Exploring water beads should definitely be on your list of sensory activities for preschoolers and kindergarten kids. I know from experience that older children, teens, and adults have fun playing with this sensory fillers, too!
In addition to being an amazing sensory experience, children can learn and practice a multitude of early learning skills. Science is a big one, but math and literacy can also be integrated into the water bead fun. Because they’re an open-ended material, the sky’s the limit when it comes to possibilities.
Related: Summer Activities for Preschoolers
I think we first started using water gems back in the early 2010s. My son was young, but out of the “I must put everything in my mouth” stage. So I was able to try them out with him before sharing them with preschool students. Let me just say, the beads were a hit all around!
Below I’ll delve into the basics about water gel beads, just in case you’ve never used them with the kids before. Don’t worry, I have some activity suggestions, too!
Water Bead Play Materials
Let’s start off talking about supplies first. Here are some items to use when first exploring water orbs. You can then add so many (seriously, so many!) other items to the beads. But I highly recommend starting off simple. That way the focus can be on the sensory play.
Here are some suggestions (I may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post):
So basically you need gel beads, water, and some kind of container to hold the beads! And that’s really all you need to get started.
What is a Water Bead?
These fun little sensory playthings are referred to by a variety of different names – water jellies, water gel beads, jelly beads, hydro orbs, gel beads, water jelly balls, etc. With the most-used name of water beads, of course.
The very first pack I ever bought described them as “non-toxic polymers that hold 100 times their weight in water”. I’m not sure if that’s a helpful description for you though. They were originally used in floral arrangements because of the amount of water they can hold. Water jellies are made of the same absorbent material that’s inside conventional disposable diapers.
Where Can You Find Water Beads?
You can find packs of them in the craft stores, big box stores, and online. Originally, they were sold just in the floral section. Since then, they’ve been specifically produced and marketed for children’s play under close adult supervision.
How Do Water Beads Work?
Please be aware that I’m not a scientist, which means I only have a very simple explanation for how the water jellies work. They’re polymers with semipermeable membranes that allow for osmosis. So, when placed in water, the beads absorb that water. This makes the beads grow into the fun sensory materials they are.
To “activate” the beads, place them in a large container of water. Give them some time to absorb the water and grow. Depending on what size water beads you purchase, they can grow from tiny little dots into marble-sized beads or even up to golf ball-sized beads.
A Word About Safety
Yes, water beads are considered non-toxic. This means that they’re generally safe to touch and play with. However, as with every single activity discussed here on Fun-A-Day, they definitely require consistent adult supervision.
While they are amazing to touch, they should never ever be put inside mouths, ears, noses, etc. Therefore, they should only be used with people who won’t do so. If you work with children unable to follow these parameters, consider placing the beads in sensory bottles or sensory bags that cannot be broken into. (of course, adult supervision is still required).
Edible Water Beads
If you’re looking for an alternative to the traditional water orbs, I’ve got you covered. Tapioca pearls! Grab the larger type often used in Boba tea and you’re good to go.
Here’s the run-down for how to use edible water beads:
- Boil water.
- Cook the tapioca pearls for about 10 to 15 minutes.
- Strain and rinse the pearls with water.
- Add food coloring as desired.
Like I mentioned earlier, you still want to supervise the children as they play with this taste-safe alternative to orbeez.
How to Dispose of Water Beads
Since they were originally meant to help with flowers and plants, that’s one way you can dispose of the orbeez! Mix them in with soil around the garden. They’re described as biodegradable, so they should break down over time. Just make sure they’re not left out for animals or little children to ingest. You can also add them to vases of fresh cut flowers.
Or let them dry out completely. That will shrink them back down for reuse at a later date. Make sure they’re completely dry before storing the little beads in an airtight container.
Do not (I repeat – do not!) pour the water orbs down the sink or toilets. Since they expand when wet, I can only imagine what damage this would inflict on plumbing!
Water Beads Video
Here’s a short video that shows you water orbs in action. It’s nothing fancy, but you can see how small they start and how big the regular size water beads get.
The video only has adult hands as I tend to be in the thick of it, playing with the kids. So I don’t have any video of the fun we’ve had that also obscure the children’s faces. Hopefully this video will suffice:
Water Bead Activities
Now that you have received the lowdown on the sensory jellies, let’s talk about activities you can use them in. There are so many ways to incorporate them into your plans. Here are some ways we’ve used them:
- Coconut Water Beads
- Pirate Sensory Bottle
- Ocean Sensory Bin
- Valentine Day’s Sensory Bottle
- Pirate Messy Play
- Water Beads Science Experiment
- Winter Sensory Table
- Frozen Water Beads
- Valentine Sensory Bin
Hopefully you’re inspired to try them out soon. We’ve used them many more times than I’ve written about them. You’ll find our first foray into these fun little gems below. Don’t worry, I have even more ideas for you to try below that!
Our First Water Bead Sensory Experience
We first tried them out summer of 2012. I had to check the date to be sure! My son was 5 at the time, and we had a friend’s children over. We poured the tiny beads into our water table after cleaning it out and adding water.
After a few hours, the water orbs had grown significantly. I added some cups, a colander, and a few spoons. The boys played and explored for a couple of hours, adding some waterproof toys into the mix. They especially liked using the colander and cups with holes — to watch the water dribble out while the beads remained.
The youngest of the boys had a blast squishing the water beads in his hand. I know not everyone is keen on the kids squishing the gel beads, but I didn’t mind at all. The whole point was to test them out.
I heard so many great observations as the kids played:
- “They’re as big as marbles!”
- “This one’s bigger than the others!”
- “Watch it bounce! Watch!”
- “They’re purple, and they’re making the water purple!”
- “Hey, it rolls down the slide!”
- “Oooh, they feel all mushy!”
- “This one is small, and this one is medium, and this one is is big! I think the small one was on the floor too long.”
Being who I am, I enjoyed asking them questions about why they thought the jellies roll, why one is bigger than another, etc.! Needless to say, they were an all-around hit.
Even More Ideas to Try
As promised, I have even more suggestions for water beads sensory activities to try with the kids. Click on each link to read more about the individual ideas:
- Glow in the Dark Water Bead Sensory Bottle
- Watermelon Sensory Bin
- Calming Waterbead Sensory Bin
- Sensory Play Pond
- Water Bead Slime
- Hammering Water Beads
- Cutting Water Beads
- Rainbow Sensory Bags
At this point, you have over 15 water bead activities to try with the kids. Be sure to save this post for future reference! My Water Beads Sensory Play Pinterest board has even more possibilities.
Done-for-You Preschool Resources
Let Preschool Teacher 101 save you time, so you can focus on teaching and engaging with your students. We have hundreds of early childhood education resources, from lesson plans to STEM challenges to classroom management guides to dramatic play packs, and much more.
Click on the image below to check out this full week of lesson planning with a “bubbles” theme!
We also have some great membership options to meet your needs. Join your fellow preschool and kindergarten teachers in The Pack from Preschool Teacher 101 today. Click the images below to learn about some more of our fun resources.
Originally published June 2012.