On Pinterest and blogs, you’ll find lots of posts about “water beads” and using them as a sensory item for toddlers and preschoolers. When my son was three, I got our first package, and they were a huge hit! They sat in a container on the kitchen counter all week, and every breakfast and snack time, he played with them – mostly moving them from one container to another and back again. Sometimes pretending that they’re dinosaurs chatting each other up. Sometimes just rolling them around with one hand while he reads a book, or squeezing them between his fingers when watching a video. He used tongs and spoons to move them back and forth. We’ve tried a few in the bathtub, but were careful that none go down the drain. You can do color sorting and counting games and more.
What are water beads?
Water beads are a water absorbing polymer designed to be used in flower vases. They look like tiny plastic balls till you put them in water for 6 – 8 hours, then they swell up to gelatinous marbles. They stay hydrated for days, even uncovered. (If you want to dry them out to store them, you have to spread them out on a cookie sheet so they’re not all touching each other, and it still takes days.)
They are really interesting and appealing to touch – they feel cool, wet, squishy but not squash-able (resilient), malleable. Fun to just run your fingers through. They’re interesting to look at – really beautiful – brightly colored, shiny, reflective, and they pick up all the light in the room (they look great on light tables). They bounce. Luckily, they don’t taste like anything at all or smell like anything yummy, so not a lot of motivation to eat, which is good.
We usually use them in containers that the kids can sift their hands through, but they’re also fun in a water table. (Be warned that if left in LOTS of water for several hours, they do tend to get overly hydrated and become much more fragile. You’ll likely end up with lots of broken fragments. If I want to use them in class the next day, I hydrate them in a small container of water overnight, then pour them into the water table just before class, and fish them all out of the water after class to store in a bowl till the next class.) We’ve also used them with the marble maze.
Where do you get them?
We got a small package of BioGel brand beads from Creation Station. They are sold in floral departments of stores, or at dollar stores, or can be ordered online (search for “water beads” or one site said to search for “polymers”). My recent order was MarvelBeads Water Beads Rainbow Mix, 8 oz (20,000 beads) and so far, I’ve been happy with them. Note, this is a LOT of water beads – it would make a bathtub full – I plan to use them several times a year in a class that I teach. You’d likely want a small package of MarvelBeads for home use.
A couple notes about safety and mess:
Water beads are non-toxic, but that doesn’t mean they’re good to eat! If your child swallowed the dry ones, they could swell in their belly. (With the kind that only swell to marble size, that might be less of an issue, but there was a recall of a similar product called Water Balz that started out marble-sized and swelled much bigger. Very bad for little ones!) So, they should only be used with close supervision, and if your child tends to mouth things, consider some of the more baby-proofed options for water bead play described on Playing and Learning Begins at Home. Or, make boba instead… see this post for my comparison.
Some parents say that their kids dump these all over the floor and it’s a pain to clean them up. My son kept them all up on the counter, and if one dropped to the floor, he would scramble down to rescue it and return it to the container as soon as possible. You have to know your child to know what the mess potential is. One mom recommended confining them to the sink to minimize mess: http://www.thegoldengleam.com/2012/06/messy-play-in-sink-water-beads.html
Apparently some brands stain clothing – the ones we’ve had didn’t. Some brands are squishable – kids can squeeze them into mushy blobs. The Biogel brand we had was very resilient and non squishable – they could be broken if you squeeze long and hard enough – my son broke a couple in half and was very upset but we “fixed them” with a little sleight of hand (swapping in a non-broken bead) and then he stopped breaking them.
Want to see lots of posts on water beads and sensory play?
Just search online! Or, go to our BC Parent Ed Pinterest board of water bead ideas.