Make: DIY Water Beads for Taste-Safe Kids Sensory Play

Have you ever used water beads in your kids’ play activities? If so, you’re familiar with the absolute JOY of these squishy little spheres! A staple in our tabletop water play setups, I had only ever used the polymer kind until recently (we love watching the process of them puff up in a cupful of water). Unfortunately, the very thing that makes the plastic water beads an exciting sensory play accessory can also pose a pretty serious hazard to little ones, pets, and wildlife. Not wanting to give up on our water bead play, I decided to experiment with DIYing my own and was pleasantly surprised to find this substitute: DIY water beads made from tapioca pearls – a natural, taste-safe alternative to polymer water beads.

A bowl of our homemade water beads sitting against a white background

The process of making these was incredibly simple, and although there are a few differences in how you can play with them (they don’t change in size for example) they’re a wonderfully similar alternative! I tried a couple of different methods for colorization, so read on for the easy process and ideas for how you can put your own homemade water beads to use for incredible sensory play.

Unlike tapioca pearls, polymer water beads swell as they take on water and can continue to grow long after they’ve been ingested, which can cause serious gastrointestinal issues. While this DIY kind is taste-safe, the tapioca pearls don’t dissolve immediately in water, you should use these sensibly and with caution. They are not recommended for use with kids under 5, or children who may be tempted to put them in their mouthsadult supervision is a must.

You can also consider using these for a sensory bag. Packaging your DIY water beads (along with a cup or so of water) in a clear ziplock or similar will keep little ones from being able to ingest beads, while providing many of the same squishy sensory play benefits.

Watch the quick video for the easy how-to process!

Looking for more sensory play? Over the years we’ve made so many easy homemade sensory supplies! Among our favorites are DIY rainbow rice, sparkly DIY salt glitter, and squishy DIY moon sand – just like a day at the beach!

To make your own taste-safe DIY water beads you’ll need:

Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains Woodpeckers Crafts, Etsy, Blick Art Materials, and/or Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates, we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*

BASIC SUPPLIES:

  • Tapioca Pears (this is the kind I used but they come in different sizes and colors you can experiment with).
  • A small or medium-sized pot (for cooking)
  • A strainer
  • Bowls, tubs, or trays for water play

DYEING SUPPLIES:

  • Food coloring or similar
  • Small bowls and a spoon (for color-mixing)

DIY Water Beads Instructions:

  1. Boil water and cook the tapioca pearls

    Fill a small or medium-sized pot with about 4-6 cups of water and bring to a boil. Pour in your tapioca pearls and stir. Let cook for 5 minutes until all of your tapioca pearls have risen to the top of the water.
    Boil water and cook the tapioca pearls
    Note: We used a bag of multicolor tapioca pearls to test the difference between the pearls that come pre-dyed and the colors you get when you dye them yourselves. A pro of these multicolor pearls is that you don’t have to mess with food coloring, making the prep process incredibly quick and easy. These multicolor edible water beads are ready for play within about seven minutes start to finish!

  2. Strain and rinse with cold water

    Pour your tapioca pearls into a strainer and rinse with cold water.
    Strain the cooked tapioca pearls and and rinse with cold water

  3. Pour into a bowl, shallow tub, or tray with water for sensory play!

    Pour your homemade water beads into a tray or tub for water and cover generously with water.
    Pour your DIY water beads into a bowl filled with water for sensory play
    You’ll quickly discover that as soon as the beads are taken out of the water and left in the open air to dry for a few minutes, they begin to stick to each other. Once submerged in the water again, they separate and feel slippery rather than sticky.

    These little homemade water beads are amazingly firm and can be squeezed and poked without falling apart, which I was pleasantly surprised by. The colors of these pre-dyed multicolor tapioca pearls don’t rub off on each other or get muddy, so you can expect that they’ll last about 48 hours if kept in a bowl of cold water in the fridge.

  4. To dye your own, separate tapioca pearls and dye with food coloring or similar

    Determine the colors you’d like to make and separate your tapioca pearls into small bowls. Pour in a small amount of water (just enough that the water beads are about halfway submerged). Add 2-5 drops of food coloring (depending on how bold you’d like your colors to be) and stir until mixed.
    To dye your own edible water beads, separate cooked white tapioca pearls and dye with food coloring or similar.
    I used the basic 4-color box of food coloring to create these colors, but there are TONS of options for fun food colorings these days – from soft pastels to splashy neons!

  5. Let sit for 15 minutes to soak up color

    To ensure that your tapioca pearls soak up all the bright colors, let them sit for about 15 minutes after being stirred.
    Let the DIY water beads sit for 15 minutes to soak up color.

  6. Rinse with cold water to help set the color

    Toss each color of your DIY water beads into a strainer and rinse with cold water until the water runs (mostly) clear. That’s it – these babies are ready for play!
    Rinse the tapioca pearl water beads with cold water to help set the color

For our self-dyed set, I didn’t observe any color coming off on my hands, although it did tint the water different colors as it sat (which is actually kind of fun!). We also noticed that when the beads sat on top of each other for a while out of the water, the colors started rubbing off on each other and there was some color-staining which muddies the look of them a bit. As mentioned, I personally wouldn’t keep these much longer than 48 hours when using them for sensory play.

A bowl of our homemade water beads sitting against a white background

More ways to use your edible DIY water beads for learning and play

  • FREEZE! Throw a different kind of sensory experience in the mix by freezing your water beads. We happen to have two feet of snow here at the moment, so we took trays and bowls outside to see what happend to our water beads (you can put them in the freezer instead of course!) Freezing them in a bowl made one big frozen ball, and it would have been fun to freeze an object in the middle and pound away the at the ball with a rubber mallet or other tools to try to get to the inside. For our tray of water beads we spread all of our beads out with our fingers so there was one layer of breads across the tray. When we brought our tray of frozen water beads inside, after letting them warm up just a little, we used a spatula to seperate any clumps and get them up off the tray. This made for a completely different sensory experience, as we could roll the individual beads around in our hands.
  • EXPERIMENT WITH HOT WATER. Instead of submerging these in cold water, see what happens to them when they’re covered with hot water. Do they become gummy, or disinegrate? How long does it take before they change consistency? Does it change them permanently, or will they go back to their previous state after a dunk in cold water?
  • EXPERIMENT WITH COLOR-MIXING. Have an eyedropper or paintbrush handy? Fill a few very small bowls with a variety of dyed waters, then pour, paint or eyedrop the different colors right onto the water beads. What happens to the colors? What happens to the water around the beads?
  • POUND. Up for some messier play? Grab a rubber mallet and pound your water beads into smithereens! In addition to being a great activity to get some of that pent-up energy out, this is great hand-eye coordination practice.
  • ADD TO A BATH. For the most whimsical bath experience ever, add these to the tub! Your kids will have to take a quick rinse afterwards, but oooOooo how delightful to be surround by these colorful bobbing water beads!
  • CREATE COOL WATER BEAD CHUTES. Our friend Ana over at Babble Dabble Do used her edible water beads as part of an amazingly entertaining STEAM structure water activity.
  • USE THEM WITH A LIGHT TABLE. One of the cool things about water beads (both the polymer and tapioca pearl variety) is that they’re fairly tranparent. For yet another sensory experience, put your water beads and a little water in a shallow, clear tray or baking dish, then use with a light table. Incredible color play!
  • MAKE A WATER BEAD PAINTING. Before you throw your homemade water beads out, try using them for a simple art activity. Grab a cardboard box and put a sheet of paper or cardstock in the bottom. Using a few different colors, drop some dime-sized dollops of paint onto the piece of paper. Pull your water beads straight from the water, toss into the box, then tilt the box back and forth. Or put the lid on your box and shake it up! I love a process art project that involves some fun motion!
A bowl of colorful frozen homemade water beads sitting in the snow

I hope we’ve given you enough play ideas that you’re excited to give these DIY water beads a go!

Our tapioca pearl edible water beads in an aqua bowl being covered with tap water

*A note about affiliate links: We strive to use simple, earth-friendly supplies that can be purchased locally whenever we can, but sometimes we find the best universally available options, a rare eco-friendly find, or a niche product only available on Blick Art Materials, Amazon, Etsy, or Woodpeckers Crafts. When included in our supply list, these products are affiliate links, and if you click through to make a purchase we receive a small commission that helps us re-order these supplies!

Amanda Eldridge
Amanda Eldridge

With a passion for cultivating imagination, Amanda aims to help kids and families discover their creative potential through art, play, adventure, activism, conservancy, and community. Amanda has a background in graphic design, environmental design, and art curation. When not playing with ideas and designs for barley & birch, she enjoys working in freelance design, art, and illustration.

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