Playing with Sand

Sandboxes & Child Development

Fine Motor Development

Fine motor development is the coordination of dozens of tiny muscles in your child's hand and wrist. These are the same muscles eventually needed to write letters and fasten buttons. Coordination and strength develop with age and improve with practice. Digging, shaping and raking through damp sand with a small tool builds these small muscles and requires your child to practice coordinating them. The weight of wet sand adds extra resistance, further developing these important muscles.

Gross Motor Development

Gross motor development is the strength and coordination of larger muscles throughout the torso, legs and arms. When your child fills a bucket with sand, stands up and carries it to the alternate side of the sandbox, she's promoting muscle strength and coordination in her shoulders, torso, back and forearms. Turning from side to side to gather or pour sand strengthens her core muscles. Pushing sand with her feet or dragging her heel through the sand to make a canal supports gross motor development throughout her entire leg.

Cognitive Development

Manipulating dry and wet sand encourages cognitive development by giving your child a chance to anticipate and experiment with different conditions and tools. Sifting sand through a colander or pouring it over a dry water wheel demonstrates how changing a single factor, like the colander size or how fast she pours sand, can change the end result. Poking a stick through a mound of wet sand or drawing a picture on the outside of a damp sand castle reveals how differently sand reacts when it's wet.

Social Development

Because most sandboxes are relatively small, your child will be forced to work amicably, if not cooperatively, with other children. At a beach there's enough sand for everyone, but sharing a sandbox with friends or siblings encourages practice at cooperatively building sand castles, sharing tools or taking turns serving "food" made from wet sand in the shape of a pizza. While the close quarters can lead to disagreements, they can also serve as motivation for conflict resolution.

Play Activity for Kids With Sand & Water

Open Sand and Water Play

Give your child a bunch of tools and toys that will let him lift, dig, pour and explore with sand and water. If you do not have a water and play activity table, you can put water and sand in giant tubs outside for your child to play with. Show her how to use dump trucks in the dry sand. Give her cookie cutters to cut out shapes from the damp sand. Encourage your child to use her imagination to get as creative as possible when playing with the sand and water. Don't worry about her making a mess or mixing the sand with the water -- it is all a learning process for your child.

Dry and Wet Sand Exploration

Give your child a small container of dry sand, one with wet sand and another with damp sand. Let her touch and play with the sand and ask her what she notices about the wet, dry and damp sand. Have her try to create something out of the dry sand, then have her try it with the wet sand, and finally the damp sand. Ask her which one works the best, and talk to her about why the damp sand is just right for building.

Colored Sand

Pour dry sand out onto a large, wide container with edges, such as baking sheet. Next, fill several clear squeeze containers and spray bottles with water dyed a certain color using food coloring. Let your child use the squeeze containers to decorate the sand with water. Encourage your child to get as creative as possible using all the colored water bottles. For an older school child, challenge her to write her name in the sand using the colored water. You will need to have plenty of dry sand on hand so your child can start over with clean sand a few times.

Sand Castles at the Beach

If you live near a beach, take your child for a day of fun in the sand and water. Show her how much bigger the beach is compared to her sandbox at home. Bring a few small toys such as buckets and shovels for her to make sand castles. Ask her whether she notices any difference from the sand at the beach you are at compared to the sand she plays with at home. For example, perhaps you are on a white sand beach, with sand that has a powdery texture. Walk her to the water's edge to see the waves coming up on onto the sand. Let her make foot prints and hand prints in the damp sand.

Alternatives for sand in sandboxes

Round Gravel

Gravel made from rounded stones provides drainage in sandboxes.
Gravel made from rounded stones provides drainage in sandboxes.

For an outdoor sandbox, pea gravel can be a great alternative to sand, but it is important to choose gravel make up of rounded stones. Pea gravel with rounded rocks can be softer than compacted sand if a child falls, will let water drain through the sandbox to prevent mould. The rounded edges of the rocks in pea gravel are safe for preschool and older kids, although babies might be tempted to put the small stones in their mouths.

Crumb Rubber

While it may be a more expensive option, crumb rubber or rubber gravel is a soft and sanitary alternative to sand in a sandbox, especially an outdoor sandbox. Rubber gravel is made up of small pieces of rubber about the size of the stones in pea gravel. Crumb rubber products are used as a play surface in many public playgrounds and also as a surface for horseback riding in horse arenas. You can find crumb rubber products by searching for rubber mulch, crumb rubber or rubber arena footing. Make sure to wash crumb rubber products before use.

Styrofoam Packing Peanuts

Styrofoam packing peanuts can be fun for kids.
Styrofoam packing peanuts can be fun for kids.

Packing peanuts are a cheap and sanitary alternative to sand in and indoor or outdoor sandbox. Kids love to pour and toss packing peanuts. Packing peanuts can make for easy clean-up with indoor sandboxes because they won't stain hands or clothing, and their large size makes them easy to pick up. In outdoor sandboxes, packing peanuts will resist moisture and won't break down, though outdoor sandboxes filled with packing peanuts should be covered when not in use.

Dry Foods

For an indoor sandpit, dry foods like uncooked rice and beans can be a great alternative to sand. Dry foods might not be the best choice for outdoor sandboxes because moisture will make foods soggy and mould can grow. Rice and beans make the same sounds as sand and can be poured just like sand. Kids will have fun for hours with an indoor sandbox or sand table filled with dry rice or beans.

How to Observe Sand Play in a Nursery

Observe sand play by working with only two or three children at a time. Depending on the number of children attending the nursery, you may need additional adults or even teenagers to assist during sand play. Working with smaller numbers allows closer observation to prevent swallowing sand and spills.

Have sand-related toys like sand shovels, pails and toy sand rakes available for children to play in the sand. Cups also work when pails are unavailable or in addition to pails. These toys allow nursery age children to learn basic skills of scooping and pouring.

Interact with children as they play instead of simply watching over playtime. Teach children how to shovel, carefully move and pour sand into various containers. Encourage imagination and creative thinking by playing along, scooping with the shovel, bucket and cups and dumping the sand into different containers.

Remind children throughout sand play of the nursery rules regarding avoiding spills and throwing the sand. Scold children with a soft but firm "no" and insist that after the first warning, disobedient children sit in the naughty corner of the nursery school area while other children enjoy the rest of playtime.

Encourage children to draw shapes, letters and numbers into the sand. This will help in learning these articles and teach other basic skills of drawing, writing and creating with the hands.

Observe children closely for safety and education reasons. Observation is necessary for nursery school sand play, as young children must be monitored to ensure safety and prevention of choking and to teach children the proper way to play in sand and how to avoid making messes inside their homes and within the nursery.


Create your own indoor sandbox using an inflatable toddler's paddling pool to prevent many sand spills. Replacing sand with food items like oatmeal helps ease the worry of nursery age children eating the sandbox contents. Special indoor nursery sand is made to be safe and silicone free, so that no little bellies are harmed from consumption of the sand. This sandpit design can be used in placed other than the nursery, such as inside the home or on a screen porch or patio.

Dangers of Play Sand

Dangerous Particles in the Sand

The Health Research Group, which is tied to Ralph Nader, claims that some play sands have cancer-causing particles that are dangerous for children to breathe. They want these products to be banned, claiming that the mineral tremolite found in the sand has qualities similar to asbestos, a known carcinogen. Dr. Lynn Silver, a researcher with the group, told the New York Times in 1988 that she felt that the Consumer Product Safety Commission "failed in its duty to protect children. This is a kind of hazard in children that doesn't manifest itself for 20 years, and then it's too late." A Consumer Product Safety Commission spokeswoman countered that the agency's researchers believed that there was no evidence to indicate that playground sand posed health risks similar to asbestos.

Industry Argument

Industry leaders that market the product and the Consumer Product Safety Commission claim that there is no evidence of play sand being dangerous. They say that, when it is encased in sand, the mineral is in a safer crystalline form.

Other Dangers of Sandboxes

Sandboxes pose other dangers that parents need to be aware of. They should be in an area away from other playground equipment, such as swings, jungle gyms, and slides so a child in motion won't injure one playing in the sandbox. Sandboxes should be kept covered to prevent animals from using it to eliminate solid or liquid waste. The sand should be kept dry to prevent bacteria from breeding.

Maintaining Sandboxes

Sand should be periodically replaced---every year or two---to ensure that it is clean. Repair or replace cracked covers to keep animals and moisture out. Occasionally sift the sand and get rid of clumped sand or pea gravel that can injure a child. Wash sandbox toys frequently.

Danger of Inhaling Crystalline Silica

Inhaling crystalline silica can cause the lung disease silicosis, which inflames the lungs and prevents the sufferer from getting enough oxygen. More advanced lung and heart disease may result.

What kind of sand is play sand?

Caribbean Beach Sand

Caribbean beach sand, a white play sand with a natural chalky appearances, is fine and smooth in texture because it contains ground shells, corals and aragonite. The sand comes directly from the Caribbean Sea and is all-natural without added colourings or chemicals. This play sand is good for children who like to build sandcastle in their sandboxes.

Fun Sand

Fun sand comes in different colours like purple and blue and can be used in indoor and outdoor sandboxes. The texture of this sand feels like beach sand, and it can be used to make moulded sandcastles, seashells, turtles, fish and crab designs in the sandbox. This sand is made from thermoplastic minerals and is free of dust and toxins.

White Safe Sand

White safe sand is made with feldspathic sand, which has no silica or quartz. Children can safely use this sand for building sandcastles and making moulded sand designs like sea turtles, starfish, sailboats and lobsters. White safe sand is fine like beach sand, without a lot of dust.


Sandtastik is a fine sand that comes in different colours like white, blue, purple, green, pink, red, orange, tan, yellow, black and brown. Soft and smooth in texture, this sand is similar to ocean beaches and islands. This play sand can be used in indoor and outdoor sandboxes and is safe for children because it is silica-free.