Playing with water is not only fun, but it can improve a child’s physical and cognitive development. Here's why you should spend time splashing around this summer, plus easy activities for every day of the week.

By Nicole Harris
Updated May 21, 2020
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You already know little kids love running through the sprinkler, splashing in the tub, and testing out the inflatable swimming pool. But as it turns out, this so-called “water play” is also beneficial to their cognitive and physical development. 

“It’s amazing to think about the ways in which a simple bath or time spent in a kiddie pool can inspire learning,” says Allison Wilson, Senior Director of Curriculum & Innovation at the Stratford School. “Children often gravitate to water, so it’s easy to turn this leisure time into an abundance of fun and discovery time.” 

Keep reading to learn more about the benefits, with seven expert-recommended water play activities that toddlers and preschoolers can do at home.

The Benefits of Water Play

“Water play is an excellent sensory-motor activity, and children think it’s lots of fun,” says Lee Scott, Chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at The Goddard School. She adds that, as children play with water, they develop skills in “scientific exploration, mathematics, gross and fine motor abilities, and creative expression.” 

Water play can also promote language and social-emotional development, says Wilson. “Language can be modeled and reinforced through water play, since it provides a time to speak, communicate, and ask open-ended questions,” she says. Parents can help by encouraging back-and-forth exchanges and inviting children to share what they’re doing. (For example: “What do you plan to do with the scrub brush? I wonder what might happen when you place the sponge in the water?”)

Finally, depending on the activity you choose, water play might have a calming effect. “Scooping, pouring and sifting can have the ability to relax young children and even adults. Enjoy the tranquility of water play,” says Wilson.

Fun Ways for Toddlers and Preschoolers to Play

Not only will these seven activities entertain your toddler or preschooler, they’ll also promote physical and cognitive development. 

1. Water Transfer

Teach your child mathematical and scientific concepts with a simple water transfer activity. Using shovels, large spoons, buckets, or sponges, she can move water from one container to another. She can also count how many spoons of water or saturated sponges it takes to complete the transfer. “Through this easy-to-facilitate exploration, children learn math concepts about counting and measurement of volume,” says Wilson. “They can also observe and record their prediction, explore absorption and saturation, and see cause-and-effect in their own world.”

2. Sink or Float Experiment

Scott recommends a “float or sink” experiment, in which children place small items in water to see what sinks and what floats. Objects might include bath toys, rocks, coins, twigs, kitchen utensils, rubber balls, leaves, bottle tops, buttons, keys, and corks.  You can do this experiment anywhere, whether it’s in the bathtub, the kitchen sink, or a bucket. 

The “sink or float experiment” teaches the scientific concepts of buoyancy and density (objects will float if they have a lower density than water). Children will also get some sensory play if you choose items with different textures. Finally, older kids can also guess whether each item will sink or float, which introduces them to the concept of making a hypothesis. 

3. Water Painting

Your kids will feel like a secret agent with this water play activity! Here’s how to do it: Have your child sit on the driveway, patio, or another concrete surface. Give him a bucket of water and a paintbrush, and let him draw on the ground. The drawings will quickly dry up under the sun to teach the concept of evaporation. Kids also develop fine motor skills and exercise creativity with water painting.

4. Squeeze, Scoop, Scrub

In this water play activity, you simply give your kid items while he's in the bathtub or swimming pool. Wilson has some recommendations: eye droplets or a food baster, a variety of spoons or measuring cups, squirt bottles, sponges, scrub brushes, dolls, toy cars, and bath toys. You can also add an additional element of fun with bubbles, she adds. 

No matter how your child plays with the items, he'll develop fine motor skills and exercise imaginative thinking. “What appears to be simple movements of squeezing and scooping greatly supports the development of drawing and writing skills. This is a great finger exercise,” adds Wilson.

5. Water Filtration

Scott recommends this water play activity for preschoolers, which involves straining dirty water with coffee filters or a cheesecloth. Start by mixing water with different substances like dirt, sand, mud, or pebbles. Then grab a coffee filter or cheesecloth, place it over a glass, and dump the contents inside. Make sure to do this over the sink or outside to prevent messes! 

Your kid will learn that items with larger particles (like pebbles and sand) strain better, resulting in clearer water. Items with smaller particles (like mud and dirt), leave behind more residue—even after filtration—because they mix with the water.

6. Color Swirling

This experiment visually teaches about density. Mix a few tablespoons of vegetable oil or olive oil with food coloring, and pour the concoction into a clear glass of water. The oil will stay at the top, since it's less dense than water, while the food coloring falls into the water below. (This happens because food coloring is water-based, and therefore more dense than oil). The result is a marbling effect that looks like mini fireworks. Read more about this experiment at Go Science Kids.

7. Making Dams

Here’s another idea from Scott. Real-life dams are used to retain water—and your kid can replicate this concept by making her own dam. Dig a small river in dirt or mud outside, and fill it with water. Encourage your kid to create a makeshift dam with sand, mud, rocks, or other objects she scavenges outside. She’ll see that the liquid water can’t pass the solid dam. Once you remove the dam, the flow of water begins again.  

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