Water beads - aka sensory beads or orbeez - are a fascinating and fun play thing for little ones.
The great thing is they are visually appealing, give lots of proprioceptive input and help with developing fine motor and pre-academic skills. They're also re-usable, environmentally friendly, affordable and non-toxic.
Here's a few tips to help you get the most use out of your water beads!
1) Know how they work.
To care for your water beads, it may help to know first how they work. They're made of a material called sodium polyacrylate that absorbs water through a process called osmosis. They come in a tiny seed size that you add water to.
As water is added, bits of sodium leave the bead molecules and absorb water in their place. This means that if you add salts or minerals (sometimes found on your skin, or in dirt, for instance) or if the water you use is rich in salts and minerals, they may have a harder time 'filling up' with water.
Some people use distilled water to hydrate their water beads and do find they get plumper, longer-lasting beads. But regular tap water will do just great too.
The positive is that the bead structure allows the beads to biodegrade over time (and they can be mixed into your gardening mulch). The con is that they will only last 1-2 years before they start to get easy to squish and disintegrate, or less if salts or bacteria enter the picture.
2) Cleaning. Many sensory play bin fillers are hard to clean, for example sanitizing rice or flour is near impossible. But luckily water beads are relatively easy to place in a strainer or pasta colander and rinse off. We recommend one of these methods:
- Add 1/2 teaspoon of bleach to 2 litres of water. Soak the beads for about two minutes, drain and rinse.
- Or, add 1 tablespoon vinegar to 2 litres of water. Soak the beads for about two minutes, drain and rinse.
A quick rinse in warm, soapy water can also do a good job, as can adding a couple of drops of lavender essential oil (that has some antibacterial qualities).
But during cold and flu season, or if you have lots of kids touching the beds, it is best to stick to a known disinfectant like diluted bleach or vinegar water to sanitize the beads and prevent any bacteria from nesting there. Ideally, give them a soak in sanitizer after each heavy play session.
If you notice a funky smell or mold forming on your beads, bacteria from the air or little hands is often the culprit. It is similar to what would happen if you left water sitting out stagnant. Sometimes it is totally fine for weeks or even months, other times if a bit of the wrong bacteria lands there, it can develop smells, algae, etc. Simply give them a soak in the vinegar or bleach solution as above to kill off any bacteria in the water and revive the beads.
3) Breathable storage. Water beads are known to last the longest (1-2 years) when they are allowed to stay hydrated. Store them in a breathable (not air-tight) container like a bin with a hole in the lid (this is the kind that comes with each SensaTable for instance). This allows them to evaporate over time.
Each time they shrink back to their original size, they do lose a bit of their elasticity and may get easier to squish. That said, we have tried shrinking and re-using beads several times before we see any compromise to the sturdiness of the beads. So, many people swear by adding a few cups of water every couple of weeks to their beads to keep them from shrinking too much and find that this way they last longer.
Now that you know the ins and outs of caring for the beads, join the SensaKids Sensory Play Group on Facebook for ideas and a chance to chat with other play-focused families!
If you've had any issues with your beads purchased through SensaKids, please contact us. We offer a 3 month exchange or return policy because we want to make sure you get lots of happy playing!