Every early childhood centre I have seen has water play set up. Its one of the few activities (along with sand and swings) that I have seen set up pretty much the same way at Montessori, Waldorf and Playcentre. Usually its a water trough that is set up at toddler height, which is great. Some centres are lucky enough to have water that moves - an old fashioned water pump (which I have seen at a Playcentre next to the sandpit) or a water feature set into a hill ... but an ordinary tap works pretty well too. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a shallow stream running through your centre ... if health and safety regulations would allow it!
Water play isn't just for the water trough though ... its pretty much everywhere for young children ... pouring a drink, doing the dishes, washing dolls clothes in the laundry tub, washing hands, having a bath, splashing in puddles, collecting rain water, watering the plants, helping Mum and Dad wash the car, at the beach or the swimming pool ... its endless.
At Playcentre there tends to be a lot of 'extension' of water play that involves colouring the water and adding glitter .... or maybe that was just my experience. I'm not sure that's totally necessary - water is amazing enough in its natural state. In the Waldorf context glittery, brightly coloured water is seen as quite harsh on a child's senses. Adding bubbles is great fun though (although you wouldn't see it at Waldorf). What I would say is that adding detergent for bubbles can end up in eyes ... keep the lux flakes for messy play. In the water trough no more tears shampoo is a better idea. Oh, and please keep the water luke warm ... cold water is not great for littlies, especially in winter.
There are lots of ways to extend water play beyond the obvious - a few that I have seen work really well are:
- Put a large hunk of ice in a water trough or large washing bowl. (hardware stores often sell really large washing bowls ideal for home water play) Provide some spatulas or metal spoons to 'chip' away at the ice, and containers of water to pour over the ice as it melts.
- Set up places for children to create their own streams with rocks, grass and perhaps some plastic sheeting underneath. A hose can make this really great fun.
- Set up an old fashioned washing board for dolls clothes, complete with scrubbing brushes and soap.
- A fantastic activity I have seen at Playcentre was stringing up old milk bottles on a line for children to pour water into - all ages seemed to really enjoy this.
- Give children large paintbrushes (industrial type ones) and let them paint with water - stones, wooden pailings, concrete paths.
- Older children can help make little walnut boats - take a half walnut shell and use blu-tack or modelling beeswax to insert a toothpick and stick on a sail made from felt or heavy paper. See if they will 'sail' and make wind by blowing on them.
Another activity often suggested for water play is seeing which objects float or sink. Here, the approaches between Steiner, Montessori and Playcentre are all actually fairly similar, and yet distinctive. All three approaches caution against 'over intellectualising', or bringing adult consciousness to it. They differ however in the degree to which they apply this.
In Steiner/Waldorf, children would discover this for themselves while playing. The kindergartener wouldn't get terribly involved not wanting to alter the natural course of play, nor to bring an adult 'intellect' into the young child's conscious.
At Playcentre, children would also discover this while playing. The teacher/parent might then suggest 'I wonder what else might float' or 'hey, look that one is sinking'. Gwen Somerset then suggests giving children a bunch of different objects and asking them to guess what will float/sink and why. She goes on to say 'young children, unde 7, have little understanding of what causes one objecct to float and another to sink, but the objective is not to supply facts, but to keep children wondering about a problem'. Gwen Somerset, Vital Play in Early Childhood.
In Montesori, the approach is well outlined here by Susan Stephenson "One experiment usually found in 3-6 classrooms is called simply "sink and float." For this experiment, we have a tray containing a box of objects, a vinyl mat or small towel to work on, a clear glass bowl, a pitcher for bringing water to fill the bowl, a bucket for taking the water to the sink when the work is finished, and a small cloth for drying everything when the experiment is finished. We show the child how to carefully place one object into the water, and to observe if it sinks or floats. We make one group, on one side of the bowl of those objects which sink and another, on the other side, objects which float. We do not talk or explain this phenomenon from an adult point of view, we give no labels or language, but let the child ponder, and repeat the experiment whenever she is interested. It is not uncommon for the child to carry out the activity, carefully dry everything, repeat and repeat these steps, as a deep and private understanding of the physics principle grows in her. It is only after the child has had some experience that we introduce the terms "sink" and "float" if the child does not know them yet.
Theory aside, how we as parents react to our children will probably have less to do with our chosen pedagogy, and more to do with our own interests, personalities, and of course, habits! I can't think of anything worse than rushing to a textbook everytime Munchkin discovers something new ... but I do find all these different ideas fascinating. I hope you do too!
I would love any comments with other ideas for Water Play .. I'm sure we all have days when we desperately need some play inspiration!