Water is our primary learning tool right now... sure we are "learning" about bugs, but it seems that everything relates back to water. How can we get our hands on it, what we will do or make when we get it, how will it feel, how much will we get, will it drown our bugs or will they be able to swim (ants float we learned).
Our Butterflies have started to hatch from their cocoon, but even that only holds their attention for a short time before I get the question, "When can we play with the water?" It doesn't matter inside or out, in the water table or the sink, or in the mud pit or sand pit... as long as, at some time during the day they experience water play!!
I think water play is an excellent teaching tool... it can be an independent activity as well as a social one, children use gross motor as well as fine motor skills and language skills are formed naturally, flowing freely from child to child, usually without much intervention from anyone else. Thus, children are more apt to take risks and try new things that they may not have otherwise felt comfortable to do. The teacher doesn't have to put a lot of thought into the water center, just setting it up with different cups will provide hours of play. But a teacher can use a water table to teach numbers, concepts, or letters just by what she puts into the water center. I personally, think that the main water table in a classroom should be for open-ended play. So much unintentional learning goes on during open-ended play, that in an early childhood program there should be lots and lots of time for it. But, if I have a concept I want to teach and feel that they may learn better if it has a sensory aspect to it, I will set up a smaller water table near by to teach that concept. I just feel providing ample water play opportunities is key to any early childhood program. And parents should be weary of any program where there is dust on the water table :)
People visit my home and see the dirt box, the water table, the science area, or the art area and cannot believe I allow that kind of messy play to go on IN the house. I really feel that providing these opportunities for the children helps them grow in all parts of who they are becoming. Isn't childhood the time to test the limits, in the safety of the ones we love, and are loved by. Isn't it the place that we learn right from wrong, by those we love, and are loved by. I try to give each child that consideration and love. Setting up the environment to learn how to function in a group, or independently. To allow those who learn a little slower than the others more time with materials, and more time to learn from those children around them that model the acceptable behavior. It isn't easy to clean up soil off the floor most of the day, or sop up water from the same child 3 times in an hour... but have you ever seen the smiling face of a child knee or elbow deep in a table of water or mud?? I have, and that makes it ALL worth it!!!