Water Play, Yay?!

Originally published in Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine – July/August 2015


After I delivered my third baby, a hospital nurse carefully, almost reverently, passed me a “sitz bath,” a plastic tub that sits on top of a standard toilet seat with a bag of water connected to it by a tube. You know, so that a new mama can submerge her beleaguered lady parts in warm water without hoisting herself into the bathtub. Since the gravity-powered nether regions soaker didn’t float my boat the first two times around, I tossed it aside. “Wait!” my husband cried, “Stuart will love that.”

Sure enough, nine months later my three-year-old still plays with it, gleefully spraying his dad with the hose in the shower every morning and, thankfully less often, spinning in a circle, squirting water across the bathroom. Both he and his five-year-old sister are also obsessed with camelbaks and water bottles, love to pour liquid back and forth between cups, go into paroxysms of delight when handed a hose, and can think of nothing more exciting than covering portions of the bath spout with random parts of their bodies in order to send the remainder of the flow spraying in unforeseen directions.

For me, each of these activities, of course, totally blows goats. I’m not a huge fan of wool carpets that smell like sheep and bathroom mirrors covered in water spots. I like crawling around on my hands and knees mopping up liquids off our floor about as much as accidentally swallowing a bug or wearing a bra that cuts off my circulation. But I suck it up in the name of building neural pathways and motor skills.

That’s not all. As with pretty much any kind of independent activity, water play supports language acquisition, problem-solving, logical reasoning, and imaginative exploration (which in turn leads to increases in sustained attention, memory, impulse-inhibition, and more).

Water provides a medium for psychological growth as well. “Schemas,” otherwise known as compulsions, drive much of kids’ play behavior. The urge to fill containers with water is known as the “enclosure” schema, playing with running water fulfills the “trajectory” schema, carrying it around in buckets satisfies the “transporting” schema, and mixing it with dirt to create mud helps meet the “transformation” schema.

Not to mention the chance to build math and science skills through experimentation with volume, gravity, force, displacement, and causation. With a bit of parental assistance, the possibilities are endless. We play a game called “hot, warm, cold” that introduces the concept of “change in state” (i.e., solid, liquid, and gas) without any explicit instruction. I just fill three bowls with water, one hot enough to produce steam. I ask the kids to close their eyes, hold their hands over the bowls, and guess which is which. We also put an ice cube in each bowl and watch what happens. Once we even tossed in some oatmeal to see how it would fare. I would try dirt, but I’m afraid the hot bowl will end up looking too much like brownie batter for anyone’s good.

Throughout all this learning, they’re amped up, thoroughly enjoying themselves while accomplishing something. Sort of like me getting a pedicure before a big event.

So each time I want to scream about the actual or potential mess, I bite my tongue and tolerate their wet exploration. I set boundaries, of course, mandating that water remain in the bathroom, kitchen, or deck area. I also draw the line on my son experimenting with the wonder that is his God-given hose. Any developmental benefits that result in our home smelling like a BART elevator will just have to go unclaimed.

We talk about wasting water, both in the context of the drought and in terms of the concept of “enough.” Knowing when we have enough water to play happily—and understanding that is truly all we need, regardless of how much we might want—helps us maintain an “attitude of gratitude.” A sense of “enough” when it comes to water leads to a better ability to discern when we have enough ketchup, M&Ms, and, down the line, Manolo Blahniks.

In this way, water play is really just a microcosm of parenting in general: I challenge myself to let go a little and not sweat the small stuff so that I can produce considerate, grateful people with healthy curiosity about the world and the ability to refrain from peeing on things.

2 thoughts on “Water Play, Yay?!

  1. So, you must recall that child travel and water play are absolutely linked – one without the other is truly impossible. Even in heinously depressed Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, the hotel featured a 2-3 story water slide that made the time post-drive and pre- dinner, magical.
    Nice piece, daughter…

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