Kids are drawn to water and frankly, so are adults! My driveway has a low spot that doesn’t drain in winter, resulting in a small ice rink under and around our cars on a cold morning following winter daytime temps above freezing.
On some of those warm-ish days, I like nothing better than to dig drainage channels through the melting ice and mud. As the water drains, fine silts and clays make incredible patterns in the water, and the channel requires constant maintenance as bits of ice and leaves create dams that obstruct the flow.
We all have an ‘inner engineer,’ especially our children. So, when the rains come, which they will, don’t despair! Dress your children appropriately for the temperature, and head outside armed with a few implements that play well with water and dirt. (All of these activities are also appropriate for a sunny day. Often a puddle or hose are all you need to get things rolling.)
Branches do just fine as digging tools, and children get incredibly creative in repurposing objects to meet their needs. Don’t help them too much, but surreptitiously leaving things like PVC pipe or a short piece of hose/piping within view can take activities to a whole new level!
Playing around water involves all sorts of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) concepts. Here are some suggestions on how to get your kids started.
- If it’s raining, suggest going outside for a ‘rain date’ (or whatever clever name you can think of). Going outside while it’s raining may seem sort of crazy to your kids if they’ve never done it before. Hopefully, this will make it even more appealing.
- Get everyone dressed in rain gear. (Knee high rubber boats are great, but old sneakers are fine too. They can be rinsed and dried later.)
- Start by walking around together and looking at where water is moving on the surface of the land. Perhaps comment on where water is flowing. As soon as your children start to engage with water, back off and observe. Let them lead. Your role is to support them – only as needed – in their play. If they don’t engage in an activity, try any of the following – without suggesting they join you (i.e. pique their interest. Young kids are constantly mirroring adults’ activities):
- Dig a hole somewhere and see how quickly it fills with water.
- Find a puddle and try to drain the water from it by digging a ditch.
- Make patterns in puddle water (if there’s silt and clay under the puddle).
- Jump in the puddle!
- Find a ditch/stream with moving water. Put different size sticks/leaves into it and see how fast and far they travel. Make leaf boats. Can a leaf support some ‘cargo’ (sticks, stones, etc)? Can you make a sail with a leaf and a stick?
- Try to build a dam somewhere where water is flowing.
- Try diverting flowing water to another path.
- Make some mud! (Mud play on the last day of camp is one of the MOST popular activities we offer! There’s something wonderful about getting completely dirty.)
Once your children get absorbed in water/mud play, back off and let them explore. Be tolerant of messy play, limit directions about how/what to do, support their interests, and intervene only when necessary.
In this type of unstructured play, children are exercising gross and fine motor skills, practicing turn taking, learning about physical properties of different materials/substances, learning physics concepts, using all five senses, engaging their curiosity and imagination, and so much more.
Unstructured outdoor play is vital to the development of young children, so give them plenty of time for it. And you’re giving your child the foundation for a bright future, because according to the latest research, spending more time outside promotes more sustainable and environmentally-friendly behavior in children.
When everyone’s ready to come in (be sure to give a ten minute warning*), head in for hot baths/showers, hot cocoa or tea with honey and milk, and read a story.
*The beauty of the ten minute warning, with young children at least, is that they have no concept of time. So you don’t have to wait ten minutes, necessarily, but you’ve respected them by giving them a heads up and created a predictable process around winding up an activity.