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Early childhood education has been my life for over 40 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Water beads

Because I am often asked what materials I use in my sand and water table, I am writing a series of posts about those materials.  I started to introduce some of those materials in posts about two of my favorite materials: sticks and rocks.  I also wrote about a couple of the most elemental materials I use in the table, namely, water and sand.  (By the way, water comes in different states and there are several different types of sand.)  In February, I wrote a post on feed corn.  In April, I wrote about wood pellets.

In this post, I want to talk about water beads.  Water beads are super absorbent polymers that expand from a tiny dot to a marble size ball when immersed in water.  Florists use them to keep the soil moist and they are  sometimes marketed as sensory material for children with developmental delays.  I have even seen them advertised in a science surplus store.  I bought my water beads at a local craft store. When hydrated, the water beads squish, bounce, and roll.  

Before I show you some of the play that emerges as the children play with them, and even though they are non-toxic, I want you to understand that they can be dangerous.  To see what I mean, watch the following You Tube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ti6C8wg5VE4

The setup for the water beads is two sensory tables, each with a plywood insert with big holes.  The holes in the smaller table are the same size whereas the holes in the larger table are different sizes.  The two tables are connected with PVC half pipes.  The smaller pipe is taped to a yellow bin so the water beads flow from the big sensory table to the small sensory table.  The bigger PVC pipe is slanted in the opposite direction because the lip of the small sensory table is slightly higher than the lip of the larger table.

This setup allows the children to "fish" for water beads through the holes with minnow nets.  The plywood inserts provide a platform in between the holes to hold the children's collection of water beads.

Once a child collects enough beads, the feel of the water beads is irresistible.  They are kind of slimy without the stickiness of slime.  

Something happens to the color of the water beads when they are in the water.  The clear ones disappear.  The colored ones offer a different shade of their original color, but only in the blue sensory table.

I have so many images of children creating novel operations at the sensory table with this setup for the water beads, but let me show just one.  The child below is dropping the water beads one by one done the PVC pipe and then catching them with the minnow net.
That is not as simple as it sounds because the child has to use their proprioceptive sense to hold the minnow net in place while they drop a water bead down the pipe.  In addition, they are using their fine motor skills to pick up the individual---slippery---beads.

Below is a second setup for water bead play.  A PVC pipe frame holds multiple pipes with inclines across the two tables.
The highlight of this apparatus is the clear plastic tube oriented on a slight slant.  It connects children in play in so many spontaneous ways.  One simple way has the child on the top fill the pot for the child on the bottom.

Again, I have so many images of children discovering novel operations, but let me highlight just one.  The children use a plastic juice can to plug the tube.  When the tube is full and the plug is pulled, the flood of water beads is a joy to behold.

Water bead water fall from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

If you want to see more on the apparatus and the children's operations that emerged from them, you can find the original posts here and here.

Even though I was surprised and amazed with the children's play and experimentation with the water beads, I only used them for a couple of weeks one year.  Why?  I cannot say.

A word of caution about water beads.  If you read the label it says to keep out of the reach of young children.   You will have to think what that means for you.  For me it meant knowing the children in my classroom and knowing when to supervise more closely.   And if you have not watched the You Tube video about the danger of water beads mentioned near the beginning of this post, please do so you can make an informed decision.  By the way, the label also says that they will plug up plumbing so do not pour them down the drain.  

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