Sand might be called the world’s most perfect toy. It is natural, readily available, generally affordable, and will provide hundreds of hours of enjoyment for your children and grandchildren. If you’re on a limited budget, the backyard sandbox should be the first thing you build, before a swing set or climber. Many families like to put the swing set and climber directly IN the sandbox, but I recommend that you don’t. First off, sand isn’t the softest thing a child could land on when he falls. It would be better to place wood chips, pea gravel, or recycled rubber under the swings. Secondly, children like to travel. If they have a sandbox in one area and a climber in another, they have two play spaces. Besides, if you have more than one child, naturally one is going to want to build a sand castle when the other would rather jump on top of it. Two play spaces is definitely better than one!
Select an area in your yard for the sandbox. Place it towards the back of the yard, so much of the sand falls off your child’s shoes (or bare feet) and clothing before he makes it to the door. Place it where you can see it from a window, but not too close to the fence. Find an area that is mostly flat, and gets shade for part of the day, unless you are planning to build an awning over of the box.
Think BIG! Build the biggest box your budget and your yard will allow. Ten-feet square is a nice size for two or three children. Mark out the area, then remove the grass and dig down. Sinking the box down into the ground will help keep the sand in the box and not blowing around in your child’s eyes on a windy day. It also helps prevent grass from growing up through the sand. Once you’ve dug the area out, level it as best you can, then loosely spread landscape fabric and staple it into the ground. This allows water to drain, but blocks weeds from sprouting.
You can build your box walls out of boards, or landscape timbers, or landscape blocks, or old tractor tires, or old splash pools, or any other material you can think of that is not toxic to your children. (Do not use pressure treated lumber, for that reason!) You don’t even have to use any walls at all, but fill the dirt hole up with sand. However, most sandboxes do have wooden sides, and some even have wooden benches for little bodies to sit on.
Finally, fill the box with sand. Many recommend buying play sand in 50 pound bags. It would take a lot of bags to fill a large sandbox! Washed sand is the same thing as play sand, and can be bought in bulk. Washed sand is free from dust and debris, weighs about 2700 pounds per cubic yard, and is tan in color.
Six Methods to Discourage Cats from Using Your Sandbox
Most websites recommend covering the sandbox to prevent cats from dirtying it, but I always felt that covers were unwieldly and limited how much use the sandbox would see. Small children can’t move the cover by themselves. There are a number of cat deterrents that may work just as well.
1) electric fencing. If you have a tall backyard fence, then run a string of electric wire across the top of the fence out of your child’s reach. No cat will cross it.
2) Keep a non-cat friendly dog in the yard. However, although the dog might not mess in the sand, he will still leave calling cards somewhere in your child’s play area.
3) Scarecrow Sprinklers are motion sensitive and hooked up to a garden hose. They will blast unwanted pests with water, but not harm them. (Of course, teach your child to turn it off, or it will blast him, as well!)
4) Motion-activated pet deterrent uses a high-pitched sound and blast of air to send cats on their way, without water. Great for indoors, too.
5 Smells. Some smells are offensive to cats, even when humans can’t smell them at all, such as the wintergreen scent of Keep Away. Other homemade cat deterrent sprays use a variety of herbs and spices like lavendar, cayanne pepper, rosemary, or citronella. These sprays will last up to two weeks, but need to be reapplied regularly.
6) Texture. Cats don’t like to walk on certain bristly, rough-textured products like pine cones or gravel. You can surround your sandbox with a wide ring of shredded coconut shell mulch, and it may stop most cats.
If none of these methods work for you, then a web search should reveal more than fifty other options. Something will work. Of course, you could just cover your sandbox. I’d suggest screen instead of tarp for covering the box. You want the rain to wash the sand clean, rather than the damp dark tarp to keep the sand the right temperature and humidity for breeding bacteria.
Finally, you’ll want sandbox toys! Rotating the toys periodically will keep the interest level high. After spending all that time making the sandbox for your child, the best reward would be watching him enjoy it! So, for younger children, keep a supply of plastic measuring cups and spoons, small plastic cars, and play figurines will provide many hours of enjoyable, educational activity. As your child grows, add sand pails and sturdy shovels, then construction trucks like a dump truck and a steam shovel or back hoe. Children can bury things in the sand for scavenger hunts, or sculpt sand into interesting shapes with the addition of a little water. And sand can still be played with in the fall, even though the beaches are closed and it’s too cold to take off a jacket! There is a small window in the northern states when the sand simply freezes – effectively ending the sandy season for a little while.
Don’t forget, children model us. If you want your child to reap all the benefits of sand play, play with him in the sandbox! Once he sees how important you realize sand play is, he will play in the sand more. So what if he gets a little dirty? That before-bedtime bath is a great way to wind down from an exciting, educational day of play.