Why Sand Play is Essential to Young Children

By Peckie Peters, Head Teacher

In the sand area, one end of a white plastic rain gutter leans on a boulder, the bottom end touching the sand below. Next to the gutter are three large shovels and a square hollow block. Nearby is a large galvanized tub of water with two red buckets floating on the surface. Could this seemingly random set-up be an invitation for a young child to play? The answer is, “Yes!”

Samuel arrives first and notices the items. He pauses for a moment then picks up the block and places it under the end of the gutter, which was previously in the sand. He fills one of the red buckets halfway and pours it into the gutter watching the water flow off the edge of the gutter. He smiles at the teacher and announces, “A waterfall!” before moving to get a second gutter to add to the arrangement. Luke joins him and asks, “What are you making, Samuel?” Samuel is focused on his task and appears not to hear. The teacher inserts: “Samuel, Luke is wondering what you are making. I wonder if he wants to help?” Luke smiles and Samuel answers: “It’s a waterfall. I’m adding this gutter.” “Can I help?” asks Luke. “Sure,” responds Samuel, who places the second gutter next to the first, carefully lifting the first one so he can place the second underneath it. He looks to see if Luke has noticed and adds: “If you don’t put it underneath, the water just runs out.” Luke nods in agreement.

Are these children just playing in the sand, or are they gaining physical, cognitive and social skills that are critical for their development? Many teachers of young children believe that both are true and that sand play, like play with other basic, open-ended materials such as the blocks, clay, paint and water offered at Bing, gives children a foundation for learning. Alison Gopnik, renowned researcher and psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley, has spent over 20 years studying children’s learning and development. She contends that “exploration and play during preschool turns us into adults who are flexible and sophisticated thinkers.” What are these skills exactly and how does play in the sand area support their growth? A look in the sand area in West AM helps answer these questions.

Eliana sits in the sand with a shovel and a small silver bowl in front of her. She picks up a handful of sand and lets it flow through her fingers into the bowl. “It’s cold!” she announces and picks up another handful. She plays like this on her own for 10 minutes, periodically noticing the level of sand in her bowl.

Through this sensory play, Eliana is learning about the properties of sand, how it feels and how it flows freely into the container. At the same time, this play is sending signals to her brain that strengthen neural pathways, which lay the foundation for learning other skills such as using fine-motor muscles or identifying items by touch. Understanding the attributes of this material at a sensory level is a step in the process of classification and differentiation—proficiencies that will be needed in future scientific exploration.

Another day Deion and Jayden are working in the sand area. Their play is mostly parallel, without much interaction, but they often overlap in moments where they share information and ideas. Jayden pours water down the gutter and watches it pool at the bottom, making a “lake” of brown slime and foam which, based on his enormous grin, pleases him greatly. Deion is filling the wheelbarrow with a combination of wet and dry sand, carefully smoothing the surface after each addition of sand. “This is hard work!” Deion says, stopping to observe his progress. Jayden also stops to look, then continues to pour water into the gutter. Deion notices the wet slime that Jayden has made and lifts some onto his shovel. “Whoa, this is heavy!” he exclaims, and puts it in his wheelbarrow. “There’s a lot of water,” answers Jayden, who watches as Deion attempts to move his now full wheelbarrow to the other side of the pool. After three attempts to lift it, Deion manages to maneuver the wheelbarrow through the sand, using his entire body to accomplish his goal. He dumps the sand and starts to smooth it with the back of his shovel. Jayden notices the tracks in the sand made by the wheel of the wheelbarrow and says to himself: “It’s like a train track.” The teacher nods in agreement and looks at an empty wheelbarrow nearby. Jayden moves to get it and begins to make his own tracks. He stops to admire his work then flips the wheelbarrow over and drags the handles through the sand, now making a double track.

On the other side of the sand area, Eloise is making castles in the sand. She carefully fills the entire sand mold with dry sand, quickly flipping it over so as not to lose any of its contents, then frowns when it doesn’t stay together. “I wonder why it didn’t stay together?” a teacher asks, just as Bo enters the sand area. Rather than telling Eloise to just add water, the teacher poses a question to get Eloise to think about why it might not have worked as she had anticipated. Bo walks by on her way to the monkey bars and calmly states: “You need wet sand. The dry sand falls apart.” Eloise nods and gets herself a bucket of water, which she pours on the sand around her. She tries again and creates a molded castle. Raising her arms above her head, Eloise proclaims: “It works!” and begins to make another.

In this short interaction, facilitated by the presence of sand and a peer, Eloise demonstrated the seven essential skills children need to thrive in this century, as described in the book Mind in the Making by Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of Families and Work Institute. The skills are: focus, self control, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, communication and self-directed, engaged learning.

Furthermore, both groups of children demonstrate how sand play supports the development of physical, social and cognitive skills. Large-muscle skills develop as children dig, pour, scoop and transport sand and water. Eye-hand coordination and small-muscle control improve as children refine their movements, such as when Deion was using the shovel to level the sand. Playing in a shared environment demands that children learn to cooperate, share materials and compromise when necessary. While Jayden could have become upset when Deion helped himself to the slimy sand, he seemed to understand that the peer needed it for his project and was interested to see how he would use it. Finally, the children explored mathematical (more/less) and scientific concepts (dry/wet, movement, flow, physical characteristics of materials, cause/effect) while exploring their self-initiated interests.

One final example illustrates the value of sand as it relates to dramatic/pretend play.

Brie and Quinley are in the kitchen area in the sand making cakes. Brie uses a muffin tin and is filling each hole with a scoop of wet sand she gets from the ground. Quinley maneuvers the spout of a large water container by pulling it towards her to release the water. She fills a large bowl with water, shuts off the spout by pushing it in, and then places her bowl on the red board in front of her. She begins to add sand to the water. “I’m making strawberry vanilla cake,” she says to Brie, who nods appreciatively and says: “Mine is strawberry too.” They work in silence, and then Brie carries her completed dish to the playhouse nearby. “It’s for the store,” she tells Quinley. “Mine’s for the store too,” says Quinley as she tries to pick up her bowl and discovers it is too heavy. “I need your help,” she says to Brie, and the two carry the bowl together to the house. Coming back to the kitchen, they each select a new container and begin cooking as Lili and Laci arrive, neighing, in the sand area. The teacher asks the chefs, “It looks like the horses have come by. Do you have any extra food for them?” Brie and Quinley look at each other and Brie says: “This food is for people.” “Yeah,” agrees Quinley. “It’s for people.” The horses neigh again and announce that they are not hungry anyway as they run up the hill out of the sand area. The two girls watch them go and resume their cooking.

As children play together in the sand, they converse with each other about what they’re doing, talk about topics that interest them and engage in pretend talk to create scenarios for their play. Role-playing (being cooks), using props, pretending (cakes having particular flavors), incorporating new information (is this food for the horses?) and communicating all involve a tremendous amount of abstract thinking on the part of the child. The perspective-taking needed in dramatic play scenarios like this facilitates the development of executive functioning, an essential self-regulating skill for children navigating the world today through planning, organizing and making decisions.

Moving the sand creates a hole that is interesting to examine.

As Gopnik asserts: “One of the things we’ve learned is that when children engage in pretend play, have imaginary friends or explore alternative worlds, they are learning what people are like, how people think and the kinds of things people can do. This helps children learn to understand themselves and other people. We also have evidence that this kind of understanding leads to social adjustment in school and social competence in life.”

The sand area is a place where children have fun, get messy, use their imaginations and learn! Sand is a medium that invites children’s participation and gives them opportunities to grow while meeting their individual developmental needs. The learning that occurs comes from the children themselves as they explore and discover with guidance from observant and supportive adults.