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Sensory Play: Mermaid Ice Excavation

Jul 6, 2016

Ice excavations… They’re one of our go-to summer activities. The amazing part is that we’ve done them countless times over the years, and they still bring on just as much excitement as they did when my daughter was just a toddler. The key to keeping them fresh and exciting time after time? Without a doubt, it's about switching them up to meet your child’s interests and making them ‘doable’ in size and complexity. When my daughter was younger, I’d keep our ice blocks small and simple, including only a few objects to retrieve, but now that she's almost 6 and can very happily stay engaged in an activity for longer periods of time, I make them nice and big and fill them will all kinds of goodies to ‘rescue’. And since she’s all about oceans and mermaids currently? Well, a mermaid rescue was a must this time around!

Here’s what you’ll need to create your own mermaid rescue ice block:

  • a small mermaid doll or figure
  • an assortment of shells and gems
  • glitter and/or sequins
  • liquid food colouring
  • aquarium seaweed
  • water
  • a plastic bowl or container (something that can go in the freezer)

Needed supplies laid out on a plastic tray with a shallow rim: plastic and glass gems, small seashells, plastic aquarium glass, a small mermaid figurine, glitter, food colouring and sequins. A small bowl is sitting next to the tray.


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And for the actual excavation:

  • syringes, droppers, and/or a turkey baster
  • squeeze bottle
  • plastic utensils
  • warm water
  • salt
  • tray (with a large lip around the edge if possible)

Melting supplies laid out on a plastic tray with a lip: a bowl of water, eye droppers, syringes, a squeeze bottle, coloured salt, plastic utensils and a turkey baster.

Alright, now first up for any ice excavation, the ice block needs to be made. This can be as easy as dumping all of your goodies into a bowl filled with coloured water and freezing it (and this actually works perfectly for smaller toddler-friendly ice excavations), but if you’re making a larger ice block like our mermaid rescue, you’ll probably want to do it in layers so that everything is well spread out. To do this, simply place some of the gems and shells into the bottom of your bowl, cover them completely with coloured glittery water, and pop the bowl into the freezer. 

A shallow layer of turquoise water (about 1.5 inches deep) with plastic and glass gems sitting in it.

Once that layer is frozen, add more gems and shells, some more sparkly water (just make sure the water is cold), and freeze it again. Continue adding layers, placing the mermaid somewhere in the middle of the ice block and the seaweed in the very last layer. 

When the ice block is completely frozen, you’re ready to excavate! To do so, your little one will need some ‘tools’. I like to use whatever we already have in the house for this part as anything really goes. Turkey basters and old medicine droppers and syringes are perfect paired with a bowl of warm water, squeeze bottles filled with water are great too, and plastic utensils are great for digging and scraping. Salt is also a great addition as it works wonders when it comes to melting ice. Sometimes I like to colour it by shaking it in a zip-close bag with a couple of drops of food colouring, but plain old white salt works just as well.


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When you’re ready, run the outside of your bowl under some hot running water to loosen up the ice block.  Flip the bowl over onto a plastic tray and your frozen mermaid ocean will be revealed! To get little ones really into the excavation, I make a big deal about how the ocean is frozen and the mermaid and all of her treasures are stuck (oh no!) before asking if they’ll help me rescue her. Then I basically let them go for it, using the water and tools as they see fit.

Squirting the chunk of ice with a syringe. The mermaid's head is sticking out of the ice.

Getting each item out bit by bit is definitely a practice in patience and perseverance, but a fun and rewarding one too. To keep little ones encouraged and engaged, you can cheer them along throughout the process, admiring the treasures they’ve already uncovered and pointing out others that are close to coming loose. 

The chunk of ice is about a third melted, and the mermaid is almost free. There are about 30 different already-excavated beads, gems and sequins sitting on a towel next to the ice excavation.

One other little tip — to avoid multiple trips to the kitchen or bathroom for more water, encourage your little ones to reuse the water in the base of the tray with the help of their syringe, dropper, or turkey baster. This will keep the amount of water needed for the activity to a minimum and your floors dry!

Eventually, everything will be rescued and then it’s time to play with all of the recovered items! You can invite your child to polish the mermaid’s treasures with a small cloth, create an underwater scene on the tray, or engage in some pretend play using all of the bits and pieces. Undoubtedly, your little one will probably have a few ideas of his or her own too.

A child's hands holding the mermaid figurine and a selection of gems and jewels.

Happy excavating!

Article Author Jen Kossowan
Jen Kossowan

See all of Jen's posts.

Jen is a teacher, blogger, and mama to a spirited little lady and a preemie baby boy. She's passionate about play, loves a good DIY project, adores travelling, and can often be found in the kitchen creating recipes that meet her crunchy mama criteria. You can follow Jen on her blog, Mama.Papa.Bubba, and on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.

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