Check out Engineering Explorers, our newest online resource!

Observing Water Table Play

by Jennifer Asimow, M.Ed

This week I thought we could look at two videos.  The first is less than a minute and it focuses on 4 children, all under three years of age, playing at the water table.  The table is set up with some interesting materials and the children are pretty engaged.  Pay special attention to the ways in which each child is attempting to manipulate the turkey basters. Notice each of their techniques.

Of the three children who are using the turkey basters as a tool to move the water, none of them are using it the way it is intended.  Since we don’t know the background of the children we can’t assume that they have had or have not had experience using turkey basters or observing others using them.  This may be their first opportunity to play with them in the water table. They appear to understand that somehow the liquid is supposed to go into the tube and the rounded end is for squeezing.  They do not know that the rounded end is also key to getting the water up and into the tube. They are using the basters pretty successfully as tools for stirring the water.

The water table is rich with mathematical experiences for children.  Not only are they estimating and measuring, they are also problem-solving .  In this scenario, we can also see the children motor planning**.  They have to figure out how to use both of their hands simultaneously to hold the cups, pour the water, make the water wheel spin, and hold the baster. Both the turkey basters and the making the water wheel turn require a sequence of coordinated movements to make them work.

Now watch the next video.  In this one, one of the teacher has come over and is providing scaffolding around the use of the turkey basters.  What do you think?

How would you support these children? How specific would you be in offering instruction?  How do you know when to provide exact directions for problem-solving and when to encourage independent problem solving?  When do you “teach” and when do you “scaffold?”

One of the things I consider when deciding which technique to choose is whether or not, through observation and experience, and trial and error, a child could figure how to do something (in this case-manipulate a turkey baster) on his/her own.

In the video, the teacher explains the required sequence of manipulations for the basters to work.  She explains to the child that he needs to squeeze the rubber end, put it into the water, release the end so the water will be sucked in, and then squeeze the rubber end to move the water out.  I don’t know about you, but I think this is a very complicated tool to learn how to use. To be honest, I’ve seen many a grown-up fail to use a turkey baster correctly come Thanksgiving time.

You have to follow the sequence exactly or it won’t work.  For young children, especially those under three, following these multi-step directions is very difficult.  As they focus on one part of the problem, they can’t (or find it extremely difficult) to pay attention to the other details at the same time. They may be able to squeeze the rubber end and put it into the water, but then remembering to release it and let the water rise is probably too many things to expect a very young child to be able to do.  You can see that even after the teacher has explained it a few times, the boy continues to struggle while he little girl uses the baster to scoop the water out of the cup.

In the case of a complicated tool, I would show children the steps to make it work.  However, I would focus on the first step, until the children are successful before moving on to the subsequent steps.  I would also play alongside the children and model using the tool.  Remember to encourage the children to follow the steps by explicitly saying, “First squeeze.  Then put the tip in the water.  Then release and watch the water go up.”  Keep repeating this sequence until the children are able to complete the sequence themselves.  They will be so thrilled when they master this tool.



**Motor planning is the ability to conceive, plan, and carry out a skilled, non-habitual motor act in the correct sequence from beginning to end.

10 Replies to “Observing Water Table Play”

  1. kids were watcching water run through container. one kids were understanding that the more wayer she pours the longer the wheel turns.more water more spins. less water less spins. patterning more and less

  2. Very impressive with the teacher side by side working with her youngsters. That gives them more encouragement to explore their possibilities. I can pull this out

  3. Water tables are so much fun for kids, and it was so nice to see these children so engaged. I liked that the providers offered a variety of tools to get the water into the water wheel/gear structure- turkey basters, cups, and such. I think coloring the water made it easier for the children to see the water come up inside the turkey baster.

  4. I like to see them explore first… then if necessary show by example… then see if they can do on their own.
    We sometimes use small soft pipettes to transfer water for a while so they can easily squeeze and release.

    Later we bring out the turkey basters.
    They always love the water table no matter what is in it each day.

  5. A turkey baster… What a great idea and a great example of an inexpensive way to provide tools for problem solving. I love it!!!

  6. Awesome.. i strongly believe that the water table is a wonderful way for the children in our care to get some of our math material measurement incorporated into the daily routine!

  7. Watching the two videos was interesting. I agree that the turkey baster is a very difficult tool to use, especially with this age student. I think it is even very difficult to hold. I liked that she let them try to problem solve first. After demonstrating in the second video and staying with them, she still allowed the students to problem solve on their own and experience in their own way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *