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Sand Play: Making It Work
By Nancy P. Alexander

Selecting a Site
Ideally, a sand box should be out of a high-traffic area and in the shade some distance from the door. Placing the sand box out of a traffic area will reduce interruptions from children rushing to other equipment. Children are more likely to stay involved in their constructions when others are not disrupting their activities.

Locating the sand box as far away from the door as possible will also reduce the amount of sand tracked into the classroom. When children must walk a distance to the door, they lose some of the sand they would otherwise bring into the classroom with them.

Shade from a canopy, tree, or even a building is essential. Each type of shade, however, has advantages and disadvantages. Trees will drop leaves and twigs that "dirty" the sand and building shade may be present only during certain times of day. Canopies, on the other hand, may require poles and supports that interfere with the children's activities. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each, but do provide shade. Children often remain involved in sand activities for extended periods of time and and direct sunlight can make the area uncomfortably hot.

Planning for Sand Delivery
Typically a dump truck will deliver the sand. Creating a sand box close to where the truck can unload will reduce the labor needed. To find a source for sand, look in the Yellow Pages under Sand and Gravel or contact a building contractor or building supply dealer. Masonry sand is sold in cubic yards. To calculate the amount you need, multiply the length (in feet) times the width (in feet) times the depth. This will give you the number of cubic feet you need. For each 27 cubic feet (or fraction thereof) you will need one cubic yard of sand. For example, a sand box that is seven feet wide, nine feet long and one foot deep would be calculated 7 x 9 = 63 x 1 = 63. 63 divided by 27 = 2.3. One would need three cubic yards of sand. It is wise to order more sand than you need so that you have extra to replenish the box and to use for sand tables inside.

Designing Your Sand Box
Designing the sand box with a ledge to sit on provides a place for teachers to sit while interacting with children. Children will typically sit right in the sand, but a ledge is useful to them on days when the sand is damp. Select specially treated wood intended for use outdoors, and be sure it is smooth with no rough edges. You may need to sand the wood to ensure there are no splinters.

You will also need a cover to protect the sand from cats. Check the availability of tarpaulins in your area to be sure you can get one large enough to cover your sand box. Relatively inexpensive tarpaulins are available at building supply companies. Common sizes range from six feet x eight feet up to 20 feet x 30 feet. The tarpaulin should be larger than the sand box to cover it fully. Use bricks to weight it down and keep it in place.

Getting Started With the Children
Introduce the sand box by letting the children help to develop the rules. Some guidelines teachers find helpful are:

  • We keep the sand in the box.
  • We build with sand, we don't throw it.
  • We keep the sand low, not in the air.
  • We put our toys away when we're finished.

Teachers sometimes express concern about sand being tracked inside and parents occasionally complain about sand in their child's hair. Keep a soft brush near the door to brush the sand off children's clothes before they enter the classroom and a mat to teach children to shake sand from their clothes. A shower cap is useful for children whose parents are concerned about sand in hair.

While the sand itself is attractive enough to keep children involved for many hours, adding accessories will increase the learning opportunities and play value. In general, plastic items work best. In spite of the best efforts, toys will occasionally be left in the sand box. Metal items are subject to rust and wooden toys will become splintered and discolored.

Caring for the Sand Box
Cover the sand box when it is not in use. The first teacher on the playground can be responsible for uncovering it each day, and the last teacher for replacing the cover. Since sand can be attractive to animals, covering it is necessary for sanitation.

If you get a lot of leaves and small twigs in the sand, periodically sift it through wire screen. A lot of debris in the sand makes it harder for the children to pack. An old window screen is useful for this task. Invite children to help for extra fun.

According to the American Public Health Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, sand should be replaced every two years. If the sand becomes contaminated, they suggest removing the sand from the contaminated area and replacing it with sterilized sand or pea gravel. Attempting to sterilize the sand with chemicals is not recommended. (These health and safety standards are currently under revision and will be available to public in the near future.)

Rotating Toys and Accessories
Keep three or four containers of sand toys in storage so that you can rotate the accessories regularly. A good rule of thumb is to have about twice as many sand items out and available at any one time as the number of children the sand box can comfortably hold. For example, a sand box large enough for four children to play uncrowded would need at least eight sand toys. Having enough means that children have choices and do not have to wait for turns. There will always be something new and interesting to use when toys are rotated. Remove items before children tire of them. Teachers frequently make the mistake of continually adding new toys without removing the old ones. When this happens, the sand box becomes cluttered, and the children have difficulty focusing on items. Find the balance of enough, but not too much.

Nancy P. Alexander is director of the Northwestern State University Child and Family Network in Shreveport Louisiana. Nancy is an author and photographer, with articles and images included in many early childhood publications and college textbooks. She is the author of Early Childhood Workshops that Work: The Essential Guide to Successful Training and Workshops published by Gryphon House and frequently conducts training for early childhood personnel around the nation. Additionally, she teaches early childhood college courses over the Internet.