Water Activities for Older Children

These can be similar for children either at home or in a nursery group although the home may not be able to do more than provide occasional play in an improvised fashion. At whatever age a child is first allowed to play with water he will go through the splashing and pouring, filling and emptying phase. If by the age of three he is very capable and experienced he may well be ready to progress to a rather more structured set of materials (not to be confused with a structured set of activities which he is made to follow). He will still enjoy all the earlier suggestions but sets of beakers with holes in to give different type and size ‘fountains’, funnels connected with transparent tubing, special pouring equipment which can be controlled by pressure, water wheels, beakers or containers which are related in size to find out ‘ How many times do we need to fill the small one to then fill the larger/largest ones’, containers of similar capacity but different shape to introduce the idea of judging quantity all give an opportunity for children to learn as they play. Some of this equipment can be bought, much of it can be improvised. Sometimes very tiny bottles, funnels and fine tubing can be offered as a change and these require much more skill and control than the usual large materials. Children can become very competent, inventive and knowledgeable from using this simple equipment – their skill, understanding of cause and effect, quiet confidence and utter absorption in what they are doing is fascinating to watch.

It was quite common ten years ago and is not unusual even now to come across parents and nursery staff who are not really convinced of the value of what they see as the messy, rather ‘baby’ play involved in sand and water activities in the nursery group. They feel the children should be ‘getting on’ with rather more complicated things. In fact these are two of the most valuable play materials we can offer. The new children in particular seem to find it very soothing and undemanding. Their lack of ideas and manipulative skill is not the drawback it would be with some of the other activities – they can use the water and sand quite violently without doing any real damage or’ spoiling’ it and they do not feel they have to make anything. The water and sand trays are often used as a screen by the new child. He stands there idly playing but is really watching everything else that is going on.

Apart from this there is a tremendous amount of vocabulary experience which arises from these activities. On the principle that we all learn by doing rather than listening, I have always tried to give playgroup-course students a session where they can play with water and sand in small groups. They have been asked to concentrate quite hard and talk about what they are doing so that one member of the group can record what they say. The following is a haphazard list, not sorted out in any way, given to me by one such group of students after playing with sand and water with the same playthings children would have: damp, colour, lumpy, space, clings, pies, rough, dig, moist, jug, hole, half, spatula, twice as much, ladle, shape, how much, fill, bubbles, refraction, air, middle, curve, round, surface, sieve, cup, soaked, spoon, bang, too wet, full up, press, ice-cream, size, scoop, lovely, lines, pattern, brush, castle, meniscus, bailer, fluid, liquid, compress, sandy, grains, separate, tiny, flotation, reflection, clear, transparent, buoyant, propeller, temperature, ripples, movement, soft, leak, vacuum, pressure, escapes, air bubble, size of container, bottle, watering can, rose, gallon, side, mast, cork, wave, submarine, sponge, hosepipe, track, jet, pool, puddle, bubble, fountain, waterfall, pint, rubber, metal, wooden, muddy, wet, messy, dry, warm, cold, too cold, individual, particle, granular, abrasive, scrunch, gritty, smooth, soggy, heavy, light, big, small, heavier, heaviest, full, empty, half full, nearly full, almost empty, hardly any, enough, float, sink, submerge, immerse, strain, drip, capsize, spray, squeeze, pour, splash, spill, wipe up, blow, flow, overflow, dribble, dip, stir, squirt, trickle, sprinkle, basin, funnel, beaker, colander, spout, teapot, tea strainer, rubber tubing, plastic, mould, rake, boat.

Impressive as this list is it is by no means complete – many more words could have been added but it was not a bad bag for fifteen minutes’ effort. It is important however to be quite clear what this implies. These were adults – no one imagines that children are going to use all these words nor are we going to stand over the group at the water trough or sand tray and solemnly teach them. What we are doing is giving children the experience to which words can be fitted later as they come across them. How would one set about teaching the idea of ‘nearly full, almost empty, hardly any’ for instance to someone who had not experienced these situations over and over again. ‘Too wet, too cold’ – how does one make such judgements without direct experience? What is the difference between ‘soggy, heavy, soaked’?

Where to Have Water Play

Weather permitting, out-of-doors water play can usually be more varied than indoors. Hard surfaced areas are best, as concrete and similar surfaces dry off more quickly, but grass will soak up a reasonable amount of splashing. Indoors it is sensible to have the water play near the source of water and on the most suitable surface available. In a nursery group it is best placed where it can be supervised unobtrusively but away from the main traffic to avoid accidents. It is a quiet, contemplative occupation most of the time and gains from being set slightly apart from other distractions.


There are many different types of container available now in various shapes and sizes. Many have a suitable stand. Some have a drain tap, although they never seem to work well and a siphon pump is a good investment. There are advantages and disadvantages with almost every type and a final choice would no doubt be influenced by storage space and cost as much as anything else. Broadly speaking a good deep trough large enough for three or four children would be a good choice but many groups find the circular type trough with an ‘island’ in the centre very useful.

Permanent paddling pools are expensive to install and some kind of filling and emptying system is needed. If they are very large and will be used by a lot of children there is the problem of filtration and purifying the water. These are usually found only where there are maintenance or gardening staff who can keep an eye on them. For nursery groups and the home a small pool is much easier to maintain. Some of the new plastic ones -either preformed shapes to be sunk in the ground or collapsible structures to be set on the ground – are useful as they can be filled and emptied relatively easily and quickly. Where outdoor space is limited the collapsible ones are best as those sunk into the ground take up space which could be put to better use in cooler weather. The kind of water play they produce is quite different from a trough since children can use their whole bodies, splashing themselves, splashing each other and there is a wide area over which to push toy boats. With care other apparatus can be added to make a water-chute or waterfall (place a slide so that children can finish up sitting in two or three inches of water; use plastic crates to support a network of plastic drainpipe and guttering).

Water containers may need to be improvised at home. Nursery groups may wish to provide extra water activities in addition to the usual water-trough play. Large plastic bowls and baby baths are useful, as are the old zinc baths suitably cleaned and resurfaced, described before. The very large long zinc baths known as ‘bungalow’ baths can still be obtained. These are useful because they are so deep. Water containers with taps sold for camping are useful as they provide for a different type of game. Doll bathing with different-sized bowls to fit different-sized dolls is a good example of structuring play material to encourage incidental learning.