How kids benefit from playing with water

Buckets of fun.
Buckets of fun. Photo: Shutterstock

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It's no secret that little kids love water. From their earliest enjoyment of bath time, children seem to have an almost endless fascination for the way water moves and feels.

That's no surprise, according to Dr Suzy Green, clinical and coaching psychologist and founder of The Positivity Institute.

"Whilst water play brings many of the benefits of all other types of play, research has shown that there are specific benefits to water play.  Whilst this area of research is still emerging, it 'feels right' in as much as most of us know the benefits of spending time near water or just how therapeutic a dip in the ocean can be," she explains.

However, kids don't need to swim in order to derive benefits. "Water play for children doesn't have to mean being in a pool, but can be just filling a bucket and having the opportunity to play with water in small amounts. Some research has shown just viewing images of water, and particularly the colour blue, has a restorative effect on our wellbeing," says Dr Suzy.

Getting outside

Of course water play – even if not in a pool or at a beach – is one activity that lends itself to outdoor play and that's something that our kids need.

The benefits of outdoor play or nature play are supported by research, which demonstrates a positive impact on wellbeing. Interactions with nature can positively influence behaviour, academic performance and social skills in children. What's more, children who play outside show increased self-confidence, a decreased stress levels and improved resilience.

"Water play is also a perfect choice for unstructured play, which is sorely needed in western society," says Dr Suzy.  "Water play can be done solo or with friends.  There's ample opportunity for having good old-fashioned fun, using up some of that extra energy, engaging the curious mind, laughing and being playful – all crucial character strengths of children.

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Water and what it teaches

There are a whole host of skills that our children can derive from playing with water.

Physically, playing in water can help build strength, since water provides more resistance than air, so moving their bodies while in water requires more muscle power. It also helps with coordination, since learning to move their bodies in water requires children to coordinate each side of their body.

Playing with water can also give children one of their earliest introductions to concepts they'll later learn more about in fields of maths and science. Think about the way children will watch as water moves along a channel and direct it to where they want it to go. When they observe water's flow and motion they are learning physics. When they see the way dirt and sand dissolve in water that's chemistry, and when they tip water from a small container into a larger one, they are looking at the mathematical concepts of measurement and volume.

"These are a wonderful way to understand the world around us," says Dr Suzy. "For example, ladles, straws and funnels all provide children with the opportunity to see how water moves, is measured, evaporates.  They can also learn about sinking, floating and bubble formation which kids adore!  Finally throw in a bit of mud, and water takes on a whole new play experience!"

Not all about the learning

Dr Ginni Mansberg is an author, GP and resident doctor on Channel 7's Sunrise program. For her, the benefits of water play are secondary to the opportunity it provides to play with your child.

"If it's giving you lovely high-quality time with your child and letting them be creative, go for it," she says. "If that's not something you enjoy though, play tips, or catch in the backyard instead. Freeform play is great but water play is just one option for freeform play that parents can enjoy with their kids."

Dr Ginni also sounds a note of caution.

"Children do still die in buckets of water and baths so careful supervision is important. Do a first-aid class so you know what to do if you do need to resuscitate your child and make sure your child knows how to swim," she warns.

Aptamil Toddler have not influenced the content of this article.