The Sand and Water Center in Child Care

Child playing at water table

Sand and Water Play Supports Children’s Development

Sensory play – including play with sand, water, Styrofoam peanuts, bubbles, beans, dirt, and other materials – can be an important part of the child care classroom or family child care home. Children exploring in the sensory center are learning some important skills.

  • Math and science skills: Sand and water play introduces scientific concepts such as sinking, floating, and changes of state (e.g., dry to wet). Exploring sand, water, and other sensory materials gives children opportunities to practice measuring and explore other math concepts such as more, less, bigger, smaller, and equal.
  • Physical development: Children playing with sand and water are practicing eye-hand coordination and using fine motor skills to scoop, sift, funnel, and pour. 
  • Social and emotional skills: The sand and water center provides important opportunities for children to practice cooperative play and sharing. It also helps children explore and enjoy the sensory experience of manipulating fluid materials. Digging in sand or splashing water can also reduce the energy level of overexcited children and provide an acceptable way for them to vent anger or frustration.

What Teachers Should Know about Sand and Water Play

Understanding the child’s role: The sand and water center is enjoyable, but it can be very messy. Children should follow certain guidelines while in the sand and water center to ensure that the materials are kept together and nobody gets hurt. Some typical guidelines for sand and water play include:

  • Keep water in the water table or container.
  • Keep sand in the sand table or box.
  • Wear a smock while playing with water.
  • Avoid running in the sand and water areas.

Understanding the teacher’s role: Teachers play an important role in sand and water play, both in keeping children safe and in ensuring that they get the most out of the center. Here are some specific guidelines teachers should follow when setting up and facilitating sand and water play:

  • Set up the water or sand center in a safe area, and cover the floor with a protective mat to reduce slips and falls.
  • Provide an adequate supply of tools to use in sand or water, and rotate those tools regularly.
  • Supervise children carefully during sensory play, especially around water (children can drown in seconds in only a few inches of water).
  • Ask questions to extend children’s thinking (e.g., “What will happen if we…?” or “What does the sand feel like when you…?”).
  • Help children find answers to their questions about sand, water, and other sensory materials through books, websites, and other resources.
  • Observe and monitor interactions of children with each other and with the sand, water, or other sensory materials.

For more specific ideas and tips for setting up a sensory center, including ideas for sensory materials and props to use, see Planning a Successful Sand and Water Center in Child Care

For More Information

To learn more about sand, water, and other learning centers, take a look at the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:

Photo by elisaself / CC BY