A Wonderous World of Water: How the Most Basic Material Guides Complex Thinking and Inquiry

By Colin Johnson, Head Teacher


We’ve all heard some form of the expression “Where there is water, there is life,” but in early childhood education, that notion extends far beyond its biological roots. Where there is water, there is the stuff of life: There is play; there is exploration, inquiry and learning. At Bing, water (with blocks, clay, paint and sand) is one of the five basic, open-ended materials that are present every day in our play-based curriculum. At a table or in a tub, in the sand area, and in pretend play, water is both the topic of children’s exploration and an object within a more complex story. Children enjoy the feel of it, they learn about its unique properties and they manipulate it (physically and symbolically) to become whatever they can imagine. Through this variety of repeated experiences with water’s unique properties, children of all ages engage in intrinsically motivated, complex thinking that feeds their natural drive to learn and contributes to their overall development.

In her book Growing Minds: Building Strong Cognitive Foundations in Early Childhood, early childhood specialist Carol Copple, PhD, emphasizes that thinking, and specifically scientific thinking, rests on an individual’s ability to pursue inquiry. Inquiry skills, such as observation, exploration, hypothesizing and description, guide “the ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work.” In addition, writes Copple, inquiry “also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas.” Though Copple focuses on scientific topics for encouraging inquiry, scholars have long attributed all of children’s learning to this type of thinking. Influential psychologist Jean Piaget, PhD, famously described children as “young scientists,” and contemporary researchers Alison Gopnik, PhD, Andrew Meltzoff, PhD, and Patricia Kuhl, PhD, appropriately titled their groundbreaking book The Scientist in the Crib. The authors assert: “The new research shows that babies and young children know and learn more about the world than we could ever have imagined. They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations, and even do experiments. Scientists and children belong together because they are the best learners in the universe.” This is no small claim, but for young children, there is no reason to believe that scientific thinking should be relegated to individual topics, nor that it is a means to an end—a way to accumulate more facts. Rather, for young children, thinking tends to breed new ideas, and one inquiry opens a world of new questions. Water provides a stage for this type of learning in the way that children do it best: through play.


A child experiments with color mixing.

At Bing, the freedom of inquiry allowed by open space and time for play encourages children to learn about materials, themselves and their peers through a self-directed process of discovery. Copple writes: “Inquiry is about questions, but it is hard to ask questions about something if they haven’t had a chance to get to know the thing or the event… . So the first stage…is to notice, wonder, and explore.” Water, specifically, lends itself to this stage of inquiry perhaps more than any other material. As part of his dissertation research, James Morgante, PhD, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, conducted a study of how objects affect the type of play that children pursue. He found that water encouraged the most “functional” play—or repeated physical uses of the material without a specific goal. Through the lens of an observer seeking external signs of complex play—such as a story to accompany the play, or a finished product—this could appear to be a negative effect: Children engage in less creative play with water.

On the other hand, through the lens of inquiry—of valuing internal, cognitive interactions with materials—playing with water is the perfect foundation for scientific thinking because it increases children’s tendency to spend more time noticing, wondering and exploring. You can see how water unleashes the inner scientist in this observation made in a Bing classroom:

 A 3-year-old boy pours blue water into a container with clear water. As the color swirls and slowly dissipates, he notes: “You can see the smoke, too.” A few minutes later, the boy is scooping water from the water table using a small bottle, and he pours each scoop through a funnel into a larger bottle. When the bottle is full, he pours it all back into the water table. Immediately, he repeats the process of pouring water through the funnel into the large bottle. This time, when it is full, he observes: “Look, I think it’s full.” He dumps the water again and chooses a new tool: a larger funnel. Watching as the water drains more swiftly through this one, he exclaims: “Ha, look it. Woooooh!”

This boy has no clear product in mind and instead engages in inquiry as the intrinsic purpose of his play. The water itself draws his curiosity, and he performs the simplest of actions: pouring from one container to another. The initial phenomenon of swirling color demands observation, and he chooses expressive language to describe what he sees. This seems to open up more questions as the boy focuses on the action of pouring and filling.

From a concrete standpoint, he is learning about volume (smaller containers hold less water), measurement (many of the same container, or unit, can fill a large container), tool use (he fills the large bottle more efficiently with a funnel) and the properties of the material (how it creates a vortex through a funnel, how it molds to the shape of its container, how it splashes and always flows down). More profoundly, however, the boy is practicing the art of learning itself. Each iteration of filling the bottle brings a new step in the flow of inquiry: from exploration to intentional action in refilling the bottle, from observation to description in his explanations of the act, from investigation to experiment as he compares the effects of a large funnel to a small one.

If this boy’s play grew in complexity over the course of a few minutes, then repeated experiences with water over days, weeks and years at Bing provide endless opportunities for developing and honing inquiry skills. In the same study that revealed water as a platform for “simple” physical exploration, Morgante also observed that water set the stage for much of the more “complex” social interactions he saw. Perhaps because of its simplicity, water encourages children to play with each other. In his study, Morgante observed children splashing water back and forth. At Bing two boys collaborate to lift a heavy bin filled with the liquid, and two girls take on individual roles as one pours water into a pipe and the other catches it on the other end. As children gain mastery over the material, they can use it to represent something entirely different: It can be a bathtub for babies, an ocean for animals, or lava for a volcano. In many instances, water is a prop for the kind of collaborative pretend play that developmental theorist Lev Vygotsky described as a child’s “greatest achievement.”

An example from our outdoor yard:
Two girls mix grass and leaves into bowls of water. One explains: “We’re making grass soup. Kitten soup. Grass soup for the kittens.”

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of water, then, is its multitude of properties and purposes. In their paper, Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, Edward Miller, a founding partner of the U.S. Alliance for Childhood, and Joan Almon, co-founder of the Alliance for Childhood, provide a list of the key types of play that children should experience for effective learning. Water has the potential to guide most of them: sensory play (e.g., splashing and mixing water), large motor play (e.g., lifting large quantities), small-motor play (e.g., using eye droppers), mastery play (e.g., practicing and honing a skill like pouring), construction play (e.g., building structures for water to flow through), make-believe play (e.g., water as a stage for a story), and symbolic play (e.g., water as soup for kittens). A 2002 position paper by the Association for Childhood Education International offers an explanation of how water supports learning in each of these types of play: It offers a visual, tangible and auditory stimulus; it causes changes in other substances such as sand or clay; it helps children understand spatial concepts like volume; and it provides the potential for imitation of familiar acts.

Water takes the form of cupcakes, soups and juice in early social interactions
for these 3-year-olds.

Water sets the stage for children to realize and reiterate the foundational thinking skills that guide how they build understanding of the world around them. Through experiences with water, children become scientists in the broadest sense of the word: They become thinkers. And in the end, isn’t that what we want for all of our children?