AS THE WEATHER GETS COLDER, many classrooms change their water tables to sand tables. One preschool class became curious about the differences between the two materials. They wondered: How would their play be different? Would they be able to do the same things? How were the two materials different? Such questions inspired an investigation you can do with your children.

Put out two large plastic dishpans, one filled with water and the other with sand, so that children can begin to explore. Encourage them to use their hands, plastic measuring scoops, and various unbreakable containers. Then invite everyone to discuss their discoveries. How are water and sand alike? Different? How does each feel? How does each move? What makes each change its look, feel, and movement? What are some things you can do with both? What are some things you can only do with one?

Ready, Set, Explore!

Create two long columns on an experience chart. On one side, ask children to help you list the similarities between water and sand; on the other side, list the differences. Look over your list together and then ask children if they have any thoughts or questions they'd like to add. You can base activities and explorations on their questions and, of course, their natural curiosity. Here are two examples:

What Can You Do With a Cup of ...? Try asking children to think about and explore what they can do with a cup of sand and with a cup of water Questions like these invite both creative and critical thinking as children apply and synthesize the information they already know about sand and water with new discoveries. If children need help, ask: What can people do with sand? With water? How are they used indoors? Outside? Do we ever use sand or water in art? Music? Cooking? What else can we do with sand? With water? How long of a list can we make?

How Many Ways Can You Pick Up a Puddle? Nonsensical, open-ended questions can be great group-time discussion starters. Here's one to try: Place a cafeteria-style tray in the middle of the circle and spill some water in the center of it. (Make the "spill" dramatic so that children are totally engaged!) Then ask: "How many ways can we pick up this puddle?" Invite children to think of as many ways as they can. Inspire their thinking by asking such questions as: What tools could we use? What would be the fastest ways? The cleanest ways? Try out the suggestions , and together rate them from most effective to least effective using an experience chart. Afterward, or on another day, try spilling some sand and do the activity again, asking: Will the same tools work? The same methods? What do you predict will be the best method?

Step Out!

Consider expanding your investigation by exploring how water and sand are used at school and on the playground. Armed with clipboards and cameras, children can record all the places they see water and/or sand. For instance, one class joined the custodian on a visit to the basement to observe the maze of pipes that carry water through the build ing. To foster the link between home and school, their teacher invited families to explore how both water and sand are a part of their homes. Parents then visited the class, and, with their child, reported on the investigations and their discoveries.

Once you've begun, there's no telling where your investigations might take you. Your group might decide to create pipelines in the water table using plastic and PVC tubing. Then children can compare the flow of water with the flow of sand. You also might look into water quality, collecting samples around the school and outdoors, then pouring the samples through a coffee filter and comparing the residue that is left.

Invite the Experts

Who are some people who work with water and/or sand? Artists, gardeners, marine biologists, lifeguards! Invite people who can easily share how they use sand or water in their work. Ask them to make their visit as experiential as possible for children by either providing simple items children can see and touch, photographs, and/or activities they can participate in.

Take a Field Trip

Ready to leave the building? Here are a few suggestions to expand children's awareness:

  • Take a trip to a local water treatment plant to see how water is cared for in your area. (Interestingly, often sand or other sandlike substances are used to filter water, something you might try back at school.)
  • Visit a local beach, pond, lake, or stream to see how water and sand interact in nature.


Invite children to suggest ways to celebrate what they've learned about water and sand. For instance, one class became fascinated when a visiting artist shared her handmade fountain, so they decided to build their own. The children used a large basin, rocks, sand and water and an inexpensive recirculating pump purchased at a garden supply store. The peaceful sounds of the fountain brought many a visitor to their room! Your project culmination will not only help children feel the pride of accomplishment, but it will also help them review and reflect on what they've learned.

And Toddlers, Too

Sensory play with sand and water are favorites with toddlers too.You can invite toddlers to compare sand and water by simply placing large dishpans of each material side by side on a floor area covered by a plastic tablecloth. Between the dishpans, put out different tools to dig, pour, sift, and stir. Call over a small group of children, and then stand back and watch the investigations! Children will naturally want to use the tools in the different containers, and in the process, they will notice how the water may react differently than the sand. Don't worry about the water ending up in the sand and the sand in the water...that is the best part of the experiment!

Editor's Note: Apply the information that you've learned together and children's natural enthusiasm and curiosity to do additional activities. See Learning Centers on page 42 and Activity Plans on page 43 for more in-depth suggestions.