We love water beads! Originally created for use in agriculture for water conservation, in recent years they have experienced a surge in popularity for crafting, home décor, and sensory bins. To keep with the eco-friendly theme we have created a fun and beautiful Sea Turtle Sensory Bin as we explore the science of polymers. Learn more about water beads, what makes them fascinating from a science perspective, plus how to use them for sensory play and sensory bins.
Water Beads Eco-Friendly Sensory Bin
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What are Water Beads?
So the big question for most of us…. what the heck are water beads? If you grew up around farms, gardens or greenhouses, you are likely already familiar with these magical little orbs. Water beads are also known as hydrogels, jelly beads, jelly crystals, water crystals, water retention crystals, and several other nicknames. But if you are looking for the proper name it is hydrogel.
In the 1960’s scientists created hydrogel to add to farmland to help with water conservation and to help with moisture retention the soil. This in turn helped stronger, healthier crops grow. Over the years it became very popular in gardens, greenhouses and eventually florists. And this is when things got interesting.
Florists loved to make beautiful arrangements with flowers in a vase filled with hydrogel. So it was only a matter of time before someone started making hydrogel really attractive by adding pretty colours to it. Suddenly you would see these everywhere from weddings to photoshoots, restaurant table settings and more.
Soon creatives started discovering ways to use hydrogel water beads in crafting projects and eventually finding ways to use water beads for kids in sensory bins.
What Are Water Beads Made Of?
Water beads are non-toxic, biodegradable, 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. When the dry hydrogel beads are immersed in water, they fill up and expand like a sponge, creating these gorgeous little orbs that feel like textured water.
Here is a picture of 1 tablespoon of dry water beads.
And this is after they have been soaked in water. They grow HUGE! The result from 1 tablespoon is 10 cups of beads!
Another extremely popular sensory activity with polymers is Slime. Yup, good old slime is a polymer too. Whether you make slime the old fashion way, or make a more simple cornstarch slime, it is all sensory play with polymers.
Are Water Beads Biodegradable?
Yes! Since their original intent was to be used in farmland, they are non-toxic and biodegradable. They are safe to use, touch and play with.
SAFETY NOTE: They are not edible!
Due to their absorbent nature, water beads should never be ingested or placed in any part of the body (up noses, in the mouth, in the ear, etc.). Therefore, they should never be used around, babies, toddlers, or children who put things in their mouths. Adult supervision is very important. Never use water beads where pets may ingest them.
I actually highly recommend using water beads with older kids as a sensory science project. Even tweens and teens will love exploring hands on science with these satisfyingly squishy, bouncy orbs. There is nothing more fun than playing with polymers and learning about the science behind polymers at the same time. However, I would not use them around young children.
Water beads (ocean colours mix)
Large bowl or plastic pitcher
Colander or Strainer
Large bowl or bin
Sensory bin objects – OPTIONAL if you like you can add little toys like our sea turtles, scoops, spoons, etc.
Prepare the water beads according to the directions on the package.
How much you will need will depend on the size of your bin. For our project we soaked 1 tablespoon of dried beads in 14 cups of water which yielded 10 cups of water beads.
You will want to plan ahead, as it takes about 8 hours for the beads to reach full size.
Use a colander to drain any extra water from the beads.
Carefully pour the hydrogel beads into your sensory bin.
Add the toys and sensory bin objects if you would like to include them, however, we find that the water beads themselves are more than enough sensory input for an incredible play experience. The toys can add a bit of fun though and make it more inviting for reluctant kids.
Allow the child time to explore the contents of the sensory bin and get creative with play while doing so! Make sure you touch, squish, bounce and enjoy these incredible little orbs of magic!
Water Bead Sensory Bin Clean Up
So here is the cool part, water beads can last 4 to 5 years! That is huge for using in sensory play with your kids. After you are done playing with the beads in your sensory bin you have a few options.
You can dry them back out by placing them on a paper towel until they are completely dry, then store them in an airtight jar until you are ready to use them again. You must be VERY careful to ensure all moisture is removed as they will mold. So if you do this, make sure you inspect them carefully before reconstituting them.
Another option, is to use hydrogel beads for their original intention, in soil. Take the beads and add them to your gardens or potted plants. Simply mix them into the soil to help maintain better water retention and soil condition.
An Eco-Friendly Sensory Bin
What I love most about Water Beads is that they are an eco-friendly way to make a sensory bin and explore some polymer sensory science. This isn’t your typical little kid sensory bin. This is something your tweens and teens will LOVE!
Have fun exploring and playing with polymer water beads!