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

  • Water Beads: I found ours in the floral section at JoAnn Fabrics, but if you can’t find them near you, you can easily find them on Amazon.
  • Tray with edges
  • Water

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

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!

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.


  • 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


Water Scooping for Babies

Sensory Play: Water Scooping for Babies

While my older daughter tore up the grass with the Slip ‘n Slide, I set my 10 month old up with a bucket of water and some measuring cups. And she got right to work, filling and emptying the cups. It was interesting to watch her attempt to fill the cups when they were upside down, and then exciting when she figured the “problem” out and corrected for it.

And then, presumably, she was proud of one of her many accomplishments.

The provocation is simple — Set your project up outside (since most babies thrive when there are airplanes to track and birds to listen for) and provide your baby with a low bucket of water. Tools are optional. And then see what discoveries come about.

Any other ideas for playing in water with babies?