The Value of the Sand and Water Table

ice cubes
snow and food coloring

Research tells us that young children learn best by incorporating all of their senses into their play experiences.  By stimulating the senses, we are causing the neurons in the brain to be stimulated and the more we stimulate the neurons, the more the brain grows.  The sand and water table allows children to touch materials and objects besides plastic.  It encourages children to experiment with the materials while having minimum adult supervision. 

Your sensory table does not have to be big, small dishpans placed on a table will work.  I know many teachers feel that the sand and water table is too messy for indoor play.  Your classroom is for children, it’s ok to be a little messy.  You can teach your children cleanup skills by providing smaller brooms and mops.   Old beach towels work well for protecting the floor.  And remember to take advantage of your sandbox outside also.  According to early childhood experts, sand and/or water should be available for at least 2 hours per day.  But with simple modification, the sensory table can be available at all times.

Children are drawn to water and sand play.  Through water and sand play children are gathering information on how to manipulate materials within the confines of the table.  As children become familiar with sand and water play, you can watch the play become more intentional about what they are doing.  Children are often drawn to water play and if you do not provide a space, you will often see them playing in the sink washing their hands for extended periods of time.  That’s because water and slippery soap feel good.  And the sound of moving water has been proven to help people relax and to calm down.  If you have an upset child, encourage them to move towards your water/sand play.  Water play soothes and relieves tensions in a safe and harmless way.

The sand and water table is a good way to help children learn to care for their environment and use materials purposely and appropriately.  It teaches them to follow basic rules such as; clean up your spills, use a smock, and to wash your hands both before and after play.  It teaches cooperation, as children must learn to interact with peers through sharing, negotiating, and compromise.  Many first time cooperation experiences happen at the sand and water table as children watch and feed off each other.

The sand and water table provides fine motor skills when equipment such as eggbeaters, soup ladles, tongs, and tweezers are used.  These kinds of exercises help to strengthen hands and coordinate hand-eye movements, which will later be used for writing.    If you take the play outside, sand and water incorporate gross motor skills.  Digging with a large shovel is very different from digging inside with a spoon.


The water and sand table is a great place to teach new vocabulary words.  And it is proven that children with larger vocabularies tend to do better in reading when they start public school.  Words such as the following were meant to be used at the water/sand table.  (Ladle, scoop. Sift, drizzle, drip, sprinkle, bury, gritty, course, smooth, swirl, ripple, splash, damp, cool, hardened, whisk, moving, wavy, flow, stir, spray, gurgle, squish, mold, beige, transparent, sticky, slippery, bumpy, gooey, freezing, sense of smell, hard and soft).

The water and sand table teaches children the ability to problem-solve when they are trying to make water go through tubing or get a toy fish out of the mustard bottle.  By providing various containers and scoopers you are inviting the children to explore math concepts such as size, volume, and quantity.

color mixing

By adding extra elements to the table such as damp sand or cornstarch and water, you are encouraging the children to observe, predict, and describe what is happening.  The National Science Education Standards call for science to be taught through inquiry.  Inquiry means hands on and active involvement.  Use your table to teach float-sink, mixing of solutions, how to make secondary colors from primary colors, liquids and solids and melting, absorption, and textures.  By adding natural materials the children can sort and organize the materials in their own ways while gathering information about the natural world.  Because each child is control about how they use the materials you can talk to them about problem-solving, observations, and making hypothesis.

water beads

“The culture of children is threatened by mass media and the over production of plastic playthings that are ready-made and demand nothing of the child” (Balk 1997).  The sand and water table allows children to be creative, and to touch other materials that are not made of plastic.  This kind of play reaches across the domains and requires little teacher input after the ground rules have been laid.  Besides, children find it fun!