I still have so much to write about stories and literacy, but I have been desperate to write about sand play since EcoWorrier sent me this photo, of her son in his pyjamas in the Playcentre sandpit.
You’ll find sand play pretty much everywhere in ECE – Playcentres usually have enormous sandpits, and Waldorf/Steiner kindergartens see sand play as essential. In Montessori pre-schools it will be set up for ‘free play time’ and sand trays are often set up for children to practice writing. And of course, playing at the beach should be part of every childs' summer memories.
The nature and value of sand play
‘To very young children the simple delight of rolling in dry sand, pouring it over themselves or burying themselves in it provides an all-over sensory satifsfaction” Gwen Somerset, Vital Play in Early Childhood
I have yet to meet a child who doesn’t love playing with sand, even ‘mess-phobes’ enjoy it (even if the mothers aren’t so keen!).
The youngest toddlers love the tactile experience of sand … the feel of it between fingers and toes, the way wet sand drips off their hands, the way it sticks to everything, the way it can be dug to make a hole, or mounded up into a pile, or poured out of a bucket (And yes, they will even try to eat the stuff!).
As children get older, the sandpit becomes a stage for imaginative play .. so you will see kids making pretend birthday cakes with twig candles, or creating a maze of sand-house villages, or digging trenches for cars to drive through. Other children will see sand as an artistic material for creating intricate sand sculptures and collages.
The value of sand play is immense. As a natural material, sand is an ideal way to learn about hot and cold, wet and dry. It is a first stage of science to see the changes sand goes through from so dry it can easily be sifted, to wet enough to hold its shape, to sopping wet and able to be poured like concrete. Playing with sand develops hand eye co-ordination and fine motor skills ... and it provides great stimulation for imaginative play and artistic creation. They say everything you need to learn can be learned at kindergarten … perhaps in fact it can be learned in the sand pit.
Setting up for sand play
‘No back yard is complete without sand and water. When we think of sand, we want to think big, and lots of it’ Sharifa Oppenheimer, Heaven on Earth
Sand is a relatively easy thing to set up at home. In New Zealand, you’ll often see the large plastic clam shells filled with sand on the front deck. These are easy to set up - a couple of bags of sand from a landscaping supplies depot and you are done. The downside is that there is nowhere for the water to drain, so they fill up and get gloopy. Also, they are pretty small for more than one child … so they don’t really facilitate the kind of ‘sand work’ that pre-schoolers like to get into.
So, if you possibly can, go for ‘big, and lots of it’! You’ll want to make sure its open at the bottom so your kids can ‘dig all the way to China’ … and so the water can drain away keeping the sand fresh. (You’ll also want a good quality cover so the local cats don’t mistake it for a litter box).
Sand is not a lot of fun without water, and Oppenheimer suggests the water source is put “far away from the sandbox to encourage plenty of running ... running back and forth, bucket in hand, is full of meaning and purpose for your child as is creating great river systems in the sandbox’.
Sand play ‘accessories’
Toys for the sandpit are everywhere … any plastic household item is likely to be great. From sad experience, I can say that metal and wood will have a hard life in the sandpit … even our Waldorf/Steiner kindergarten uses plastic materials in the sandpit!
- tupperware containers that have lost their lids, or lids that have lost their containers
- ladles, slotted spoons, salad servers, tongs, scoops, fish slices
- colanders, funnels and steamer baskets
- microwave cooking equipment like those funny egg cookers and muffin trays
- tubes and half-tubes of all shapes and sizes – clean drainage pipe is great, but cardboard postage tubes will last at least a few days unless they get dunked in the water
Natural resources are great for sand play – so collect up things like leaves, twigs, rocks, shells, pebbles, flax fronds, seed pods, acorns, feathers etc. (these natural materials are wonderful for all sorts of open-ended play).
Gwen Somerset (grand-matriarch of the Playcentre movement) says that sand play ‘accessories should be of at least three types:
1) for filling, measuring, pouring – buckets, containers of graded sizes:
2) for carrying or working as adults – large lorries, trucks of different sizes, wood off cuts, vehicles and small cars for roads etc
3) for shaping, digging tunneling – scoops trowels, shovels paua shells and in addition oddments for decoration
Extending sand play
There are just so many ways to extend sand-play. Those of you involved with Playcentre have probably done most of these … but I thought I would list them here anyway!
Set up a sandpit ‘volcano’. In a plastic milk container put 1 cup of baking soda, and some food colouring or tempera powder. Pack up the sand around it in a ‘volcano’ with the top of the milk container exposed. Then, when the kids are ready … pour in a cup of white vinegar and watch it bubble over.
When there are enough adults for supervision, set up a mini bonfire in the sand pit. Roast marshmallows or put pre-baked potatoes in foil at the bottom of the fire to get all smoky and delicious.
Put a paddling pool in the sandpit with a sun umbrella for a beach party. Don’t forget to make some pretty drinks with those little umbrellas and floating cherries.
For dinosaur obsessed 4 year olds create a dinosaur excavation. Bury a range of plastic dinosaur toys, and maybe any 'bones' you can find in the sand. I have heard the idea of partly covering the dinosaurs in plaster of paris, letting them set, and then getting the kids to find them and then ‘dig them out’ … I haven’t tried this one myself but would love to hear how it works!
Messy play … in a bucket put too much water in some sand and then drip it off your fingers - it looks really freaky.
So, tell me what your favourite ideas for sand play are!