The rain stops, and the clouds break. After a day of being cooped up inside, you decide it’s time to play outdoors. You step outside with your toddler and take in the scene.
Puddles, puddles and more puddles dot the landscape. Before you realize it, your child is pulling at your raincoat and begging you to let him stomp in one. You don’t understand why puddles are so fascinating, but you curb your impulse to pick him up and stop him from getting soaked.
Learning about and exploring the natural world around us
Splashing in puddles is child’s play, and play is how children learn about the world around them.
Playtime is a crucial part of a child’s development. Some of toddlers’ favorite activities — which may seem messy at times to parents — offer more than meets the eye.
While playing in puddles may not be particularly appealing to adults, the nature of the activity makes it excellent for nurturing a child’s developing mind.
“Kids can learn so many things from this,” says Dr. Joan Carney, assistant vice president of clinical programs at Kennedy Krieger Institute. “They’re going to get the sensory context of cold or wet. If they’re jumping in a puddle, they get to use a lot of large body coordination. Jumping and hopping allow them to practice large motor coordination skills.”
As a child’s motor skills develop between ages 1 and 2, playing in puddles turns into more of a lesson in consequences: jump in a puddle, and you’ll make a splash. When you splash in a puddle, you’ll get wet. This type of cause-and-effect experiment can translate to more situations a child encounters in life.
At age 4, children may experiment with principles of engineering—digging ditches in the mud and watching them pool with water. By age 7, they may start incorporating the elements of scientific discovery by exploring puddle ecosystems and the living organisms they support.
Understanding the value of having unstructured child’s play
Playing in puddles also fills an important need for children — the need for unstructured, individualized activities.
While it’s great for parents to get involved with their children’s play — and little ones definitely require quality time with mom and dad — kids also need the freedom to play on their own. Puddles naturally lend themselves to this type of play.
There are no rules to the game of splashing in puddles, Carney says. “There is no turn-taking; there is no structure. They are making their own decisions about doing things that are unstructured. Do they like it and want to keep doing it? Do they not like it, abandon it and try something else? The reason it’s important is that it gives children confidence and a sense of self.”
“Unstructured play also allows children to learn how to share, resolve conflicts, develop communication skills and explore their interests in a meaningful and natural way,” says Dr. Mutiat Tolu Onigbanjo, who serves as medical director for UM Pediatrics at University of Maryland Medical Center, Midtown Campus. “It gets them to use their imagination skills, which help promote healthy brain development.”
As with any activity your child engages in, always think safety first. Toddlers shouldn’t be left to play unsupervised in standing pools of water. Children who are only a few years old or younger can drown in only several inches of standing water. As long as you are present to monitor your child, you can let your son or daughter get messy and have a good time with puddle jumping.
Of course, puddles are certain to appear at the most inopportune moments. What parent hasn’t tried to find a way to avoid a child’s inevitable plunge into a puddle during a trip to the supermarket or an appointment?
The simplest thing to do is to take your child by the hand and direct him or her away from it. Make a distraction, talk about something silly or ask a question. Timing is everything in the world of puddle play.
When you allow playtime with puddles, make sure your child is wearing play clothes you don’t mind getting dirty and sturdy footwear. While most moms and dads may not hesitate to climb into a sandbox with their child, few may care to splash in a puddle. Onigbanjo suggests ways parents can join in the fun without getting wet themselves.
“Bring along floating toys and explore the concept of what sinks or floats,” she says. “Sing a song together about being out in the rain or playing in a puddle.”
Puddles last only a short time, but memories of rainy-day play can last a lifetime.