learning ability. This is why many individuals on the autism spectrum are known to enjoy playing in water because there is a direct correlation between engaging in “heavy work” activities such as carrying buckets full of water and using the body for a purpose, both of which help to calm/ground them.

Water play can also be an effective way to learn about different cultures from around the world as there are so many different types of water games that have been enjoyed by people in various regions.

Water helps children to connect to their surroundings and build relationships through play.

water play
Filling and emptying, pouring and splashing teaches maths concepts as well as allows children to explore with cause and effect relationships

Through developing these relationships, children engage in social interactions while exploring new ways to interact with water on a sensory level. This stimulates learning because it encourages problem solving skills and allows for creativity during playtime.

However, not only does playing with water stimulate intellect; it also builds imagination by allowing room for creative thinking when engaging in this activity. It gives children an opportunity to explore what they can do with different objects around them besides just toys or tools used at daycare or school; which will help develop critical thinking skills down the line as well!

What learning happens in water play?

  • Helps build sensory skills and sensory awareness. Water provides tactile feedback that can help them feel and experience different sensations.
  • Increases problem solving skills. When playing with water, children need to solve problems on the spot about what tools they should use for washing things off or how much water is too much for a particular container, without spilling. This helps build their critical thinking abilities as they analyse how things happen.
  • Enhances cognitive learning through fun play! Children naturally absorb information while they explore freely because they are making sense of the world around them.
  • Develops fine motor skills, gross motor and hand eye coordination through active play with water.
  • Builds language skills as children talk to those around them while playing. Water play allows for a varied vocabulary of words associated with that type of play.
  • Social skills – learning how to share resources with others, communicate with peers, take turns, co-operate (working towards a common goal) and imitating how others play!
  • Maths and science concepts; Water play can encourage children to explore: volume, capacity, weight, size, shape, the properties of the water itself and how it can change other objects, temperature, movement and physics, comparisons, measurement, estimations and the list goes on.
water play
Kids are usually so busy having fun with water, they don’t realise how much they’re actually learning!

Safety considerations during water play

  • Babies and toddlers can drown in only a few inches of water so it’s vital that any water play is properly supervised by a responsible adult at all times.
  • Kids can learn to wash their hands before they play in water, especially in childcare as a hygiene consideration.
  • Make sure there are no sharp objects around the water that could cause injury or choking hazards for your child.
  • When playing with water outdoors or indoors, make sure you have an adequate supply of towels available and be mindful of potential slipping accidents due to spilled water on the floor.
  • There’s the risk of skin irritation caused by things added to the water, such as colours, scents, glitter etc
  • Possible water contamination, depending on where and how the children are playing – eg. – nappy leaks if young children are sitting in water, children coughing, sneezing or dribbling into water or animal excrement. (Always give fresh water for water play – never re-use from a previous day).
  • Potential to effect a child’s medical condition – such as if they’re wearing grommets, if they have a bandage or a cast on, or any damaged skin.
  • For pools, always ensure that they are adequately chlorinated, as this will reduce bacterial growth which puts both adults and children at risk of illness caused by accidental ingestion of contaminated water.
  • For the beach, always consider the unpredictability of the waves and the surf, as well as the possibility of stingers such as jellyfish and bluebottles, and of course sun safety considerations.

RaisingChildren.net.au have a great article about water safety which you can find here:

water play
Water play doesn’t have to be complicated – most kids are happy with a bucket and some smaller containers

Different water play activities

Water play allows children to be creative with materials around them.

Children may enjoy:

  • Cups or bowls for pouring water into other containers
  • Small toys, soap or ice cubes in a sand/water table or large bucket
  • Pouring water onto a toy car track to watch it move down hills, etc.
  • Using sponges or spray bottles.
  • Using natural resources from around them – leaves, flowers, sand, dirt, stones, bark
  • Empty bottles, a bucket or boats
  • Using water wheels, observing water flow
  • Fishing play with children’s rod and floating fish
  • ‘Painting’ water onto outdoor furniture or walls with a paintbrush and a water filled bucket
  • Swimming pool play with inflatables or noodles
  • Beach play involving waves, sand, buckets and spades
  • Bath toys in the bath – or simply plastic cups, bubbles or boats
  • Allowing children to get involved in sustainable activities at home, or helping take care of the environment at childcare by watering plants and gardens!
  • Sprinklers or fountains at home or in water play parks
  • Rain! Put the raincoat and gumboots on and splash in puddles!

Examples of water play toys

  • Sand/water tray tables
  • Boats
  • Sprinklers
  • Buckets, funnels and water wheels
  • Children’s fishing rod and floating fish
  • Animal toys for play in water
  • Slip & Slide/ Slip & Splash type backyard ground slides
  • Inflatables, noodles and sinking toys for pools
  • Water pistols (though these can be dangerous – require adult supervision)

Most good toy stores (such as MTA – water play examples here) or Kmart, Target etc will have a wide variety of water play toys available to buy, but these are not necessary for fun water play. You can set up a water play experience in a fun way with some very basic household items as described above so you don’t always need to buy the ‘latest thing.’ A search in the kitchen cupboards should find you some adequate basics. It’s usually the items that are NOT toys that are the most fun!

water play
What kid doesn’t love splashing in puddles!


Whether you are raising girls, raising boys or you’re an educator, as you can see, water play is an excellent way to help your child grow and develop. It is open ended, allowing for full creativity and a multitude of benefits and learning outcomes. You can get kids involved inside or outside, in any weather and most children love exploring and are so busy having fun, they don’t realise how much learning is actually going on!

CareforKids has a great article on the benefits of water play as well, which you can view here.

You don’t need to purchase a range of fancy toys or resources for children to enjoy water play – just use some of my above ideas and see how they react when you suggest playing in the rain!

Does your child love water play? Do you have any other fun ideas you can add here? Let me know in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.