Most babies and and toddlers are obsessed with water.
If you give a toddler a basin of water, I promise you they are going to instinctually feel compelled to splash it. Water is a big deal especially if you work in a nido or toddler Montessori environment; or if you have the intentions of sending your infant or toddler into a Montessori classroom.
It is critical that you accept that babies and young children have a need to explore water. Why this is only they will ever know; but it’s safe to presume that because we all come from the watery environment of the womb, water is one of the first sensorial experiences we all know. I once worked in a nido where the lead refused to turn on the faucet to the child-sized sink; and the babies were utterly perplexed and obsessed with why the water wouldn’t run when they tried to turn the handles, or if the water was ever turned on and allowed to flow. This was a stupid move on the part of that untrained nido lead teacher.
Babies and toddlers need to explore water. It is one of the best first sensorial and pre-mathematical natural materials they can have access to. So what can you do to support a baby or toddler’s learning experiences around water? Here’s what I do, and what I suggest.
For the home setting…
~ Let your baby and toddler have lots of time to explore the properties of water uninterrupted (but always well supervised) in the bath, during the shower, and at natural bodies of water such as the beach/ ocean, lakes, etc.
~ Take and spend time when it comes to activities of body care, such as hand washing and bathing. Let your baby/ toddler put their hands under the faucet of running water. They are trying to figure out how it is that water comes out of the faucet. This isn’t a natural phenomenon, it’s man-made; and I think they instinctually know there is something amazing about the human ability to harness water and bring it into our mechanical control.
~ Create experiences for them to just plainly explore contained water without rules and restriction when they are very young and less able to follow limits. This will help them “get it out of their system” when it comes to splashing and being careless with water. With immediate supervision, you can give a baby a shallow tray of water to splash in. For example, use a cookie sheet or a pie pan, pour in enough water for it to pool, and let them have at it. A basin such as that used for household cleaning is also fun for babies and young children to splash in and explore. Include water-based toys, a funnel, some cups to fill, and let them have at it with reckless abandon. But do not leave their side. A baby can drown even in a puddle! These free form water explorations can happen in the home setting, or outdoors in a nido setting.
~ Observe your child’s growing capability and developing self-control. The more self-control and restraint a child starts to display around water means they could be ready to try their first formal “big works” such as the hand-washing table, or to try having more control over turning the sink faucet on and off.
For the school setting…
~ If I observe that a toddler is interested in splashing water they aren’t supposed to be splashing in (such as the toilet, or when an old peer is washing dishes), I direct them to the child-sized sinks we have in the classroom and first let them wash hands as long as they wish.
~ If I see enough self control, they can try hand washing as an exercise and maybe even dish washing if their observation and imitation skills are up to par. My signs for readiness with these exercises are: a) they must be well past the uncontrollable urge to splash, b) they must have overcome the urge to spontaneously pour out the basin onto the floor, and c) they must be strong enough to lift a pitcher of water independently.
Splashing, urge to pour out basins spontaneously, and inability to safely carry a largish pitcher full of water over the threshold of the sink or while walking are signs that the child is not yet ready for “big works”. The child’s stature or if they look “mature enough” is not the qualifier. I have watched 18 month olds that look like babies somehow have the strength, observation skills, and self-control to carry out “big works” like dish washing and hand washing as an exercise.
~ When I show a child how to make their hands wet in a basin of water, I instruct them to dip their hands. Not jus “put your hands in” or “make your hands wet”– dip. This is critical. If they see that I am dipping my hands in the water, pausing, and lifting them out very slowly, they see that the intention is not to move quickly and splash about. I might even say “dip slowly”, and move in slow-mo on purpose, really emphasizing that pause while my hands are under the water, not moving.
~I show the child that when it’s time to fetch the bucket to pour the basin into, we “put the bucket on the rug”. I always have some version of non-slip rug in front of every single water-based table or activity where the child is standing up. My favorite style of rug is this from target, and other similar “designer style” rubber floor rugs like this from Chilewich that are non-slip and can be wiped dry.
I am not the hugest fan of bath mats and loose floor rugs that either slip around and trip children, or which can get saturated easily because the absorption of the water into the rug. Cloth rugs under a water-based activity trains the child to not care if they spilled because the rug just absorbs the spill. The goal with water works is to learn how to not spill.
With rubber style floor mats/ rugs, the water doesn’t disappear, but the child won’t slip. I feel this shows them that if they spill, there is a consequence– the ground gets wet. By putting the bucket on the rug, any water that spills will at least spill on the rug reducing the chance for slips/falls, and they will aim for the rug not the floor. It’s best to put two of these rugs or a longer runner in front of the dish washing and cloth washing tables.
~ Show the children to “pour slowly”, and to “lower” the pitcher or the bucket before they pour. This awareness enhances the control of error for them.
~ If you’re designing your toddler Montessori classroom space, and you know you plan on incorporating “big works” in your practical life offerings, you must consider the flooring. You can either choose to place the big works outdoors, where the impact of the spill on the floor won’t matter as much, or I strongly suggest you tile the floor or include waterproof flooring (Vinyl or linoleum) where all of your big works will be happening. Think “industrial kitchen”/ “bathroom” when it comes to the flooring around watery practical life. If you know you plan on incorporating big works, hard wood is a no-no. Kiss that hard wood floor goodbye, and say hello to future water damage and an invisible but ever present black mold problem. Because massive amounts of water used in a toddler AMI Montessori environment every day will inevitably get spilled, I promise you.
~ If I see inappropriate behavior around water, I shut it down immediately. If you want to use the water inside of the classroom, you must have the self-control for that privilege, period. Water spills cause people (including me, potentially) to slip and fall and get really hurt. So we need to show the children how to minimize careless handling of water and spills. Redirect a child to “be all done”, or to try a work that involves water, but way less water, such as washing plant leaves, painting with water on a buddha board, or pouring a cup of drinking water.
~ Weather permitting, allow for an outdoor water table or outdoor water play on occasion. Just be prepared for clothing changes, and time it accordingly based on attendance and staff availability.