Inspiring Water Play: Is there scope for creativity, self-direction and discovery?

A research project reflective of the ritual of water play in an early years centre.

Project author:

Project summary:

An observational study of opportunities for promoting self – discovery, sensory and creative water-play.

Reflecting on our actions, values and assumptions with the current provision of water play indoors and outdoors.


My purpose of undertaking this research was to highlight the ritual filling of the water tray, the colour decided by  practitioners, a douse of soap detergent and a throw in of some replica sea creatures. The water play was void of inspiration, derelict of children’s views and weak of resources, with missed opportunities for sensory, self-directed  and creative discoveries.

This project indulged my passion for Froebel’s thinking and practice, making it possible to take forward practice through research, inclusive of children and practitioners. This mattered immensely as practitioners became a driving force of the research project, unaware of how naturally their practice links to Froebelian  education.  I was thrilled  by Tina Bruce’s  explanation of entanglement and began to recognises myself as a Froebelian early years pioneer, fundamentally supported by the engagement of research and theory – almost a Froebelian paradigm with a vision for the  future of children upheld by skilful childhood practitioners endorsing Froebel’s legacy to strengthen their practice.


At Hilltop nursery, we have 3 playrooms.  We have two 3 to 5 years playrooms – with a combined capacity for 90 children and a 2 to 3 years playroom with capacity for 20 children. The nursery  has 2 separate outdoor spaces, a garden and a playground. We have over 140 children and families enjoying the nursery each week. Hilltop is recognised within our local authority as sector leading for high quality outdoor play experiences. The senior leadership team have overcome many estate problems, all by inclusively sharing our vision with practitioners, children and families. We have successfully achieved a practice promoting a child’s right to choose where to play – indoors or outdoors from when they arrive at the nursery.

Around 30% of the children attending Hilltop present with social communication difficulties, the most complex – around 8%, communicate with aggressive behaviours. The children have various sensory needs however there is a common link to the sensory satisfaction of water play.

As team leader, I elected this study using a Froebelian lens, influenced by my niggle of derelict water trays throughout the indoor spaces. My research would examine the rituals, opportunities for engagement or self-directed discoveries, regardless of children’s age, gender or ability.




Conscious of Froebelian ethics, I chose and suggested  an empirical lens for the observations. Practitioners then focused on a qualitive ethnography, aiming to provide rich and detailed data, recorded in the form of children’s words, concepts and ideas.

This qualitive methodological  approach  used  methods concerned with describing experiences and exploring the nature of creativity, discovery and self – directed  waterplay, digitally recorded for review and peer assessment. The use of digital technology presented opportunities for children to review and  revisit experiences,  emphasising children’s autonomy. For practitioners this afforded skilled observations and  data analysis, contributing to the sustainability of the research project.

Absence of practitioners and children after an outbreak of infection and my own absence from work caused general reconsideration from my planned methodology. This impacted  and “diluted” the focus groups to a broader cohort of participants both young and old, however this ignited the engagement of most practitioners, therefore the methods of research, professional enquiry and curiosity provided wonderful opportunities for dialogue, progression and unity as water play became a shared experience of action research.



I presented a letter to parents, securing  consent for their child  to engage in my research. Unfortunately, from the sixteen consents only 4 parents consented to their child’s  photograph or recordings being included in the methodology of my research. Parents were apprehensive consenting to websites and cautiously declined consent.  This was acceptable although did impact on the digital aspect of my methodology, regarding the digital interviews among peers, nonetheless children’s voices, experiences and actions were recorded in other contexts.

The content remained focused on children’s perspectives, mindful that the children’s interests may be something the adults had not considered. Mindful that observations offered are snapshots and a child’s reaction to a certain context has many facets, expressions and preferences that we may not see – however the research will afford insights of children’s knowledge and understanding revealing successes in a given setting.

Practitioners must  refrain from assuming the theme or cohering  play  and be mindful of  children’s abilities, staying focused on creating environments and opportunities for children to convey their perspectives. The invitation from children to their world of play, is a compliment into an unpredictable process where the power balances between practitioner and child are equal, therefore practitioners must consider ethics in every action taken.




Play is about wallowing in ideas, feelings and relationships and the prowess of the physical body. It helps the process of becoming aware of self in relation to others and the universe. It brings unity and interconnectedness.



Practitioners experimented putting water  into a tuff tray. The water was shallow, however dipped into the middle where it was deeper in the centre, the resources were smaller of size in accordance with the depth of the water.  There was a child in the room, keen to play with the water however because of his height, he could not reach the centre of the tray where the water was deep enough to scoop, pour and fill. The child who is EAL and prefers to use body language and gestures to communicate quickly exclaimed, “ It’s not deep enough, I can’t reach “ . This declaration presented a teachable, responsive moment rich with experience and interactions from a child who prefers  to communicate through gesture. He was quickly guided with freedom, to create deep water experiences by filling buckets of water to use in the water play tray. This exemplified deeper engagement, he played for almost an hour – interrupted by lunchtime. Fundamentally, the practitioner honed the skills of securing the child’s autonomy and his rights to equality, she supported sustainable creativity and thinking, developing his knowledge and understanding. This was evident from the child’s actions, words and emotions. All practitioners remarked that when they guided discovery and creativity at the water tray, children would  spending considerable periods of time, indulging the experience, predicting outcomes and building on their own knowledge.

Participation became more natural as the research project developed.  Practitioners were visibly relaxed in their facilitation of experiences and rather than set-up water challenges or tasks, practitioners cyclical process of “think, do, think” empowered and guided children’s autonomy to make discoveries, develop creativity or indulge in their imaginative play and life experiences. Practitioners were more attuned – and deeper play took place as a result.

The recommended reading throughout the practitioner enquiry sessions was fundamental to introduce action research to my colleagues. In particular the McNaughton and Hughes, 2008 publication “Doing action research in Early Childhood Studies”.

From the introduction of the book, to my research question, I have been influenced by my Froebelian principles and guided by the content to fulfil and summarise a process of change that is action research.

Disseminating “think, do, think” practice (thinking what do we do at present, then do something to engage in change, think again about what we have done and its effects) will fully evolve throughout our experiences and environment supporting children to develop their right to express their views, feelings and wishes, be considered and taken seriously, indicative of Article 12,  UNCRC . Practitioners demonstrated skills to recognise  that children’s voices are communicated by behaviour as well as verbally. Therefore listening to young children’s movement and gesture,  alongside what they may say, enabled equitable contributions to the research – spaces and emotions gave the child’s voice true context and meaning.

Equally observations of discovery and creativity using water play, presented opportunities to identify the principles of curriculum design. There was depth, relevance, personalisation and choice, coherence, breadth, challenge, progression and most importantly enjoyment could be obtained in one observation.

Rich experiences were observed supporting and developing children’s experiences by sensitive and knowledgeable practitioners. Recognising significant moments, practitioners know when and how to interact, knowing when to give the child autonomy – my observations highlighted the  relevance of observing children, placing their needs and interests at the centre of the environment,  playing with purpose indoors or outdoors is timeless and Froebelian in nature.

When planning for my research I thought of several questions to ignite a response from the children regarding their concept of water, however using the toolkit I wondered if the questions were really needed ? I considered  the questions were a contradictory approach to encouraging self-direction and creativity  and could actually be an interruption to the children’s creativity. By using my devised questions I had already decided and began to shape an outcome that suited me as practitioner therefore I was limiting the children’s true participation.

Children had many first hand experiences of playing with water, therefore their own wealth of knowledge about the properties and elements of water play was evident by simply observing or partaking in  the self-directed children’s play. Indeed everything I initially wanted to know from my devised questions happened holistically  – without pens and paper.




I recognised my intention (of the devised questions ) to what Kay Tisdall (2015) refers to as an instrumental pitfall, describing the practice as highly selective of children’s contributions to meet my aims and outcome.  This was pivotal to me as a practitioner, as I believed my pedagogical approach to early years practice was a role model of example, advocating  children with rights and experiences to draw and build upon their being. The research project highlighted my professional and personal being is long from complete. The journey of self-discovery has been fulfilling and presents future practice, that I am excited to embrace and engage – fully endorsing Froebelian practice with children’s true autonomy.

The collaboration of research findings presented a difference from indoors to outdoor water play. The biggest is outdoors – we have no direct access to water, therefore while experiences are beautifully natural and based on the wonder of nature there are limitations to the longevity of experiences.  The research has impacted on our future environments with a plan supported by the senior management to create a working group of parents and community supports to facilitate our outdoor spaces with access to running water.



Dissemination/Impact Report

Observations took place regarding the current provision and practitioners reviewed and agreed there was room for improvement in particular – engagement of children.

We then looked at the current provision of resources and the function of each piece as a provocation for sustained thinking and creativity. We  made necessary amendments and  created a wish  list of water resources.

Children contributed to this by creating a graph of what they liked to play best with at the indoor water play.

Practitioners were presented with research information packs consisiting of:

  •  Observation sheets for waterplay with the caption , “Actions, Words and Emotions”
  • Consent forms to participate with a research interview.
  • Questions for the research interview,
  • Word bank of descriptive, mathematical vocabulary to scaffold children’s play.
  • Share Froebel Trust Children’s Perspective Toolkit with Practitioners to ensure deep understanding of children’s views and self evaluation of own awareness.

Children’s voices  were collected using:

  • Observations
  • Digital recordings
  • Recording opinions, creating graphs, drawings and discoveries.
  • 3d mind mapping

My intention was to  facilitate  enabling events and collaborative play experiences for all participants and their families, however due to my absence from the centre, time didn’t permit the gatherings. My view of the spring months is to ensure the events and play experiences happen and support the investment of creative water play by developing a group  to implement new resources and a plan for water to be accessible outdoors.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the research was the practitioner interview. I choose to do this after most of the field work was carried out. The practitioner discussions and answers collaborated  with my research findings. Their modelling and facilitation, had indeed impacted on “breaking ” the rituals of provision, demonstrating high quality provision that  inspired their  fellow practitioners. This concurred with foundational principles of Froebel, to strengthen and deepen children and community -centred early years practice.

Watch this we will make an overflood!

Research implications

To be completed

Practitioner enquiry

To be completed

Leadership learning

To be completed

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Cheryl Wheatley
    Cheryl Wheatley
    26 Mar 2024 at 3:01 pm

    As water play is such a favourite for most children, I found this project interesting. Totally agree about the benefits that sometimes taking a step a back, not asking questions and just letting nature take its course is a positive approach.

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  2. Joan MacNeil
    Joan MacNeil
    26 Mar 2024 at 9:47 pm

    Really interesting to read about changes in practice and in children’s experiences of water play. Identifying a need for change in this area has clearly resulted in creative, purposeful play with children leading their own learning.

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