Set Up Your Water Play Center

’Tis the season for soothing, stimulating WATER play—and you don’t need an in-ground pool or the beach to support hours of it. Setting up a water play center in your home outdoor space is a super way to spark hours of imaginative, sensory-rich play. What is a water play center? It’s any place with a basin or container that can hold water and the okay to play.

To a small human, a bowl of water and a measuring cup can qualify as a water play center, so make yours as simple or elaborate as you like. Each week you can offer a new “surprise” tool and wonder aloud: “I wonder how we could use this in our water play center?” Whether or not you already have a setup, here are some ideas to help make water play extra special:

The Guide

Step 1: Download the guide. 

Download our "Water Play Tips" guide to setting up and supporting sensory-rich water play all summer long!

Step 2: Find a spot where kids can comfortably and easily play with water.  

If you have outdoor space, do you have a water source? If not, where in the space can you easily transport bins or buckets of water? 

Step 3: Decide what will contain the water for play.

Kiddy pools, bins and even large cooking pots work well. Feeling crafty? Wrap a tarp around a few pool noodles to form a pond. Doing your water play indoors? Try the bathtub, the shower or the sink. Or, lay towels on the floor and place a plastic bin or cooking pot in the middle.

Step 4: Gather water play tools.

Here are some ideas:
  • Cups and containers of all shapes and sizes
  • Fun kitchen gear (funnels, basters, measuring scoops, etc.)
  • Washcloths, sponges, paintbrushes or other absorbent items
  • Rocks or household items that kids can “wash” and use to explore sinking and floating
  • Pool noodles, drain pipes or other items that can be used as water channels
  • A smock (could be a raincoat or just a change of clothes) if your child prefers to stay dry during play
  • Recycled containers with the top/bottom cut off to create channels for water to flow
  • Action figures or toys that kids can create a water playground for to help them play and "cool off"
  • Ice or frozen treasures
  • Sliced cucumber or citrus to add scent and explore sink and float
  • Objects from nature (e.g. rocks, leaves, sticks, flowers) that kids can use to create a pretend water habitat

Step 5: Let the water play begin! 

To get kids really engaged, turn the “launch” of your water play center into a moment. Share a “Hurrah!” as you and your child turn on the faucet or pour the first bucket of water into your setup. Once the water is in, plop in a tool or two, and enjoy some splash, scoop, pour and explore action. Let the water play roll! Need some water play ideas? Try our Ice and Water Play or Build a Water Run DIY activities.

Tips for Grown-Ups: Supporting Kids' Water Play and Communication Skills

Water play is a type of play that universally calms, soothes, draws kids in and sustains their focus. This makes water play an inviting time for grown-ups to practice the various ways we communicate with kids when they are actively engaged in playful learning. Having a conversation requires a complicated symphony of skills and can be a big undertaking for kids. When we ask a child who is deeply engaged in play to talk with us, we are asking a lot and the deeper the child’s engagement, the more potentially distracting our outreach can be. 

Before engaging kids in conversation, we can look for a few signs they are ready. For example, if kids are ready to chat, they might:
  • Engage you in talking
  • Look up when you are near and make eye contact
  • Hand you an object

If kids do not show these types of signs and remain focused on play, we can still support their play by:
  • Sitting nearby and observing
  • Mirroring their play
  • Saving the conversation for later

Why is this activity great for kids?

Setting up a water play center can inspire hours and hours of independent play for your family. Water play offers limitless chances for kids to use their imaginations, tinker and experiment, and even explore STEM concepts. No matter how sensitive a child is to sensory input, water is simultaneously stimulating and calming, making it an ideal material for sensory play.

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