Cool down this summer with a “faux” water bead activity kids will love!
This is one of our Camp STEAM campers’ favorite water play activities every year and that goes for kids ages 3-13! No joke!
Sometimes I just like to make stuff and today’s summer water activity is the fruit of one of those ”let’s tinker” afternoons. It’s also a creative way to demonstrate some engineering and STEAM to kids (check out the STEAM section after the instructions). I originally create this for preschool playgroup I ran but we have also brought this to camp two years in a row and older kids LOVED it too!
I absolutely love the blog Sand and Water Tables so this is also my homage to all Tom Sensori’s amazing preschool contraptions! BONUS: It ended up being a HUGE hit at the preschool playgroup I hosted last summer.
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Water Beads Vs. Tapioca Pearls
Technically today’s project is a water bead activity without water beads. Here’s the thing, I have a love/hate relationship with water beads. I think they are a marvelous sensory play material, however they are a choking hazard AND if they end up being spilled around your yard you can expect to see them swell up every time they are exposed to water i.e. every time the sprinklers go off or it rains…been there! So my preference is to use them when they can be contained in a sealed bag.
However kids love a good water bead activity! The feeling of squishy colorful beads between the hands is such a wonderful sensory activity for kids that I decided I must find an eco-friendly, taste safe alternative to water beads. Enter tapioca pearls. They have a similar consistency to water beads and are edible so there will be no concerns if they are accidentally swallowed. And if you get a bunch of them strewn across your yard they will shrivel up and decompose. Win-win!
So where do you get these water bead alternatives? If you have an Asian market near you they are typically sold in two forms: One that is completely dry, look for them in the center aisles with dry goods, and another variety that is partially hydrated and sold in the refrigerated section. The dry ones will expand slightly when cooked and can be colored. The large ones are already colored.
If you don’t have access to an Asian foods market they can be purchased on Amazon here:
The partially hydrated ones are larger and when fully cooked will end up being the size of water beads. I used both sizes in today’s project because the dry ones are incredibly inexpensive but it was nice to have some of the larger pearls mixed in.
“Faux” Water Bead Activity: Pouring Pearls
- Tapioca Pearls Large and Extra Large
- Food Coloring
- Plastic tubes (Hardware stores sell these tube guards which are inexpensive)
- (4) PVC pipe elbow fittings for the tubes (You can purchase these inexpensively in the plumbing section of your local hardware store). The tube outer diameter should match the elbow inner diameter.
- Cardboard Storage Box
- (2) sheets foam core or other stiff board ( I buy it at the dollar store)
- Exacto Knife (adults only)
- Duct Tape
- Hot Glue Gun/Glue
- (2) Large plastic containers
- Sieves, cups, small buckets etc.
Prepare the Pearls
Follow the directions on the packaging to cook the pearls. For the uncolored pearls add a generous amount of food coloring to the water as your boil the pearls to color them. You will have to cook separate batches to make different colors. You cannot color them after cooking. Once cooked, drain and let cool in sealed containers in the refrigerator.
Make the Tube Structure
- Step One Sketch (4) slots to cut along one side of each board as shown in the diagram above. The slots should align board to board but should be different depths. That will allow the plastic tubes to be on an incline. The slots should be roughly the same size as the diameter of your plastic tubes.
- Step Two Once the boards are cut, place a cardboard box between them. Hot glue the box to each of the boards.
- Step Three Place an elbow fitting on one each end of each tube.
- Step Four Place a tube across one pair of the slots. The elbow fitting should be on the side of the tube that is elevated. Secure in place with some duct tape. I taped over and across each tube to keep it in position. Repeat with the remaining tubes.
“Faux” Water Bead Activity Set-Up
I suggest elevating this off the ground on a large, low table (or two low tables you can push together). Place one of your large plastic containers on either side of the tube structure. Add water to the large containers along with some of the prepared tapicoa pearls. Place some plastic cups or sieves in the tub and invite kids over! I placed our structure on two benches with some stacked tubs to hold the structure. I plan to do this again this summer with better support underneath.
As far as summer water play activities go, this is totally irresistible. On a hot day there is nothing that compares to playing with water and the joy the kids got from pouring and watching the colorful pearls move through the tubes along with the sensory play of handling the tapioca made this the most popular station of the day a playgroup. It’s also been extremely popular at our camps for kid ages 5-11!
Here’s a simple trick for making clean-up easy: Use a fine mesh sieve to collect as many of the tapioca pearls as possible. You can store them in Tupperware in the refrigerator for reuse at the station or compost/throw them out. They will last a couple days max. This is another reason I favor tapioca pearls to water beads: They are biodegradable.
Let’s Talk STEAM
This tube structure is a wonderful display of ramps and aqueducts. Aqueducts are channels constructed to carry water across long distances and over gaps. Our tube structure is a simple example of an aqueduct, carrying water and the pearls across a the gap between the boards using only gravity. Aqueducts were used often in Roman times, carrying potable water to locations miles from their sources. Aqueducts always have a slight slope in order to transport the water using the force of gravity alone. Some of the most famous sections of Roman aqueducts were atop wonderful arched bridges. This section in Segovoia Spain is an incredible display of ancient engineering and was still in use until the 19th century. You can see it here.
For little ones you can also talk about the concept of gravity. Gravity is a force that pulls things towards each other. The larger an object, the stronger its gravitational pull. The earth has an enormous gravitational pull which is why people and objects don’t fall off of it!
More Water Play Activities
I want you to put this (faux) water bead activity on your summer preschool activity bucket list, trust me your kids will LOVE it!! For more water play activities with a STEAM twist hop over to our round up of 10 Irresistible STEAM Water Play Ideas. Your kids will be so excited to play outside even on a hot day if they can do one or all of these wonderful sensory play and engineering activity involving water!
And lastly I’ve got even more ways to stay busy this summer in my book STEAM Play and Learn! It has 20 STEAM activities for preschool aged children and beyond. You can check it out and even pre-order here so you’ll be ready for a fun STEAM summer ahead!
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