Water play…exploration…science inquiry

Children at a water table outsideWater explorations are a popular in early childhood programs during the summer. Exuberant water explorations can happen outdoors. The experience of wetness is enjoyable and clothes that get wet accidentally can dry on the child rather than having to be changed. Natural materials such as leaves and twigs can be incorporated into the exploration.

To keep the water experiences enjoyable, meaningful and a powerful learning opportunity, take a look at these resources.

Toddler walks through a puddle.Play is part of every science exploration. Science learning begins very early as children explore the properties of matter and how they can affect it through their play. “Five Essentials to Meaningful Play,” Marcia Nell and Walter Drew’s online column in NAEYC for families, can help other adults understand how children are learning science concepts and much more through their water play. Their book, From Play to Practice: Connecting Teachers’ Play to Children’s Learning is another valuable resource.

Child making a drop of water on wax paperChildren learn more each time they repeat an experience. Adults who embrace children’s curiosity and encourage questions and problem-solving support children’s learning. Water play can become an inquiry into the properties of water when adults provide additional materials and help children reflect on their observations. Science inquiry is more than single activities about science topics or concepts. The Young Scientist series book, Exploring Water with Young Children, by Karen Worth and Ingrid Chalufour (Redleaf Adult exploring water dropsPress) is a guide for using water to help children use the practices of science, investigate flow and how water affects objects. There is also guidance on developing scientific dispositions of eagerness to learn and curiosity. I think it is also helpful in supporting teachers who have not yet taught science concepts, topics, or the nature of science.

First page of article in Young ChildrenNAEYC provides free online access to the article “Promoting Children’s Science Inquiry and Learning Through Water Investigations” by Cindy Hoisington, Ingrid Chalufour, Jeff Winokur, and Nancy Clark-Chiarelli from the October/November 2014 issue of Teaching Young Children and September 2014 issue of Young Children. Read about how to facilitate direct experiences that promote conceptual learning related to water. Learn how to ask questions about phenomena that are connected to concepts and interesting to children, and questions that stimulate children’s inquiry and investigation rather than suggest “correct” answers.

First page of the NSTA position statement on early childhood science educationThe National Science Teachers Association’s (NSTA) position statement on Early Childhood Science Education was endorsed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). The statement affirms that “Effective science investigations can deeply engage young children for extended periods of time, beyond a single activity or session.” It also offers guidance to educators in principles and declarations.

Two examples: 

NSTA identifies the following key principles to guide the learning of science among young children.

  • Adults play a central and important role in helping young children learn science.

Everyday life is rich with science experiences, but these experiences can best contribute to science learning when an adult prepares the environment for science exploration, focuses children’s observations, and provides time to talk about what was done and seen (NAEYC 2013, p. 18). It is important that adults support children’s play and also direct their attention, structure their experiences, support their learning attempts, and regulate the complexity and difficulty of levels of information (NRC 2007, p. 3). It’s equally important for adults to look for signs from children and adjust the learning experiences to support their curiosity, learning, and understanding. [See the document online for references.]


NSTA recommends that teachers and other education providers who support children’s learning in any early childhood setting should

  • tap into, guide, and focus children’s natural interests and abilities through carefully planned open-ended, inquiry-based explorations;

2016-05-04 11.27.47Another resource for expanding a session at the water center into science inquiry is the description of the science and engineering practices in Rodger W. Bybee’s article “Scientific and Engineering Practices in K–12 Classrooms Understanding A Framework for K–12 Science Education” in the December 2011 issue of Science and Children. It is free to read online. Here is a list of the eight practices of science and engineering that the Framework identifies as essential for all students to learn:
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

In my book, Science Learning in the Early Years, there are four column chapters discussing water exploration:

Chapter 24—Water Works, updated from the July 2007 Science and Children

Chapter 33—Adding Up the Rain, updated from the July 2009 Science and Children

Chapter 42—Ongoing inquiry, investigating water, updated from the February 2011 Science and Children

Chapter 52—Water Leaves “Footprints,” updated from the April 2013 Science and Children

I also discussed aspects of water play as part of the NSTA Virtual Conference, Engaging Students in Science: PreK-6.

IMG_6429aThe challenges we face in providing effective science education for young children vary from location to location and program to program. In one school the deep sink that allows teachers to fill buckets or small tubs of water only has a hot water option. Those teachers have to plan ahead to fill jugs of water at the end of the day so it will cool down enough for children to work in the following day. Families can be very concerned about children’s clothing getting wet or muddy. We can’t take this lightly—they may not have easy access to laundry facilities or extra sets of clothing. Some programs invest in smocks that cover most of children’s clothing. Other programs use large plastic bags cut open into a smock shape for older children and with close supervision. Programs that do not have a “science budget” make interesting tools for water exploration out of empty milk jugs, dollar store purchases or donations of recyclable containers and turkey basters from families. Leaves and twigs from safe plants make interesting tools. One program that had just a single water table for 5 classrooms bought large shallow storage tubs to use on table tops and even on the ground outside.

Speaking of safe, some programs schedule little paid time for cleaning up at the end of the day. By having children help empty the water table tubs, and tools, we provide the additional learning experience of scooping, feeling the weight of different amounts of water, and making many small amounts out of one large one, while giving children an important role in classroom care. They need to wash hands after water play. The sanitizing process is just for adults, making sure each item is empty and positioned to dry before using a sanitizing spray on all surfaces.

Water play is for all ages! Small amounts and close supervision allow the youngest children to become familiar with “wetness” and taking action to move water through splashing. Water play and science inquiry are a time for conversations that introduce rich vocabulary and provide moments for shared fun.

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