The Bucket Challenge

Water Play Activity for Kids

Want a simple recipe that will entice your kids to move their bodies, think creatively, and work as a team -- all at the same time? Combine a simple, solvable problem with a sense of urgency -- then add water! This collaborative challenge is tailor-made for kids ages 3 to 5. Start with a “burning” tree. In order to save it, your team will need to fill a bucket with water quickly, then carry it to the tree. Here’s the real challenge, though: Kids will use jugs to fill the bucket with water, and there aren’t enough jugs to go around. How will everyone get a chance to use the jugs -- and still save the tree? You'll be floored by how excited kids get -- and it’s a great way to encourage older kids to work as a team, building collaboration skills for later on. Fill a bucket, save a tree!

The Guide

  1. Set the scene: Place a 3-gallon bucket about 30 yards from the edge of a stream, pond, or shoreline. Make sure there are no hazards between the water and bucket, since kids will be moving quickly back and forth. Set out half as many 32-oz plastic "jugs" (we like large yogurt containers) as there are participants.
  2. Present the challenge: "Today we’re going to pretend that that tree (or other object) is on fire! How could we put out the fire?" Even small children will know an obvious solution: "Yes, we need to pour water on it. We’ll need a WHOLE bucket of water to put the fire out, and we have to hurry!" Prod them to continue problem-solving: "Where can we get water? The trick is, we can’t touch or move this bucket until it’s full! How are we going to fill the bucket?" Soon the kids will likely suggest using the jugs.
  3. Add in the collaboration: Explain the dilemma clearly. "Okay, one more rule: Everyone has to get a chance to use the water jugs.” Point out that there are not enough jugs for everyone to use at the same time, so the team will need to figure out a way to play fairly. You can even raise the stakes and let kids know that if it feels unfair to any friends at the end, you will pour back the water and start again.
  4. Brainstorm and plan: Get kids talking about how to fill the bucket and make sure that every friend has a turn. Discuss ways to fill up the bucket quickly, letting them come up with ideas (for example, form an assembly line). Even if the kids have no ideas, it’s useful to model planning before starting.
  5. Time for safety: You’re working near water, so set some ground rules, like no running near the edge of the water and no bumping or pushing near the water.
  6. Call out good strategies: If kids start to employ strategies, bring them to the group’s attention. “I like how Max is waiting by the bucket to get the next water jug when it’s empty. I’m going to try that too!”
  7. Celebrate and “save” the tree: As soon as the bucket is full, erupt in cheers. Work together to carry the full bucket to the tree and “put out” the fire.
  8. Extend it: Not ready for the fun to end? Try it again -- but “even faster!” Try timing the group to set a team record.

Why is this activity great for kids?

Just walking through the process of understanding the problem and discussing ways to overcome the challenges gives kids experience with solving ambiguous problems. As kids consider and test out different strategies, they develop the basis for creativity. Hustling back and forth, carrying and dumping water and the leaping they’ll undoubtedly do when the bucket is full are all great ways to develop gross motor skills. Finally, the simple requirement that all friends need fair turns helps kids develop the capacity for consideration and compromise required for genuine teamwork and collaboration.

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