Making the Most of Sand Play
By Sandra Crosser Ph.D.

It was the summer of 1926 when Grandma and her cousins dug the hole to China. "We're digging a hole to China, to China," they sang over and over again. Grandma wonders now why they started to dig at the top of the hill, but their spirits were undaunted.

It wasn't until the pit deepened that the children decided they needed to measure their progress. The older girls took turns inserting their legs ankle deep, knee deep, thigh deep. When the hole was finished, had you inserted a leg and stretched your toes really far, you too, could have touched China!

Children have always been intrigued by sand play. They dig in sand, sift it, build with it, pour it, enjoy the feel and smell of it, pretend with it, and explore how it moves. Balke (1997) contends that, "The culture of children is threatened by mass media and overproduction of plastic playthings that are ready-made and demand nothing of the child" (p. 358). Sand, on the other hand, is well-suited to the explorative and imaginative nature of young children.

Why Play in Sand?
There is no right way to use sand. It invites participation; it permits children to make and test hypotheses; it stretches the imagination; it provides a potentially soothing sensory experience; and it is an excellent avenue for children to learn physical, cognitive, and social skills.

Because sand play is open-ended, the child determines the direction and path of his or her own play. This freedom then clears the way for the child to build developmental concepts.

According to constructivist theory (Piaget, 1945), children have an inner drive to build an understanding of their world as they explore and interact with materials. Concepts about how the world works are built gradually and become increasingly complex as the child enters a rich learning environment and exercises his or her freedom to play.

The Exploration-Play-Application Sequence
When a child first encounters a new play setting, he or she will behave in a manner Vandenberg (1978, 1984) described as the exploration-play-application sequence. According to Vandenberg, a child cautiously explores a novel material or piece of equipment before he or she actually plays with it. It has been suggested that this tentative exploration is a child's way of determining whether it is safe to begin play (Weisler & McCall, 1976).

Children who have never had the opportunity to play in sand or any other material will need time to explore their new environment before beginning purposeful play. As teachers, we should plan large blocks of time for children to become engaged with materials. During the second, or play part of the sequence, children tend to develop skills they can later apply to new situations (Sylva, Bruner, & Genova, 1976). In other words, play is a practice time during which the child develops useful physical, cognitive, and social skills in an environment where mistakes and errors are inconsequential. Those skills are then available to the child as a resource for future use.

The Teacher's Role
It is important that play be open-ended. Children should feel comfortable asking and answering their own questions. Chaille and Britain (1997) suggest that it is the teacher's role to structure a rich environment, observe what children are doing and thinking, and interact in a nondirective manner. Teachers should "encourage problem solving, perspective taking, and/or consideration of feelings" (Chaille & Britain, 1997, 65). Open-ended play can be fostered by using key phrases like the following:

  • How could you change/fix that?
  • What else could you do?
  • What would happen if you...?
  • What do you think/feel about...?
  • How did you do that?
  • Is there another way to...?

By asking open-ended questions, the teacher provides a framework that enables children to learn more than they could on their own. Vygotsky (1933) called this framework a scaffold. The teacher provides support for learning, then gradually withdraws that support as children become able to do more and more on their own. The teacher first carefully prepares a challenging, intriguing environment. She then asks open-ended, purposeful questions which build a bridge for children to cross the gap between what they could accomplish with appropriate scaffolding.

What Can Children Learn From Playing in Sand?
Sand play promotes physical development. Large muscle skills develop as children dig, pour, sift, scoop, and clean up spills with brush and dustpan. Eye-hand coordination and small muscle control improve as children learn to manipulate sand accessories.

Sand play also promotes social skills. When children work together at the sand table they are faced with real problems that require sharing, compromising, and negotiating. A group may engage in dramatic play as they "cook," construct roadways, dig tunnels, or create a zoo for rubber animals. As children take on roles associated with their dramatic play, they learn important social skills such as empathy and perspective taking.

The teacher can promote cognitive development by preparing an interesting, challenging sand play environment. This environment can be achieved by continually changing and adding interesting accessories to the center.

Mathematical concepts can be developed during sand play by providing children with measuring spoons and cups, containers in a variety of sizes and shapes, balance scales, or counting bears. As you observe children's sand play, use mathematical terms like more/less; many/few; empty/full; heavy/light. Then challenge children to count how many scoops it takes to fill a container. Sequence accessories by size.

Develop science concepts by suspending a funnel or pendulum above the sand table. Provide magnets and buried treasure. Use ropes and pulleys to move buckets of sand. Punch holes in a plastic bottle, fill it with sand, and observe. Then try different sizes and placement of holes. What happens? Ask children what they could do with a water/sand wheel, PVC pipes, ramps, sieves, funnels, or rolling pins. Add water, filters, or gravel to the sand. How does it change?

Encourage children to make signs for use in sand play and find out what a colander is to develop language skills. Invite children to write their names in the sand or tell a story about their play. Move traffic signs from the block center to the sand box.

Teachers can incorporate the arts into sand play by encouraging children to draw a song in the sand; make castings, moldings, and prints; and write a sand poem. As children sift and pour, play background music and encourage them to sing. Try using sand combs and describe pattern and design.

You will think of many more accessories to change the sand play area to keep it fresh and inviting. Look around for common objects and household discards that might spark ideas when paired with sand. "A developing brain doesn't know the difference between an inexpensive set of measuring cups and an expensive set of stackables purchased at a toy store" (Newberger, 1997, p. 8). You might even decide to make alternative rice, nut, corn, bean, mulch, packing peanut, aquarium gravel, or cornmeal centers to compare with sand play.

Children have a natural affinity for sand play. Teachers can build on that interest by providing children with inviting props, asking appropriate questions, and scheduling ample time for children to work through their play ideas. While the teacher provides the stimulating environment to enhance concept development and skill building, it is important that the sand play area remain free and child-centered so that children may generate their own play schemes imaginatively.

It is through purposeful, self-initiated play that children move beyond the world of what is to become the strongest, the wisest, the most competent and skilled participants in the world of what could be. We need to invite children to explore the time-tested natural ingredients of play so that they, too, might stretch their toes really far and touch China.

Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is associate professor at Ohio Northern University, Ada, Ohio.

Balke, E. (1997). Play and the Arts: The Importance of the "Unimportant." Childhood Education, 73, (6), 355-360.

Chaille, C. and Britain, L. (1997). The Young Child as Scientist.New York: Longman.

Piaget, J. (1945). Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood.New York: Norton.

Sylva, K., Bruner, J., and Genova, P. (1976). The role of play in the problem-solving of children 3-5 years old. In J.S. Bruner, A. Jolly, and K. Sylva (Eds.), Play.New York: Basic Books.

Vandenberg, B. (1978). Play and Development from an Ethological Perspective.American Psychologist, 33, 724-738.

Vandenberg, B. (1984). Developmental Features of Exploration.Developmental Psychology, 20, 3-8.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1933). The Role of Play in Development.In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (Eds.), Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Weisler, A. and McCall, R.B. (1976). Exploration and Play. American Psychologist, 31, 144-152.

Sand Play Accessory Ideas
cardboard tubes and ping-pong balls
rolling pins
sand wheel
mortar and pestle
measuring spoons and cups
aquarium gravel
gardening tools and gloves
sprinkling cans
plastic flowers and vases
wooden spoons
zoo or farm animals
table blocks
pipes, tubes, cylinders
pine cones
jars and lids
potato mashers
block people
dishes from housekeeping center
rubber puzzle pieces
sand combs
zippered plastic freezer bags
cloth scraps
berry containers
model railroad accessories-tunnels, trees, people
latch hook canvas
spice containers
net bags from onions or citrus fruit
aquarium nets
large marbles
balance scale
corrugated cardboard
baking bowls, pans
suspended pendulum
small pitchers
soup ladles
mixing bowls