Monday, May 19, 2014

Playing in the Sand – Naturally

Sand. It’s one of the few manipulatives that truly allows children to explore their imaginations. 

Unfortunately, in most play settings, sand is treated as just one more controlled play item: it’s kept in containers until it’s used in a plastic “sand table.”

The beauty of sand, is that it’s a material found almost everywhere on earth. It’s unsettling that children see it stored in a table or in a bucket on a shelf along with crayons and toys, totally disconnected from its natural setting.

Not much of it fits in a sand table, and there’s no room to build anything complex, such as road systems or mountains. Children stand at the table, rather than play on their hands and knees, and many are required to wear aprons so they don’t get dirty.

We’re pretty certain that these are not good lessons for children.

Children also find sand boxes limiting. Whenever we’ve seen a sandbox adjacent to a sand pile, children are never in the confined box. They’re always in the free-form area, playing with abandonment.

And while children are in the sand playing, they are still learning. What are they learning?

  • That sand has what is called a “slump” characteristic, so when poured, sand will form a mound, the slopes of which vary in angle depending on the size of its granules and the dampness of the sand.
  • That on a sunny day, the surface of the sand will be hot, but when children dig down, they find coolness.  
  • That when water evaporates from a structure made with sand, it collapses. 
  • That when too much water is added, structures don’t hold their shape.
  • That sand is portable, so children find many ways to move it by pushing it, pulling it, putting it in and pouring it out of containers, carrying it by hand, shoveling it, moving it by dump truck, and pouring it out of funnels.
  • That if they dig deep enough on a beach, and children find water; deeper still, they’ll discover that their holes collapse.
  • That when children are barefoot, their feet and bodies have to adjust in surprising ways to accommodate the ever-changing surface of sand.

To children, sand is an empty canvas.

By Ron King, M.Arch, CPSI
President, The Natural Playgrounds Company

For more information about Natural Playgrounds, visit our website at

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