Your sand or water table is a place where children can - and often do - apply the scientific method to their explorations. During "elbow-deep" investigations, they observe, predict, estimate, experiment, and draw conclusions. Though children may not recognize the "science" of what they are doing, you can help them make important connections and develop critical-thinking skills. Change and flow are just two of the scientific principles children can explore.


Everywhere a young child looks, things are changing. This morning it was raining; now the sun is out. Plant soil, moist the other day from watering, is now parched and dry. How do these things happen?

Though we all want children to retain a magical sense of wonder it is also important for them to learn that scientific changes are a natural part of their world. Sand and water are perfect materials to help children take part in the process of learning how to effect change using some of the natural forces that surround them. Start with providing quality materials:

  • A good water/sand table at children's level
  • Unbreakable containers for scooping, pouring, filling, floating, and sinking
  • Plastic and PVC tubing
  • A bucket-style pan-balance scale
  • Small objects for counting shaped like frogs, turtles, and fish
  • Colanders, sieves, and funnels
  • A hand pump and/or small re-circulating pump
  • A water/sand wheel
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Natural materials (beautiful stones, shells, and branches)
  • Powdered substances such as sugar flow cinnamon, baking soda, salt, and powdered paint

As children use the materials to explore, ask questions that encourage them to think and investigate: How many ways can we change water? How many ways, can we change sand? What happens when they are mixed together? Can you freeze sand? Can you shape water? By experimenting with changing appearance, weight, temperature, and consistency, children gain an understanding of the nature of these materials.


Provide a variety of materials - sieves, funnels, colanders - for children to use to compare the flow of water and the flow of sand. As they explore, you might ask: Does sand come through a sieve in the same way as water? Is there ever any water left in the sieve? Any sand? Does sand flow as fast as water?

Children may also want to try creating their own "flow" tools using such items as plastic tubing, paper cups, and so on. Encourage those who are interested to make their own sieves and draw their attention to the difference in flow when they create many holes as compared to just a few, and large holes compared to small ones.

This article originally appeared in the February, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.