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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.

water beads and kids how to play with water beads

First: an important message. Water beads are not a toy. While I’ll show you how you could use them as a sensory material, keep in mind that these should not be used with babies, toddlers, or unsupervised children. There are serious health consequences if a child swallows water beads. Please read some of the comments on this post for perspectives on this.

If you’ve been to the craft store, there’s a good chance you know about these spectacular little sensory Water Beads. 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. They’re designed to hydrate plants, but they can also be used in sensory play and I’ll show you how.

What are Water Beads?

Water beads are non-edible beads, made of a combination of water and a water-absorbing polymer. A polymer is made of tiny particles that stick together and form long chains. They sometimes come pre-soaked and also come dry, waiting to be soaked in water. When dry water beads are immersed in water, they fill up and expand like a sponge.

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.

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

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

Are water beads safe for kids?

Water beads are safe to play with and they’re non-toxic and biodegradable. However, they cannot be eaten! These are best used with older children who aren’t mouthing objects. Please use your best judgment when introducing young children to small objects, and again, read some of the comments on this post for insight into the safety of water beads.

How long do water beads last?

They can last for a couple years, unused! However, once children play with them, they become magnets for dirt and should be tossed at the first signs of mold. If you see black spots appear on your water beads, it’s time to pitch them.

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

More Sensory Experiences for Preschoolers

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Make colored rice

Sensory play with shredded paper

Sensory activity: Wheat berries

Sensory activity: Wet paper

TinkerLab Schoolhouse Online Art Club for Kids

Engaging kids art classes - from the comfort of home!

You set up the supplies & we'll offer the instruction.

71 Comments

  1. We just played with water beads this morning and I’m working on the post now! Great minds think alike 😉
    The were really so much fun to play with, I had a hard time wanting to share them with the girls.
    I love you added them to the light table, great idea!
    ~Aleacia

    • great minds think alike, aleacia 🙂 i found myself dipping my hands in the beads, um, constantly. very addicting!

    • i wonder too, melissa. I’m letting ours evaporate right now, and hope they’ll dwindle down to their original size for easier storage. thank you again for the idea!!

  2. I am meeting with our PLC prek teachers tomorrow to share this wonderfully inspired activity! Thank you for sharing!!

    • of course! glad to help. you’ll have to let me know what your teachers think.

  3. I put a handful in the bathtub one night and my girls 3 & 18 months spent nearly an hour “chasing” them, they were hard to catch. I also had little fish nets that made it easier to catch the beads. I was careful to make sure that we cleaned them all up before we let the water out because the label warns they may clog drains, but it was truly a lot of fun!

    • Ha! That’s a great idea, Christine! They’re hard to pick up when they bounce on the floor, and I can only imagine the impossibility of fishing them out of the bath. You’re brave!

  4. Where do you get these? What stores and what sections? Thanks!

    • I got them in the floral department of a fabric/craft store. They’re made to go in a clear flower vase and I imagine you could find them in craft/hobby/floral shops. Or online…check out the amazon link above.

  5. My children and parents enjoyed ours. Did find they can get slimy, if not rinsed each evening. Find out come in different sizes, so on the look-out for larger ones. Ours were also from JoAnne’s and multicolored.

    • I should have mentioned this. They naturally have a slimy feel to them, but I didn’t notice that they got any MORE slimy. I didn’t rinse them, but maybe I would if I used them with multiple kids in a school setting.

  6. We have played with these before (keep adding water to see how big they get!) but I just love how you put them over a light table. Just beautiful!

    • Isn’t the light table great? I have to find more ways to use it!!

  7. Made this my Friday activity today. I couldn’t find the assorted package so I bought a clear, red and blue. A lesson learned – I think i got an old pack of the red ones – when I opened it I noticed a red powder along with the beads and when i dumped some in the water turned beet red and the beads turned clear. Took a few rinses (and extra care to make sure none went down the drain) to get the water clear again. So, if you buy them, avoid any that look like there is powder in them. We ended up with just clear and blue, which was still a lot of fun for my son. And I found it very soothing to pick up handfuls and let them run through my fingers! Thanks for the tip!!!

    • Yikes, thanks for sharing this cautionary tale. I’m otherwise thrilled that this turned into a fun project for you and your son!

  8. I have to thank you again for this post. My son has played with them for countless hours. He asks for them quite often, and when I pull them out I can count on him being occupied. We added a funnel (fun to watch them pop out the bottom), and his sand toy cement mixer, along with various other spoons and cars/boats. As a mother who works from home, I really appreciate things that are fun and keep him occupied! And I never would have known about water gems without you. THANK YOU!!!!

    • I’m so happy to hear this — thank for making my day!! Because I work a little bit from home too (right now I’m holding a wooden alligator on my lap while catching up online), I totally get where you’re coming from. The water gems give us hours of fun too, and it’s time for me to pick up a new bag. Hello stocking stuffer!

  9. how long does it take for the beads to grow?

    • I believe it was a couple hours. It may say on the package. Hope that helps!

  10. Thanks for mentioning Messy Kids! Our beads went the other way. They came wet and full sized, but I left them out to see what would happen and they shrank! Added some more water and they grew again. Reminded me of those little rubber animals you can buy that grow in water.

  11. I bought clear ones for my daughters wedding and experimented with them by adding a drop of food coloring. It worked great and now I have blue ones for her blue wedding! I’m not sure how it would work in a water table but if all you can find is clear you might want to try adding different colors of food coloring too!. They immediately turned blue when I added the coloring. Have fun experimenting!  Also, they do shrink down and can be “revived” with just water 🙂

  12. Awesome, I am planning to try this today, I finally got some water beads of ebay for my kiddies! Thanks for the great instructions on how to play w them, I wasnt sure!

  13. Oh, I wanted to ask – as Im about to get mine out to play with for the first time – so, they can be stored and used over and over? Do you just drain the water off and pack them in a container? Ive also seen people mention they can be dryed out and re-wet? Amazing stuff!!!

    • Hi Kate! I just drained off the water, put ours in a big plastic box, covered them up, and they lasted a couple weeks before I threw them away. I’ve heard that you can store them for a while, but ours got so much wear (my one year old got in the habit of pinching them to smithereens) that they weren’t worth keeping much longer. There are a lot of good ideas and advice in the comments here, which may help too. Glad to hear that you’re enjoying them. Yay!

      • When they have outlived their usefulness for decor or playtime, they are great put into your potted plants or even in your flowerbeds outside. The small bits and pieces will hold in water and slowly release the water back into the soil as they dehydrate. And when you water your plants again, they will rehydrate again with water and repeat the cycle 🙂 Eventually they break down over time and just compost into the soil.

  14. i love these things! i have a ton of them. I keep plastic wrap over mine to keep them from drying out. they say on the package to refresh them about once a week, but since mine are covered i don’t need to. On the subject of the kids eating them by accident i wouldn’t worry if it happens, I have surfed many websites on the subject of water beads apparently “they come out the same as they went in” lol. theyre made to water plants so they’re completely nontoxic.
    I buy mine at hobby lobby on the wedding aisle.

  15. I just bought some of these last week, they were already hydrated, but I need to get some that need to be hydrated so she can have the fun of seeing them grow!

    • That’s a great idea. You can easily get them online, and we were able to find them at the craft store. Enjoy!

  16. I have purchased these in the past but noticed the packaging does say KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.  WIth that warning, i discountinued use but would love to add them to the routine again if I were CERTAIN they were safe!!

  17. I’d love to do this with my son. Where can they be purchased?

    • You can purchase them through Steve Spangler’s website. We also have different sizes and clear Jelly Marbles that you can see through or color yourself. http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/product/colorful-growing-orbs

  18. We learned you can buy clear water beads and add food coloring to dye the beads. If you put 2 primary colors together, over the course of a day or so the 2 colors will mix and the beads will all be a new color. You can also soak the beads in clean water over night and the color will come back out and you can do it over again with new colors! We LOVE water beads! Fun in the bath too! 

    • These are such great tips — thanks very much for sharing.

  19. I am worried about how clean these are. I know after a day of just plain water play in my classroom, the water smells horrible the very next morning so we replace the water…

    These beads soak in liquid, keep liquid in, and stay wet for an extended amount of time. How would/do you deal with keeping it sanitary for multiple use by multiple children and avoid mold and mildew growth too?

    • That’s a valid concern. With just two kids, these didn’t get too grimy and we played with the same beads for a couple weeks. As a test, I placed them in a large ziploc bag to see how they would store, and the did develop mold over time. I’m sorry I can’t remember how long that took (maybe a month), but your instinct is spot-on. For multiple children, you might enjoy playing with them for one day and then resetting with new water beads the next. Thanks for the comment!

    • I have heard of other daycare type settings using these and they have mentioned they can get moldy if not rinsed daily. But apparently all it takes is a quick rinse at the end of each day and they are good to go again.

  20. They have them at Joannes for 4.99 a box. Has anyone tried adding water again after they dry?

    • Ours never got down to the original size, but they did shrink a bit and we had luck reconstituting them with water.

  21. Very cool! Looks like they’re not just for kids to play with. 🙂

    If I had seen the tiny beads in the store I never would have guessed that they could be turned into a magical science experiment.

  22. I played with my grandkids. When we were done I dumped them in a collander and rinsed them off. Then i just put them in a ziplock bag. I feel this got alot of the germs off. Next time I’ll try dish soap in the collander.

    • Hi Linda,
      That’s a smart idea! I bet you’ll get a lot more use out of them this way. And how lucky are your grandkids to have such a hands-on grandma! Thanks for the comment.
      Rachelle

  23. where can i get aqua beads? i tried to find them but cant find any!

    • Did you try the link in this post, Alexis? We get ours at Michael’s craft store or JoAnn Fabrics — in the floral aisle.

  24. Consumer Reports is recommending these only be used by children over 5 because they are a choking hazard. I would be afraid to use them in my classroom, although they look so cool. I know they would not pass safety standards of licensing and accreditation for toddlers.

  25. We played with these and my girls noticed that colourless water beads disappear in water. When we put a few of them in a long plastic test tube, the only way we could predict where a clear one was, was that there was a ‘blank’ spot in the column of beads!

  26. Julie, there is a potential choking hazard for younger children, but with correct supervision it should not be a real issue. The great part is you can let them dry and then add water again to bring them back to almost full size beads again.

  27. I would love know where you got that tray with sides that you put on top of your light box?! It’s perfect. Most tuperware doesn’t workout too well.

  28. I love rice and lentils, and shaving cream! I haven’t tried water beads, but after seeing and reading this, I’m completely sold! Thanks! xx Angela

  29. Water Beads are so fun! Just watch children who are playing with them as if they swallow them they will grow inside their little bodies (same type of thing if they were to be put down the drain. Also be mindful of animals that they don’t eat any as the same thing happens :/ so yes they may be non toxic but the hazard is they can grow larger if swallowed :/

    • Of course, you are so right, Staysi. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  30. I am so glad I get your newsletters. Everything helps me. I am worried about the beads. They do look fun.

    • I’m so glad to hear that you like the newsletter! I love writing them. I can understand your concern about the beads — best to stay clear of them if you’re unsure 🙂

  31. These particular objects can grow bigger as they pass through the intestines, ultimately paving the way for obstruction, said Jenifer R. Lightdale, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, a pediatric gastroenterologist. The beads may not be visible on X-rays.

  32. Exactly as seen on Facebook:
    “Three days ago, my sweet 9 mo boy ate water beads, which are colorful polymer beads that swell in water. This is a recipe for disaster if they are swallowed. The container says non-toxic, but they are non-toxic the same way a meat cleaver is non-toxic. They do NOT dissolve in the digestive tract and instead swell to block to the passage. This hazard is not marked on the bottle.

    My fat, healthy baby puked for three hours that night, even dry heaving in his sleep. We called the ped and she said as he has thrown up pieces and not choking, he was probably ok but to call in if he didn’t improve (bad call, but we didn’t know what they were at this point). He couldnt hold anything down all morning, so hubs and I decided I would take him in to the ped’s who now realized this was very serious. By this time with some sleuthing and pointed questions to day care, we knew they were water beads.

    After that it was a blurr of a quick drive to the hospital, x-ray, ultrasound, IV fluids, more puking and consults with about 5 surgeons and two anesthetists.

    At 9 am the next day, they carried my poor sweet baby away to surgery. It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in my life. I was all alone in the hospital holding room exhausted after two nights of little sleep, still wearing yesterday’s work clothes and covered in dried baby puke. After being strong for so long, I wept and wept.

    The surgery was nearly two hours to remove beads that had swollen and one had blocked his pyloric valve on the way out of the stomach. At one point the surgeons had his entire digestive tract out of his body and ran their fingers down the length to make sure all the pieces were out. I saw the lead surgeon’s picture and I will never lose that image in my mind.

    The beads were out of reach and were just in a pretty, colorful, display at day care. But the display of them had fallen and the beads scattered. It was an accident. Even though this happened to my 9mo, I still catch my 4yo putting random stuff in his mouth and this could have happened to him.

    I know OTs, teachers, and parents like to use water beads as sensory toys, because they are colourful, squishy “non-toxic” fun. But the consequences of swallowing them can be dire. Get the beads out of your house if you have small kids around. If you see these at your day care centers, demand they be removed for any age, even if they are out of reach. Kids are fast.”

    • Thanks for sharing this important story, Rosemary. These should not be used with small children, unsupervised children, and especially not with babies.

  33. As I am reading this article there is something about fishing reels? Is that part of the water beads article?

    • Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Christy – fishing reels aren’t supposed to be part of this article. Now corrected 🙂

  34. Awesome, I am planning to try this today, I finally got some water beads of ebay for my kiddies! Thanks for the great instructions on how to play w them, I wasnt sure!!

  35. My only concern is if the children in excitement ate this then I guess it would be quite hazardous.

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