Water Beads and Kids | How to Play with Water Beads

Have you ever played with water beads? They’re slippery, squishy, and a surprisingly fun and addictive sensory experience for kids of all ages.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

If you’re even remotely connected to Pinterest or a fan of any of my fave blogs, there’s a really good chance you already know about these spectacular little sensory Water Beads by Aqua Gems. If it hadn’t been for the magic of the internet I never would have known these even existed, let alone tried them as a tool for exploration and discovery.

Supplies for Water Bead Sensory Experience

This list contains affiliate links

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Step 1

I set up our DIY light table and then N filled the top with about 1/2″ of water.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Step 2

Pour the tiny aqua gems into a small container for for your child to add to the water.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Step 3

Scoop the beads and drop them in. Watch them grow. This is great for teaching patience, and it’s fascinating to watch the beads absorb water.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Our Experience with Water Beads

As my child mixed them up, we marveled at how they grew….slowly….growing….slowly…(good lesson in patience!). N played with them while her sister napped and we set them aside for a couple hours. After snacks and a romp outside, this is what they looked like.

And it turned out that 14 month old Baby Rainbow enjoyed them even more than big sister. I was super cautious at first because little things that look like food go in the mouth, but after a few watchful “not for eating”comments, she was good to go.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

I tucked the light table under a kitchen cabinet and Baby R has gone back to dig it out at least five times since. I think she’s fascinated by the texture of the beads and can’t seem to get enough of them. I still keep a close eye on her when she uses them, but it’s helpful to know that the gems are non-toxic. In fact, she’s intently playing with them as I type. So maybe this post is really about “how to entertain your little one while you get things done.”

One last thing, the beads look really cool with light shining through them, but it’s not a deal breaker if you don’t have a light table. A clear bowl on a sunny day or in a well-lit room will work well too!

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

More Water Beads

For more Water Bead fun, check out Messy Kids’ Creepy Crawly water beads  and The Chocolate Muffin Tree’s Water Bead fun. And related to this, you might also be interested in the FAKE SNOW that we recently made.

Water bead and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Have you introduced your kids to Water Beads?

What are your favorite materials for sensory play?

My 14-month old is well-supervised when playing with Aqua Gems. Please use your best judgment when introducing young children to small objects.

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Gluten-free Cloud Dough

 How to Make Gluten-Free Cloud Dough

Gluten-free Cloud Dough

After I posted our Cloud Dough recipe last week, Amy from Kids in the Studio wanted to know if it could be adapted into a gluten-free cloud dough recipe. What a good question!

This isn’t the first question I’ve received about gluten-free recipes since starting this blog, and I realized that I should be more thoughtful about sharing information that can help parents and caregivers provide rich learning experiences for their children. The original recipe is simply a combination of 8:1 flour  to oil, so in the spirit of experimentation, I thought we’d replace flour with rice flour and see what would happen.

Gluten-free Cloud Dough Recipe

  • 8 cups rice flour
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • A few drops of Lavender oil (optional)
Mix the rice flour and oil together in a big bowl until the oil integrates into the flour. Add a few drops of lavender oil (or other favorite scent) to give your dough a yummy scent. Place the dough in a big high-walled tray or bin. Children can play with the dough with just their hands, or add scoopers, mixers, and small pots.

If you haven’t bought rice flour before, it’s not inexpensive, and I can see why Amy asked the question! I mixed 2 cups of organic rice flour with 1/4 cup vegetable oil until the oil integrated into the flour, and then shook a few drops of lavender oil into the dough to give it a soothing smell. So far, the main difference I could see is that the rice flour made for a slightly grittier dough, but otherwise it was lovely. The real test would be my kids. I put it in front of my 14 month old, and you can see that she was in sensory heaven. My 3 year old wanted to join in, enjoyed it, and never commented on a weird texture of the dough. As far as I could tell, she didn’t know the difference.

If you make this gluten-free cloud dough, I’d love to hear from you. And if you have a favorite gluten-free recipe to share, please add a link or recipe in the comments.

Experiment with Gluten-Free Cloud Dough

  • If you don’t have access to rice flour or if you feel like experimenting, try the same ratio of flour to oil with garbanzo flour, gluten-free baking flour, corn flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, or arrowroot starch.
  • Change the ratio of flour to oil and see what happens, as the suggested flours and starches (above) will combine differently with the oil.

More Play Doughs

If gluten-free dough doesn’t concern you, here are more dough recipes to try:

This recipe for the BEST play dough.

Non-gluten-free cloud dough.

Glow-in-the-dark play dough

Playful Learning Blog Tour: Mail Center

I’m thrilled to be a stop on Mariah Bruehl’s blog tour for her must-read book Playful Learning: Develop Your Child’s Sense of Joy and Wonder, a useful resource for parents and teachers who want to infuse learning with playfulness. Yes please! They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but this book is certainly an exception. The cover is gorgeous, and the content is equally rich. Mariah has worked in the field of education for over a decade, runs one of my favorite blogs, Playful Learning, and owns a brick and mortar shop in Sag Harbor, NY where children can take workshops and grown-up can buy super-useful supplies. Mariah also teaches E-courses, and I’m giving a spot away to one lucky reader at the end of this post.

Playful Learning is full of meaningful — and doable! — activities for children ages 4-8. Although my own children are 1 and 3, it feels like the perfect time to add this book to my library… some of the projects already relate to my three year old’s abilities and interests, and the rest is food for thought as I plan for what’s to come.

As soon as I read about the Mail Center in a section of the book called Playful Learning Spaces, I knew immediately that it would appeal to my three year old.

The morning that the book arrived, N was busy putting together a care package for her uncle who recently moved to a new town. After wrapping up a painting and some home-baked cookies, we waited patiently in line to ship it at the post office. N helped me address the label and wanted to choose our new sheets of stamps. We were ready for a Mail Center! 

I took inspiration from Mariah’s suggestions and assembled a center that would work in our space. I moved everything out of a bottom drawer in our dining area (it used to hold our table linens) and filled it with envelopes, cards, stamps, scissors, mailing labels, and our return address stamper. I also put our incoming mail in the far right side of the drawer.

It’s all self-service — N can go right to it, take what she needs, and then close it up when she’s done. She’s learning how to properly stamp an envelope and where to attach labels and return addresses.

I loved Mariah’s suggestion to create an address chest so that children can label envelopes on their own. Ownership builds confidence! Photos of loved ones go on the outside of the drawers and their address labels go on the inside. Since I didn’t have a chest, we improvised by taping photos of loved ones on the outside of envelopes. And now my daughter can stamp, address, and mail her own creations…all by herself.

If you would like your own copy of Playful Learning you can buy it on Amazon or purchase a signed copy from Mariah’s shop.

Playful Learning Giveaway(s)!

I’m happy to share that Mariah is giving away both a copy of her book AND a spot in her 6-week E-Course, Playful Learning Spaces. For a chance to win a copy of Playful Learning: Develop your Child’s Sense of Joy and Wonder or a spot in Playful Learning Spaces E-Course ($125 value), leave a comment here by Friday, September 9 at 9 pm PST. Please specify if you prefer one prize or the other. Winner will be chosen randomly and announced on my blog on Saturday, September 10.

This project is shared with It’s Playtime.

Shaving Cream and Food Coloring

Have you set up a sensory shaving cream activity yet? My 3 year old first enjoyed this when she was 16 months, and I can attest that it’s an engaging and meaningful sensory activity for toddlers. As children reach preschool, why not mix some food coloring into the shaving cream and take the opportunity to teach about warm and cool colors?

If you’d like to read more, head on over to my guest post on the Kiwi Crate blog.

Wishing you all a happy weekend!

Rainbow Photo Scavenger Hunt

We’ve had a lot of fun playing this game that’s all about learning and searching for the colors of the rainbow. We started playing this game when my daughter wanted to learn the order of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. All you need is a camera and some time. We like to play this on our way to the park, and it makes the meandering a lot more meaningful. My 3 year old has her own camera (it’s a kid camera) but she’s not interested in it so it’s a good thing I like snapping photos!


To play, we start with red. When she spots something red, I snap a photo of it. Then we look for something orange, and so on. Not only have we been learning the rainbow, but we’re tuning our eyes toward objects in our neighborhood. As a result of this game we’ve had some thought-provoking chats about abandoned cars, storm drains, litter, and nuances of colors like “yellow-orange.” It’s also been fascinating to look at the world through my child’s eyes. For example, when we started with “red” I spotted a big (obvious) red car, but N looked up and asked me to take a photo of the glowing red leaves on a tree. It was so subtle, but they were definitely red!

I added these photos to those from a previous post, Photo Documentary with Kids, and suddenly we’re building a colorful documentation of our neighborhood. Maybe it’s time to figure out what to do with all these photos? Please let me know if you have any ideas for us.

How to Build an Easy DIY Light Table

Have you ever wanted a light table, and wondered if there was an easy way to build a DIY light table yourself? Well, this easy DIY light table could be your answer! Once I figured out which materials to use, the whole thing took about 10 minutes to assemble.

Note: This light table is designed to hold salt or sand in the top layer. For a flat-top light table, see this tutorial: Homemade Easy Low-cost Light Table

How to build an easy DIY light table for kids

*Note: This post contains Amazon affiliate links for your convenience.

Easy DIY LIght Table | TinkerLab.com

After seeing the beautiful glow that illuminated from the easy light table at Teach Preschool and the pop-out pictures created in salt over at Child Central Station, I’ve been on the hunt for some DIY materials to make my own easy light table.

I had a few rules:  No paint, no saw, and no nails. It also had to be simple to assemble and economical. So when I spotted a large, gently used acrylic box frame — like this — at SCRAP (San Francisco’s reuse center for artists and teachers), I knew I had my answer. If you don’t have any acrylic box frames lying around (who does?!), I’ve found that this can easily be replaced with a basic plastic storage container like this.

Supplies

  • Acrylic box frame or storage container— Try looking in a thrift store, or maybe you already have one at home
  • Large Plastic Storage Container like this one. This Rubbermaid Storage Box is fantastic and this one with a snap top lid also looks great. I’ve also spotted really nice boxes at IKEA, which may be worth hunting down.
  • String of Lights — Make sure that they’re bright enough yet not too hot to be placed in the container. Christmas lights do a great job!
  • Clear Packing Tape
  • Wax paper
  • Two 26 oz. containers of salt
  • Toys and gadgets to create textures

Easy DIY LIght Table | TinkerLab.com

How to build your DIY light table

1. Run your string of lights into the bottom container

My husband has a thing for lights so I raided his stash and we came up with these interesting bookcase light strips from IKEA that worked really well. Granted, these lights aren’t cheap, but we already had them so it didn’t really cost me anything. If these didn’t work I would have used Christmas lights. Just be sure that  you use something bright enough for light to pass through the salt, but not too hot for the box. Fluorescent lights are perfect for this. 

Option #2: You could try setting this up with the bottom container’s lid on and off. We’ve set this up both ways with different containers. See what works best with your container.

Option #3: You might also try flipping your bottom container upside down, and then placing the second container on top of it, right side up. Does that make sense?

2. Place the box fame on top of a large under-the-bed plastic container

When not in use as a light table, we use our containers all the time  for messy sensory projects like the Dry Ice Experiment and Vinegar and Baking Soda.

 

Easy DIY LIght Table | TinkerLab.com

2. To diffuse the light, cover the bottom of the box frame or top container with wax paper.

3. Then, to keep the frame from wiggling, tape the wax paper in place with clear packing tape.

4. Pour salt into the top container.

Make it as shallow or as deep as you like. I found that 1/4″ is a good place to start.

My friend Aude gave me about five pounds of salt that I’ve been saving for the perfect project, so I pulled it out and poured a healthy amount into the frame. (In case you were wondering, don’t waste your time with flour — I did, and it doesn’t work.) And that’s it.

If you only have one container, if it has a deep groove on the bottom, you could try using JUST the storage container flipped upside down on top of the lights. Then pour sand into the groove of the box bottom. It’s not as deep as our example, but it might work in a pinch.

Easy DIY LIght Table | TinkerLab.com

Play with your DIY Light Table!

We built this while the kids were asleep, so I got to play with it first. Yipee. Initially there was too much salt in the frame, making it difficult for the light pass through, and I tinkered with the salt until I liked the results.

Easy DIY LIght Table | TinkerLab.comPressing different materials into the salt was oddly cathartic, like raking in a zen garden or working with clay, and I couldn’t wait to see how my daughter would investigate the materials the next day.

Easy DIY LIght Table | TinkerLab.com

Kid-tested DIY Light Table

As an invitation to play, I initially made some loopy marks in the salt with my finger and then turned the glowing salt table on. No tools. She was curious, but not intrigued enough to play.

So I placed a few clay tools with various textures next to the table for her to experiment with, but that didn’t come on like gangbusters either. I hoped that N would get into this cool, open-ended textural play, but her lack of interest made me all the happier that I only spent about $2 on the project. I must have known.

And maybe the light table is most successful in the dark of night, which is long after bed time in the middle of summer? So I poured the salt back into the bag, disassembled the whole thing in about five minutes, and we’ll try again one day soon.

Light Table Success

Sometimes projects with kids take a bit of patience. A child’s mood, interests, or developmental readiness can affect how he or she interacts with an invitation to play. I have since brought this back with variations and it’s been more successful! Here are a couple things that we’ve tried:

One more DIY Light Table

For a flat-top light table, see this tutorial: Homemade Easy Low-cost Light Table

Easy Low Cost Homemade Light Table

 

Slide Drawing

My daughter loooooves going to the park and we’re blessed to live in a place that’s teeming with them! So it didn’t take much convincing or prodding to get her excited about setting up this high-energy mark-making activity with me. The juxtaposition of art materials on playground equipment made for a rich, memorable experience, and prompted her to see things from our everyday experiences in a new light.

We gathered our materials — roll of paper ($5 at IKEA, I also spotted this Melissa & Doug Easel Paper Roll for $6.95), crayons, and masking tape — and moseyed over to the park for some Slide Drawing!

There were a couple of other kids at the park, and we waited for them to move toward the sandbox before I covered a slide in a long sheet of paper. N took her crayons to the top and tested them out…a crayon in each hand. I have to admit that I was nervous about monopolizing a slide, so I tried to work quickly and keep a low profile. It reminded me of a when I helped a street artist on a very fun, clandestine night, way back when, with a bucket, brush, wheat paste, and large stack of posters in hand.

The children in the park were curious about what we were up to, so we invited them to join us. It turned out they were more interested in chit-chatting and provoking us than drawing, but having an audience is also an experience. Yay for performance art!

My daughter could have done this all afternoon, but the other kids wanted to use the slide so we wrapped up shop and we’ll return again for more soon. Maybe tomorrow!

Would you try slide drawing?

This post is shared on It’s Playtime

How to Set Up a Mud Pie Kitchen

This may not look like much, but we’ve been testing our mud pie kitchen and getting a fresh perspective on what works. It used to reside in another part of our yard, and I thought that moving it might make it more accesible. And it did!! I fashioned the stove/sink from two wooden crates I found at a craft store last summer. Next, mud pie tools were gathered from our sand box: buckets, bowls, and a jello mold picked up at a second hand store for a dollar. We got the measuring cups at our last trip to IKEA, and carried pots and pans outside from the indoor play kitchen.

I filled the big green tub with water and we called it the “sink,” and N got busy making soup. She owned the kitchen right from the start and there was no end to what she wanted to create.

The sink got muddy pretty quickly, so she requested another pail full of clean water. Some kids love the mud, mine tolerates it.

The kitchen was set up next to some flowery bushes, which made for a convenient food pantry.

She carefully pressed flowers into the mud like sprinkles on a cake. The contrast was gorgeous. We started this pretty late in the day, and she would have played out there all night if she could have. She actually told me that she wanted to skip dinner because she wasn’t hungry. So I guess the whole test kitchen thing went well!

When she was all done, we poured the dirt back into the ground and the kitchen is ready for our next cooking adventure.

What I learned about making a Mud Pie Kitchen

  • The Mud Pie Kitchen is an incredible way to encourage imaginative play, which can lead to creative thinking, curiosity, and experimentation
  • The kitchen does not have to be elaborate to work
  • It should be child-height
  • It’s nice to have multiple levels or surfaces to work on
  • Set it up directly in or next to dirt/mud/sand
  • Have a water source nearby
  • Fill a large container with water
  • Useful tools: spoons, bowls, spades, colander, pitcher
  • Use real kitchen tools to reinforce that play is work (to children, it is!)
  • Include something fancy like a jello mold
  • If there aren’t natural materials nearby (like flower petals), forage for them ahead of time

See our Mud Pie Kitchen Series

Mud Pie Kitchen Ideas

Shopping for Mud Pie Kitchen Accessories