Infant & Toddler Activity: Painting & Playing with Water

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Children ages 10 to 24 months delight in playing with water! This week, we offer these water-based art and sensory activities using materials you have around your home. Water play helps children build gross motor skills (lifting, pouring, and splashing), fine motor skills (squeezing a sponge and holding a paintbrush), and hand-eye coordination.

What We’re Learning & Skills We’re Building

  • Cause & effect – the texture and form of some materials change when dampened with water 
  • Early science – learning about the properties of water and how it flows 
  • Language skills (listening and speaking) – learning descriptive words and phrases
  • Sensory awareness – Observing, touching, and feeling 

(Safety: Adults should always supervise infants and toddlers around water to prevent injuries.)


“Small” Water Play: Painting with Water


These activities help your child build their fine motor skills. They’re using the small muscles in their hands to grasp paintbrushes and practice making marks on paper and other surfaces.



Painting on Paper 

  1. (Optional) Secure the bowl of water and a piece of construction paper to a flat surface in front of your child.
  2. Give your child the paintbrush or sponge and show them how to dip it into the water.
  3. Invite them to place the brush on top of the paper to paint on the paper. They might not understand what to do next, so model the act of dipping the brush into the water, then making a dot or a brushstroke on the paper. 
  4. Infants who aren’t yet able to hold a paintbrush properly can dip their fingers into the water and then make marks on the paper with them. 

Painting Outside

Using a paintbrush, a roller, or a sponge along with a bowl or a bucketful of water, have your child “paint” a wooden fence or a stucco wall. They can also use water to paint on a sidewalk, a driveway, a patio, or a deck – anywhere it’s safe to use water! Have them dip their hands and feet into the water to make handprints and footprints. Painting outside on a hot day can be especially fun! Watch how the water strokes disappear (evaporate) in the sun and heat.

(Note: Make sure the ground’s not too hot for your child’s hands and feet!)




“Big” Water Play: Filling, Pouring, & Splashing


These activities help your child build their gross motor skills. They’re using the larger muscles in their arms to lift tools and splash in water.


  • Wash basin, small tub, large metal or plastic bowls, large pots, small buckets, plastic measuring cups with handles, plastic cups, or used yogurt containers
  • Funnels
  • Small ladles
  • Sponges
  • (Optional) Bath toys or other water-safe toys/objects
  • Towels and washcloths

Set up & Play

It’s best to do “big” water play either outside or in the bathtub. Be prepared with extra towels! Fill one large container with water. Keep the other, smaller containers empty and let your child lead the play!

Invite your child to scoop up water using one of the smaller containers. Have them pour the water into several different containers, then back again into the large original container. Expect lots of splashing! By doing this, your child is strengthening their hand-eye coordination. Funnels and colanders are great tools for showing the different ways water flows, drips, and squeezes through small areas. When your child dips sponges into the water and squeezes them out, it helps build strong hands and arms.

Build Your Child’s Early Literacy

Words, phrases, and questions about water to practice with your child:

  • This bowl is full. This bowl is empty.
  • Can you pour water from the bowl that’s full into the bowl that’s empty?
  • You’re squeezing the water out.
  • Let’s use the funnel. Look how the water comes through the holes in the colander.
  • This toy is floating. This toy is sinking. Watch how it sinks to the bottom.
  • Can we see which toys sink to the bottom of the bowl and which ones float on top of the water? Let’s see what happens with this toy.

Water Play for Older Children

For older preschoolers and elementary-school-age children, see our Sink, Float, or Change activity for a more advanced experimentation.