Tag Archives: water beads

Water Beads vs. Boba (Edible Tapioca Balls)

Water beads are FABULOUS to play with (see my last post) but bad to ingest (non-toxic, but not healthy…. again, see last post). So, if you’ve got a little one who ALWAYS puts everything in their mouth and swallows it, they’re not a good option.

I’d seen a recommendation to use boba – tapioca pearls like are used in bubble tea. I decided to do a side-by-side comparison.

The products

My water beads were BioGel from Creation Station. The boba was Rainbow Tapioca Pearls, ordered from Amazon. On a pound-for-pound basis, the boba was half the cost, but really way more than I would need for sensory play for one kid.

Ease of Preparation

Boba – boil water, add boba, cook for five minutes or more, drain.

Water beads – put them in water. Let them sit for six hours.

Water beads win, but both pretty easy.



Boba for sensory play

water beads

Water beads for sensory play

As you can see, water beads are MUCH prettier than the boba. The boba was fine on its own – interesting shape, some shine, nice color. But doesn’t begin to compare to the beauty of the water beads!


Boba – they’re pretty sticky – stick to your hands and stick to each other – so easier to play with if you float some in water. Interesting to touch, fun to “chase” around the water and catch, fun to squish between your fingers into blobs of goop. Held my son’s attention for about 5 minutes – if he’d used these before the water beads, they might have been more interesting.

Water beads – VERY fun to play with – on their own or in water. Can be scooped, poured, picked up with tongs, and so on. (See my other post, or ideas on Pinterest.) Kept my son’s attention for a week of on-going play and exploration.

Again, the water beads are the clear winner.


Boba – bland but chewy – I told my son they were edible but the water beads absolutely were not. He popped a couple in his mouth and ate them, but not a lot. (He loves them in bubble tea, but not as much in this context, which is probably a good thing. (I generally try to keep “sensory items” and “food” in separate categories to minimize confusion.)

Water beads – tasteless and no smell, so no motivation to eat, luckily. Note: my son did not taste them, because I told him they were not edible. I did taste them (licked one), for the purposes of this review – I wanted to know if they would appeal to toddlers. FWIW: My dog also was unimpressed. We dropped one on the floor, he picked it up, carried it in his mouth for a few seconds and spit it out. This is a dog who eats lots of stuff he shouldn’t (like socks), so these must really be unappealing.

Mess and clean-up

Boba – need to wash your hands and whatever surface you played on after use – starchy, gooey.

Water beads – no clean-up needed. I dry my hands after playing with them. But my son (who is a kid who HATES being wet after water play) doesn’t even bother to dry his damp hands when he’s done.


Boba – we didn’t have them around for long – they just weren’t interesting enough to keep around. I imagine they dry out and stick together, may go bad?

Water beads – they’ve been sitting uncovered on the counter for a week, no maintenance needed.  I rinsed them after a week, just for kicks. Don’t know if they were dirty.


Water beads are a far superior sensory material. For me, personally, with my child I will use them in the future, and not boba. If you’ve got a kid who mouths and eats everything, then the boba may be a better option for you.

Update: here are alternate directions for making tapioca water beads… I have not tested it, but it’s worth taking a look at, because they claim it works for them: https://thecraftathomefamily.com/edible-water-beads/?fbclid=IwAR3oXVvI1TUktv3l824wwp_8FT6h4aLmbhYRCBHxIAVboD4zb3RhpZaCcRw

Water Beads

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.)

water bead tub

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 by themselves and let the kids sift their hands through them, 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 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.

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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 smaller package. Three ounces makes 3 gallons of water beads. At home, I’d typically only use a cup or two. For class, I might make a gallon. So, $5 of beads goes a long ways, even longer if you dry them out between uses and re-hydrate when desired

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, such as putting them inside a transparent plastic container with a lid. Or, make edible boba (tapioca beads) instead… see this post for my comparison. Or, Fun at Home with Kids recommends basil seed.

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.

My favorite summary is on Artful Parent. And here’s “10 Ways to play with Water Beads

Photo credit, beads in hand: 10MFH via photopin; Tub: LizMarie_AK via photopin