Gerald Haigh has splashing good fun as he investigates sand and water resources for the early years
Water - chief ingredient of our own bodies and faithful friend to the dishonest pub landlord - is, unlike so many other common materials, liquid at room temperature. It is also transparent, pleasant to handle and harmless to the skin and stomach. So ubiquitous is it that adults take it entirely for granted.
For children, however, water is a source of endless delight, providing many levels of experimentation, from noisy splashing to introspective hand- and finger-dipping. Children learn that you can pour water; that it responds to gravity by settling to a level regardless of the position of its container; that some objects will float in it and others will not; that the same amount of water comes further up a narrower container.
The discoveries themselves are important, but at least as significant is the child's realisation that there are processes by which the world can be explored. It is no accident that sand is the common accompaniment to water in schools and playgroups. Not only do they go together on the beach, they also share enough properties (the ability to be poured, for example) to make their differences interesting to the young discoverer.
Although over-anxious parents and governments sometimes need to be reminded of it, children do not have to be taught this kind of activity. What they need are good resources and the time to use them.
"Good" resources could mean plastic jugs and buckets. Beyond that, good judgment is needed if money is to be spent wisely. Anything elaborate will have to earn its keep in terms of motivation and learning. With that in mind, and with the help of Reception teacher Angela Webb and her class from Courthouse Green primary in Coventry, TES Primary looked at some of the sand and water play equipment available in the Hope Education catalogue.
CONSTRUCT-A-BOATS Pounds 24.95. WORKCARDS Pounds 4.99. BOATS AND CARDS TOGETHER Pounds 25.94
Lots of little sections, different shapes and colours, that fit together to make floating boats. There are basic hulls, bow shapes, sterns, cabins, funnels, all capable of being assembled in many different ways.
The four double-sided workcards give illustrated ideas for boats - "Make this boat", "Tow these boats". The instruction cards were possibly a little old for Reception, says Angela. "The children used them when I was there, but as soon as I went away they wanted to make their own boats." Which, of course, is entirely natural and acceptable.
AQUA TANK Pounds 59.95
This is clover-shaped, with a lid, that can be used with sand or water (or both, if you also use the lid). It comes with a kit of smaller sand and water equipment, including a pump, a "mill", a one-litre jug, some plastic tubing, funnels and bottles.
There is also a set of "early investigative science" workcards.
The shape of the tank is not just decorative. Angela Webb's pupils naturally arranged themselves one to each "leaf" of the clover. Angela says: "It's a good feature, and it prevents squabbling and pushing."
She has fixed the tank and the lid together at one end with string; "So it opens like a clam shell."
Her response to other parts of this kit was mixed: some of the simpler items such as jugs and plastic bottles can easily be found elsewhere - "You've always got your yogurt pots for example" - and she felt that the kit might be cheaper without them. The "sand and water mill" was popular and is very robust, despite its moving parts. The water pump, too, is interesting for Reception children to experience, and would be a useful science resource for older pupils in the school.
The worksheets, which are available separately at Pounds 39.99, have a range of 20 activities with ideas that lead children from play to learning.
Angela liked most of them, but felt some called for resources that could have easily been provided, perhaps in place of some of the jugs and bottles. "There's one that needs yogurt pots with holes down the side to demonstrate changing water pressure. In a Reception class the children can't make the holes, so you've got an extra job. It would have been so easy for the manufacturer to give us some ready-made ones."
In the same way, sand combing, which Angela's pupils now love, would be easier if there were plastic sand combs rather than instructions for making them out of card.
Angela also feels that the worksheets ought to be more open-ended, asking, What do you think might happen? "Children are not asked to speculate enough. "
WATERWAY Pounds 39.95
This is excellent. Angela loves it, as do her pupils. It is a plastic model of a canal, with locks, a water-wheel, some boats and a crane for lifting the boats out. It comes in sections that have to be joined together. Three children use it at a time. Angela says; "Most teachers work with their class in groups of six, so we have three on the water tank and three on the canal."
Children can push boats around the canal, operate the locks and the crane, and see the interaction between the water-wheel and the water. The children tried to sink the boats, finding out how much water they can contain and still stay afloat. They were also interested in how the water stayed in the canal and did not escape through the joints between the sections.
Most important for Angela, however, is the amount of discussion that the waterway generates and the exploration of vocabulary. "Words like full and empty, rising, falling. We had sentences such as `the boat is rising as the water rises'."
The locks work well - the canal is on two levels; gates open, water and boats rise and fall. There is a pump for moving the water.
Teachers of older pupils, up to 14, who have tried to explain canal locks with the aid of the blackboard, would find this model extremely useful, and might well beat a path to Reception to borrow it.
There are some practical difficulties with the waterway, however. Assembly is going to take longer than you think because each of the dozen or so joints has a compressed watertight seal that has to be locked home - it does not always work first time. As a result, it is not really practical to keep taking the waterway to pieces, so there has to be space for it - perhaps two metres by one to give working room - preferably in a wet area or a covered space outside.
Angela says: "There is no way of draining it, so you have to carry it somewhere to tip it, and that's difficult. You'd think it would have been so easy to make a drain-hole."
A more compact waterway with no locks is available at Pounds 13.95. Locks can be bought separately at Pounds 9.95. There is also the Aqua Traffic Land and Roadway, which has roads and a waterway at Pounds 19.95.
Angela Webb was cautious about buying equipment from a catalogue for making shapes with sand. She looked at the 20-piece sand mould set in the Hope catalogue at Pounds 17.95, for instance, but then bought a set of spades, buckets and shapes from a local shop for just Pounds 2.
"There's more in the catalogue set, and it might be more robust. On the other hand, my set has a sieve, which you need for doing experiments on separating sand from pebbles."
Call Hope on 0161-633 6611
Children need to wear waterproof aprons for sand and water play. There are two schools of thought among teachers about these. One prefers an all-enveloping smock or overall that covers the arms down to the wrist. The other believes in something that keeps the arms free, perhaps at the expense of wet sleeves. The Hope catalogue has garments that suit all of these opinions and tastes, in lots of colours, from Pounds 4 to Pounds 10.