Water beads: Ideas for slippery, squishy, sensory fun

Ever since my family discovered water beads (or Jelly Beadz as my boys like to call them based on the brand we carry) about a year ago, these pretty translucent slippery little balls have become a much-loved staple in our sensory play rotation, with my boys asking for it regularly despite me hiding it away under a tall stack of boxes! So what really are these little balls, why are they so magical and what can you do with them?

These water beads are made from a water-absorbing polymer (Sodium Polyacrylate to be exact) that causes the beads to grow to many many times their original size and weight as they absorb water. The original purpose of water beads was to provide long-lasting hydration for plants and flower arrangements, but because they are so pretty and fascinating to touch, they are now used for other decorative purposes as well as for educational sensory play. On safety, please note that these beads are non-toxic, but are not edible, so please keep away from children who are still putting things in their mouth. 

I personally love how they feel and enjoy running my fingers through the water beads and exploring different ways to play with them as much as my children. It's a combination of their smooth slippery texture, translucent candy colors, and bouncy round shape that makes water beads perfect for engaging and versatile sensory play.

Below are some ideas for water beads play, I'm sure there are many others that we have not tried, do drop me a note if you have other ideas to share!


1. Be fascinated as you watch the water beads grow

Photo credit: Klara Koh

  • Add water to the dried beads and watch as the water beads absorb water and grow
  • You can document the process with your child, like in the above picture
  • It is also visually interesting to add new dried beads to a tub of full grown beads, observe the contrast in size at the start and watch the small beads slowly grow to match the full grown ones in size.


2. Enjoy the sensation of the water beads and learn their characteristics

  • Run your fingers through the water beads.
  • Vary the experience by adjusting the level of (excess) water in the water bead tub. My children enjoy playing with it in both its 'dry' and 'wet' forms, and we go between the two. 
  • Pick up a single water bead and describe it - "smooth" (or "bumpy" for the ones that are not yet full-grown), "slippery", "translucent", "clear" or the color of the bead etc
  • For younger children, picking up a water bead with fingers is a challenge in itself, especially when you have more water in the tub such that the water beads are "swimming" in the water.


3. Scoop and pour using a variety of scoops and containers

  • Let the child start with just a few tools, such as just one spoon and cup, so as not to overwhelm them.
  • Switch tools when the child has mastered the first set. Can move from using a spoon to the handy scooper (great for practicing the scissor motion) to increase level of difficulty. 


4. Admire their colors over a light table or against a bright background

 Photo credit: Shelley Berstein

  • While most of us don't have easy access to a light table, you can improvise one by placing a string of Christmas lights or ball lights in a translucent box (like included in our play set) or a transparent table (like in the picture above) and then placing the water beads on top. The results are simply gorgeous.
  • I must admit I have not yet tried the above (because my Christmas lights are hidden too deep in my storeroom!), but what we have done is place a lamp below our water beads box and shine it upwards and I think it works pretty well too! (see picture below). This works for us because we have a special custom table which holds up our sensory boxes. You could similarly place your translucent box over a low glass table and put a lamp below it.

  • Other than being really lovely to look at, this activity allows kids to appreciate the translucent nature of the water beads by observing how light shines through them. To provide greater contrast, you can place some opaque shapes under the water beads on the light table as well.


5. Drop beads into a deep container and watch them bounce

  • The beads look like jelly but they can actually bounce pretty high! Hence I emphasize a deep container, otherwise you could end up with water beads bouncing all over your home! 
  • Dropping it into a tall glass is a good place to start. You can place a tall glass in the middle of the tub of water beads and drop the beads one at a time into the glass. It's great fun to see how many bounce out of the glass and how many stay in it.


6. Let beads roll down bead slides, other ball drop toys, or improvise with plastic bottles and tubes


  • Something about watching little balls rolling down slides or other fixed paths just spells fun. 
  • These simple suction foam slides have provided my kids and I with much entertainment. It's not all that easy to find an arrangement that works as the beads can fly off the slides if they go too fast and the angle is not right, but once you find a right arrangement, you get great satisfaction watching the beads roll down the slides, and even more if they drop nicely into the container at the end of the slide.
  • You could also try dropping the water beads down ball or marble drop toys you might have at home, but they typically need to be pretty steep for the water beads to roll well. 
  • If you are feeling more adventurous, you could try building your own water bead maze using plastic bottles or tubes, similar to this: http://www.funathomewithkids.com/2013/02/funnels-tubes-and-salt-oh-my.html


7. Sort water beads by color or layer them to make a pretty arrangement

  • The water beads come in beautiful colors and your children can practice their color recognition and develop their fine motor skills by sorting the water beads by color.
  • Plastic mineral bottles are great for the sorting activity as you can turn them into color themed discovery bottles afterward (see point 8 below).
  • Older children may enjoy turning the water bead arrangement into a decor or art piece by layering different colors in turn in a tall clear glass or vase.


8. Make a discovery bottle 

  • Fill a plastic bottle about 2/3 full with hydrated water beads, add glitter if desired, then fill to the brim with water. Seal the bottle with a hot glue gun or a lot of tape (which I've done here because I don't have a glue gun!).
  • This bottle is great for taking on the go and can entertain even the littlest ones. 
  • It's nice and weighty to hold, the colors are beautiful to look at especially when held up against the light, and it's calming to watch the glitter and water beads drift down and settle.


9. Make an ocean-themed sensory tub

  • Water beads are great for the ocean theme given they are water-based and come in lovely translucent colors. Our ocean mix combines water beads in different shades of blue, turquoise, clear and white and creates the perfect picture of the great blue ocean.
  • Build a realistic ocean 'small world', by adding ocean animal figurines, seaweed, corals, shells, boats etc.  Children can learn the names of the different sea creatures, enjoy moving the sea creatures around the tub, making bubbling sounds as they move etc.
  • To vary the sensory experience, you can add more water to tub for a "wetter" ocean, and allow the sea creatures to really "swim" in the tub. 
  • Another fun possibility is to add sand or little stones to the tub, to serve as the ocean floor, or form a little beach or island. The stones and sand help to enhance the realism of the ocean 'small world' and also adds an extra dimension to the sensory experience. This works best when there is more water in the tub as the sand and stones can fall through the water beads to the bottom of the box.


10. Make a water bead water balloon

  • I just came across this idea recently and have not yet tried it out, but it certainly sounds like fun!
  • Basically, you place a handful of dried water beads into a balloon with a funnel (use a water balloon as they are smaller, you can get them at Daiso), then fill up the balloon with water. As the water beads inside absorb water and grow, the water balloon will transform and become wonderfully bumpy and squishy!
  • You could also try to freeze the water bead balloons for some frozen fun on a hot day
  • Read more here: http://www.learnplayimagine.com/2013/07/frozen-water-beads-in-water-balloons.html


11. Water beads and essential oils

  • Water beads are a great way of exposing your child to the benefits of essential oils (only those that are safe for children of course) while keeping the children engaged through sensory play.
  • Make a calming sensory tub by adding a few drops of lavender essential oil to the water before adding the dried water beads. In a couple hours your child will be able to enjoy the calming scent of lavendar while playing with the water beads in whatever way he likes.
  • Other essential oils that may be suitable for adding to a water bead sensory play tub are lemon, eucalyptus and peppermint. If your child is down with a blocked or runny nose, these could help your child breathe better while they busy themselves with the water beads.
  • Alternatively, you can make an essential oil diffuser with water beads as well by adding a few drops of essential oil to the water before you grow the water beads. Use a pretty glass container and choose the colors of water beads to taste and this could be an attractive decor piece while diffusing the goodness of the essential oils over the next few days. Essential oils will need to be reapplied every 2 to 3 days.

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