Sand is the most basic, and perhaps the most ancient, of toys. Children everywhere love to touch it. They love to let it run through their fingers, or pour it over their feet and legs. They love to throw it (ouch!), taste it, roll in it, and sculpt shapes in it. They love to get dirty with it. They love to build tall mounds, then jump on them and smash them down. No one has to teach a child how to play with sand. They just know.
Sand is a Very Inexpensive Toy
Sand can also be an incredibly cheap toy. When my children were young, I had a sandbox built in the back yard that was ten feet by fifteen feet by six inches deep. I anchored the swing set and the geo-dome climber on the sand. There was plenty of sand for everyone! The sand came delivered by a semi-truck. The cost for a cubic yard of sand was less than $20, but the delivery fee was almost as much as the cost of a swing set. Still, penny per play, I’d say the sandbox was the cheapest, most used “toy” in our family.
At first, little children just experience sand. They will touch it, taste it, smell it, and let it blow in their face. Some may stay in this sensory stage for a while. That’s okay. Some move quickly to the exploratory stage. They want to scoop it, stack it, pack it, shove it, and mold it. The addition of water to the sandboxcreates a whole new universe of exploration. Wet sand sculpts and molds better, but is heavy to carry. Finally, children move into an expanding stage. They want to play in the sand with others, and with other toys. They might sketch out rooms and hallways in the sand as they play house. They might sculpt roads for small toy cars. They could fill toy dishes with sand cakes, and toy cups with sand tea. Sand play helps the child develop physically, socially, and emotionally. Sand play is so important, that there is an entire branch of psychotherapy devoted to it!
How to Make a Sandbox
Next, remove the grass. This is the hardest step, but it is essential. If you don’t dig up the lawn, it will grow through your sandbox rather quickly. (Ask me how I know? My kids recall pulling up grass from the sandbox regularly for the first two years!) Another benefit to digging down, is the sand box won’t have to be too high. It is better if the top of the sand is level with the top of the lawn, little ones are less likely to trip as they step in and out of the box. Dig your box down about six inches. If you don’t dig it deep enough, the children may dig up the dirt and mix it in with the sand.
It is not necessary, or even wise, to put a bottom in the sandbox. You want rain to wash the sand and drain out. If you pile gravel down there, it will get mixed in. The dirt will eventually get packed down by the sand.
You might want to, but it isn’t absolutely necessary, frame in your sandbox with wood. This does keep the sand area more confined, and can offer a bench to sit on, or you can even build a storage area for toys right into the sandbox, if you have the finances and creativity yourself. If money is tight, just dig a pit and pour in sand. Make the sand box as big as you possibly can. My sandbox was never too big, but it was a magic lure attracting neighboring children.
Covering the Sandbox is Not Necessary
Some people now recommend placing a cover over the sand, because kitties will call it their litter box. You could just get a dog, to keep the cat out of the yard. Or you can make a mesh screen cover, allowing the rain to go through, but not the kitty. Or just don’t worry about it. Kids have played in sand for centuries, even before litter boxes were invented. If the kitties do find your box, you can quickly scoop out the chunks, and spritz a little bleach water over the area. Some people put a ring of gravel around the outside of the sandbox to discourage cats as they do not like to walk on the gravel. For more ideas on discouraging cats, read The Backyard Sandbox.
A sun shade for the sand might be advisable, though, especially if you don’t want to slather sun screen on your child’s skin every day. I’ve seen some sandboxes with a loose, open top created by parallel two-by-fours spaced every six to ten inches apart. This allows some sun through, but offers partial shade. On really hot days, you can stretch a sheet over the top then, creating total shade. The important thing is to allow rain access to the sand.
You need not invest in expensive sand toys. The younger child will be happy with just a stick. She’ll wiggle her toes in it, pick it up in her hands, and draw lines in it with the stick. Next, you can wash out any empty container from your kitchen and add it to the sandbox. Yogurt tubs might not last long, but they are free. Other items you could add to the sand area include:
The list is endless, limited only by your imagination. Do not put all the toys out there all the time. That only creates a mess too large for your child to pick up. Instead, keep shovels and pails out there, but rotate other items to renew interest. And don’t worry about the sand that gets tracked into your house… children grow up too soon, and then they’re gone.