If you’ve ever had to tear your mud-covered child away from a puddle or sopped up the aftermath of a particularly active bath session, then you know how irresistible water is to children. That splash pads draw crowds wherever they pop up in cityscapes and playgrounds is a given. But water play has far more to offer than the mere opportunity to dodge water jets and get soaked on a hot day.
An emerging playground trend towards hands-on water play seeks to emulate the dynamics that make creeks, ponds, and natural hydrological systems so thrilling for children. Based on a growing body of science-based evidence, the benefits of this complex, interactive sensory play extend far beyond the borders of the playground. In a world where so much learning is virtual and curriculum-based, the experiential act of water play gives kids a chance to experiment and discover in a fun and unstructured fashion.
At Goric, we’re always looking for equipment that has the power to transform an ordinary play space into a destination playground—a place where families come with picnics packed, prepared for hours of fun. The pumps, channels, dams, and kinetic elements of STREAMS systems offer exactly that sort of playground experience. Whether the system is a simple standalone element or the central feature of a large, water-themed playground, children of all ages find ways to engage with them for hours on end.
What puts this type of equipment in a different class than a splash pad in the world of playground design? The simple answer is that complex water play offers rich sensory, social, and cognitive benefits. A splash pad is fun but provides little in the way of creative exploration. On the other hand, a system of hand-operated elements that control and convey the flow of water gives kids a chance to play at engineering, learning valuable STEM lessons along the way. Sometimes referred to as “water labs,” exploratory outdoor water play installations are still rare in the United States, but are quite popular in Europe and Australia.
Carol Gross of Lehman College of CUNY has researched how children learn scientific concepts through water play and advocates for incorporating water in play. In her research, she states that, “Free play with water can build the foundation for understanding of a multitude of scientific concepts,” concluding that, “Children inquire, observe, compare, imagine, invent, design experiments, and theorize when they explore natural science materials such as water, sand, and mud.”
Parents and designers also observe how water play engrosses children. A parent visiting Knudsen Park in Holliday, Utah, reflected, “The water feature where you pump and divert water flow is incredible. Kids can play forever on this feature alone. Perfect for a hot day.” Goric CEO Laura Guscott describes her children enjoying the water elements in their local pocket park, explaining that, “My toddler would be happy to play with the pump and sand for hours; my eight-year-old enjoys it but additional basins and troughs would be even more engaging.”
The National Association for the Education of Young Children looks beyond the fun aspects of water and sand play, stating that it is “essential to the classroom for higher-level learning.” That’s because, beneath the surface, big things are happening when kids play with water together. Kids actively develop and build a wide range of skills as they engage with water.
The sensory benefits of water play are the most easily seen. Using hand-operated elements such as pumps and dams supports early motor skills development, and the combination of gripping, manipulating, and observing the flow of water helps to develop hand-eye coordination.
As we’ve discussed in the past, water play also contributes to cognitive development and STEM skills. Unlike structured activities, the open-ended nature of water play gives children the freedom to make discoveries independently. Simply experimenting with objects that sink or float builds problem-solving skills as kids discover why and how objects behave differently in water. As water moves through interactive pumps, dams, and kinetic elements, children learn about cause and effect and observe how water fills different volumes.
Laura Guscott highlights how water play equipment encourages social development and builds language skills. “Children must communicate and coordinate their efforts to make things happen,” she says. Furthermore, she explains, “If they want to make a wheel turn down the line or if they want to dry up one side of the creek, they have to work together: Should the child at the pump keep pumping or should they stop? If there are multiple pumps, should they all be pumping at once?” Even the very youngest children can learn new vocabulary words and concepts (flow, dam, pump, etc.) as they experience and interact with water.
Finally, the versatility and open-endedness of water play foster creativity and imagination. Free from the pressure of creating an end product, kids are allowed to focus on the water itself, inventing their own games and narratives to accompany the activity. Giving kids space to embark on adventurous and creative play builds confidence.
Despite the many significant benefits sand and water play offers children, they are still difficult to find in American playgrounds, aside from in childrens’ museums. This may be due to city planners and playground designers overestimating the amount of infrastructure needed for these playscapes. Installation is actually quite simple, with only a water connection and drainage required!
As educators, designers, and planners begin to take note of the value water play adds to the playground, we hope to see an uptick in their use. Much like the cup or funnel our kids might play with in the bathtub, a water play feature in the playground is far more than the sum of its parts.