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Paint, puddles and play: How kids really learn

17 April 2020
With the pressure of home schooling falling on many of us, it’s good to hear that learning can be fun…
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Good old fashioned play

With all the electronics and games being played on computers, TV’s and apps, old-fashioned play happens less and less. But research that shows a strong link between play and the development of cognitive and social skills. For example, play is linked to growth in memory, self-regulation, oral language, and recognizing symbols. It has been linked to higher levels of school adjustment and increased social development.
Play has also been linked to increased literacy skills and other areas of academic learning. Did you know that studies have shown dirt is good for your brain? There are types of bacteria naturally found in soil that activate the neurons that produce serotonin, a key chemical in many bodily functions, as well as a natural antidepressant. In other words, dirt can actually help make you feel happy!
If there’s anything in the world (other than a good roll in the mud) that will brighten up a preschooler’s day… it’s crafts, paint and water play. Getting messy leads to laughter and water is seriously magical. All you need is a bucket of water, a pool, a hose or a sprinkler to make your child and her friends happy and engaged. Throw in some play dough and paint and you have a winning recipe for fun.
And if the kids are happy, we’re happy!
Rainbow Ice cubes: This one is messy but super fun and easy. Fill ice cube trays with liquid watercolors and freeze them overnight. In the morning grab lots of paper or a huge sheet of fabric and put it on a table (no table? Lay it on grass or driveway), fill a bowl with the ice cubes and let the kids go. As the cubes melt the fabric gets covered in colors. This sensory play is great for kids and what’s more, they don’t just paint with the ice. They will stack it, make rainbows with it and hoard and stockpile the different colors. In the end you can hang up the sheet to dry and have a lovely place to hide behind.
Painting Ice Cubes: Sounds the same, I know but it’s another take and a great way to entertain small kids. Empty your ice cube maker into a large storage container and you have a cold sensory/art bin for the kids to use. Grab some washable liquid tempera paint and paint brushes and let your kids paint the ice. They will be entertained for a long time just sitting and painting and decorating. If the paint is thin enough, it will freeze as it hit the ice. If the paint is thick, it will drip and move in the water. Bottom line: it’s so fun I bet you’ll have to get in on the action!
Spritz Bottle and More Paint: These are magic. Fill it with water and your kids can spray themselves, their siblings, maybe even you if you’re lucky. But don’t stop there. Another fun way to use those water spritzers or water guns is to fill them with half water and half tempera paint. Take some large white paper and put it on the ground or tape it to your garage or a wall and have at it. Spray the paper with the paint–make an underwater painting or a forest or a beach. Or just an abstract, messy concoction and call it art.
Water Table: A great way to experience sensory play and still stay cool. There are endless way to play with this. My son loved to build boats out of legos and see which ones floated. You can make it partially water and another part sand. Your kids own beach to experience. Or grab some cooking utensils like a ladle and spoons, bowls, cups, and for sure the egg beater. Throw some pennies, beads or pebbles in and let them scoop them up. There are so many variations on bead soup or a wishing well that can appear on a whim.
Alphabet Soup: Take a giant bucket or water table or kiddy pool and toss those plastic letters into the water. Let the kids scoop them up with spoons or smaller bowls. See if they can name the letters as they pull them out. You could even have them grab a certain amount and see if they can spell a word or spell the sound of a word!
Water Balloons: There are endless ways to use water balloons and nearly all of them are fun–other than perhaps a few tears when a sibling throws to hard and another. In addition to just tossing water balloons at each other though, I would fill a kiddie pool with them and place it between some targets. For instance, if you have a short basketball hoop; that’s perfect. Let the kids stand wherever they want based on age and size and let them rip. Ready, aim, fire right into the basketball hoop. No basketball hoop? No problem. Get a big bucket or plastic rings you can put on the ground. Let’s face it, our toddlers are likely to just toss the balloons up and let em splash at their feet. Anything goes.
Car wash: If you are brave you can have your kids wash your car. If you’re smart you might just give them the buckets, water, sponges and a hose but put them to work on their own plastic car. I recommend bathing suits for this one–for all of you, not just the kids!
Ice Cold Treats: After all their playing, the kids will surely need to cool off with a chilly treat. Make snack time hands-on with easy food-based activities and ideas! Create your own popsicles with fruit juice or even jello; use Kool Aid to make a syrup to put over crushed ice for a do-it-yourself snow cone or stick with the art theme and decorate your own ice cream using natural food coloring, sprinkles, syrup and colored sugar. Yum.
So let your kids get dirty.
Let them play, paint, puddle stomp, explore–that’s how they learn. Better yet, do it with them. The mud will wash off but the memories will last a lifetime.
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Looking for further fun active play ideas? Check out the Family5 app for inspiration. There are plenty of great activities that can be done both indoors and out.
About the author
Dana has a B.A. in psychology and is an experienced CTI qualified parent coach. She is a mum of two and is based in San Francisco, U.S.A.
This post originally appeared in Parenting in Real Life on 18 February 2020