The Pedagogy of Sand Play

By Nancy Howe, Head Teacher

Who has lived so many years that he cannot bring back his baby days for a moment and recall the dear delight that once he felt in playing with earth and sand?

—Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora Archibald Smith, The Republic of Childhood

Educators have long valued sand as an important material for exploration, play and learning. In 1847, Friedrich Froebel, German founder of the kindergarten movement, discovered the adaptability of sand as a material for play and built a sand box for his “children’s garden.” In the late 1800s, the sand heaps, sand bergs and sand gardens of Germany inspired the first playground in America, the Boston Sand Gardens. Froebel’s sandbox has withstood the test of time and is an iconic symbol of early childhood. As playgrounds continue to evolve, there is a movement today towards more natural play spaces for children. Sand continues to command a prominent role because of its direct connection to nature and its unlimited potential for play and learning. The large sand pools in each Bing classroom are a testament to our belief that sand is an important, basic material, like water, clay, paint and blocks and essential to any play-based, child-centered curriculum. Nonetheless, parents still wonder, “What is my child learning when she plays with sand?”

Sand is familiar to most children. It is instantly inviting, richly sensorial in texture and, coupled with water, allows children to manipulate and transform it. Sand play is multidisciplinary and provides young children with many opportunities to make discoveries, express their thoughts and ideas, test their theories and gain important physical, emotional, cognitive and social skills. In addition, sand play promotes a strong connection to the natural world, grounding children to a primordial element, one they instinctively want to explore. Fortunately, sand is inexpensive and abundant, thereby making it a readily available play material for children all over the world.

Sand play invites children to be physically engaged. It encourages hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness and large and fine muscle development through tasks like digging, burrowing, scooping, mixing, molding, pouring and sifting, all of which build strength, dexterity and endurance. In addition, it challenges children to be actively involved in meaningful work, to be industrious and to persevere.

As a highly tactile and sensory material, sand appeals most directly to children’s sense of touch. As their hands and bare feet come into contact with its coarse texture, sand can be both stimulating as well as calming, helping to promote self-regulation and sensory integration. Materials like sand and water can affect children’s emotional well-being. When children play with these materials, they often use them to act out and process issues in the real world that they find confusing, frightening, overwhelming or powerless to control. Whether it is a child with food allergies pretending to eat restricted food he has made with sand, or a child who has overheard parental conversations or TV coverage about a recent earthquake or tsunami, open-ended materials like sand allow children to confront and work through their fears and concerns and in the process, gain some degree of confidence, control and emotional security.

David: “I’m making a cake.”

Teacher: “What ingredients are in your cake?”

David: “Peanuts and eggs! But I won’t be allergic because it’s not real!”

Sand play carries cognitive value as well, providing unlimited possibilities for exploration and discovery. When children play with sand, it enhances their understanding of scientific concepts like weight, conservation of mass, volume and absorption and allows them to employ the scientific method to observe, make predictions and test their theories. It encourages children to experiment, improvise and innovate, to be resourceful, learn from their “mistakes” and problem-solve solutions.

Sand is also an unlikely, non-traditional place for literacy to occur. Over the course of five consecutive days in May, the teachers provided the Center PM children with manila paper, Cray-Pas, Popsicle sticks, scissors and masking tape. From these materials, an outburst of letters, words, ideas and even punctuation flowed through the sand area like so many dynamic rivers. During that week, the signs functioned as a valuable accessory or tool, as compelling as shovels and pails. The signs presented children an opportunity to begin or continue their hands-on exploration of letter and word recognition and formation or alternatively, to dictate their words to the teachers.

Just as important, however, these signs offered validity to the children’s work, enhanced feelings of control and confidence, explained rules and boundaries, consolidated collaboration and shared hopes and dreams. With signs, children learned first-hand that words can be powerful! In addition to the fine-motor work engendered by writing, children were also invited to tape their own Popsicle sticks to the front or back of their signs. The sand then lent itself easily and instantly to burying sticks independently, or with minimal support from teachers.

Luke asked that “NO PEOPLE ALLOWED UNTIL THE DIGGING IS OVER” be dictated onto his sign, which he then planted in front of one of the wooden boards under construction.

“‘No one allowed on there’ it says,” Luke reported. “We’re paving the road, so you can’t go on it for like three months.”

Sand encourages socialization, collaboration and communication, sharing of ideas and techniques, negotiation and turn taking. Repeated interactions with sand help develop a shared culture and vocabulary. Sand is also a highly versatile and adaptive material that lends itself to symbolic representation and is a springboard for dramatic play. The children dug a deep hole along the boundary of the sand area and the grass in Center Room. The mixture of earth and sand had turned into a new material for manipulation and the children called it “clay.”

Mateo: “We found clay! Look! We found clay! We’re making a clay hut!”

The teacher put out short lengths of scrap wood to challenge and inspire the children’s imagination, and Mateo, Luke, Jack and Clifford used them to make a roof on a climbing structure. They worked together, carefully laying out the boards.

Jack: “We need a sturdy roof. We’ll use clay to make a sturdy roof. We made gooey clay. Put it on the rooftop, dude.”

As the children took turns smoothing on the clay with a trowel, they discussed how long it would take the clay to dry and become a solid roof.

Clifford: “This is going to take this half of the afternoon and overnight to dry.”

Mateo: “It’s a hot day. I think it will dry overnight.”

Jack: “Yeah, it’s going to take at least overnight to dry.”

The children worked together digging, carrying, delivering and smoothing out the clay on the roof until snack time. After snack time they returned to their work and were joined by other children. The group worked together until story time.

The following day, the hole was discovered by another group of children and this time became a ready source of chocolate for a baking project.

Perry: “Let’s go make some cupcakes!”

Beatrice: “Yeah, chocolate cupcakes.”

Perry: “I’m making chocolate cupcakes.”

Beatrice: “I’m making chocolate frosting.”

Perry: “You can make chocolate frosting for my chocolate cupcakes, B!”

Perry: “She’s making chocolate filling and chocolate frosting for my chocolate cupcakes. We’re chocolate girls!”

Teachers play an important role in setting the stage for sand play by thoughtfully selecting props and accessories, which may include shovels and buckets, sand molds and cooking utensils, vehicles and rubber animals. Too many accessories can be overwhelming, while too few may not be sufficient to stimulate interest. Sometimes, teachers add novel accessories, like rain gutters, or create a “provocation,” a physical or cognitive challenge that may invite or inspire children to become engaged: digging a deep hole or a riverbed, creating a waterfall or burying an object to be discovered, expanding on the remnants of a project left behind by another group of children. Two restaurant-sized pots became the catalyst for a “soup restaurant.” Large tree branches trimmed from redwood trees in the Two’s classroom transformed the sand area into a forest. Sign-making introduced children to literacy and the power of words learned in a meaningful context.

Teachers can also guide children in the sand area by facilitating and observing. Skilled teachers sense when to step in with open-ended questions that encourage children to think, scaffold their learning and expand their play (“What do you think would happen if…”) and when to stand back and allow children to make their own discoveries. Teachers are also available to facilitate interactions between children as they collaborate, negotiate and problem-solve with one another as well as with materials. They are also involved in documenting children’s sand play through photos, videos, drawings and anecdotes, allowing children to revisit and reflect upon their experiences later. Documentation is also a way for parents to understand the complexities of what their child is learning when they’re “just playing with sand!”

A recently discovered thank-you letter sent by a parent on the occasion of her son’s graduation several years ago serves as a poignant reminder of the value and learning potential of this humble and underestimated material:

“When Luke started Bing, he brought home colorful paintings that I proudly displayed on my office wall. After a few weeks, Luke only brought home sand in his shoes and I worried about what he’d learn by playing outside all afternoon. That was a foolish concern. Between the sand area and the grove, Luke enjoyed so many important learning opportunities—to be a good friend to other children, to share tools, to invent games, to be a gentle leader and a patient listener.”