How great it was to go out today and see the kids digging deep holes in the playground – we are just beginning to see the sand again! Yesterday the kids spent a long time filling buckets of snow and dumping them over the fence – out with winter and in with spring!
The children love the sand, making us delicious dishes, ice cream treats and even baby soup (last summer’s specialty?!). We often see wonderful cooperative play with small and large groups of children working together to create a common vision. Often there is a foreman who helps coordinate the play and give out jobs. Sometimes this kind of project goes on for a couple of days or more with children talking about it in the classroom and planning for playground time.
What Can Children Learn From Playing in Sand?
Sand play promotes physical development. Large muscle skills develop as children dig, pour, sift, scoop, and clean up spills with brush and dustpan. Eye-hand coordination and small muscle control improve as children learn to manipulate sand accessories.
Sand play also promotes social skills. When children work together at the sand table they are faced with real problems that require sharing, compromising, and negotiating. A group may engage in dramatic play as they “cook,” construct roadways, dig tunnels, or create a zoo for rubber animals. As children take on roles associated with their dramatic play, they learn important social skills such as empathy and perspective taking.
The teacher can promote cognitive development by preparing an interesting, challenging sand play environment. This environment can be achieved by continually changing and adding interesting accessories to the center.
Mathematical concepts can be developed during sand play by providing children with measuring spoons and cups, containers in a variety of sizes and shapes, balance scales, or counting bears. As you observe children’s sand play, use mathematical terms like more/less; many/few; empty/full; heavy/light. Then challenge children to count how many scoops it takes to fill a container. Sequence accessories by size.
Develop science concepts by suspending a funnel or pendulum above the sand table. Provide magnets and buried treasure. Use ropes and pulleys to move buckets of sand. Punch holes in a plastic bottle, fill it with sand, and observe. Then try different sizes and placement of holes. What happens? Ask children what they could do with a water/sand wheel, PVC pipes, ramps, sieves, funnels, or rolling pins. Add water, filters, or gravel to the sand. How does it change?
Encourage children to make signs for use in sand play and find out what a colander is to develop language skills. Invite children to write their names in the sand or tell a story about their play. Move traffic signs from the block center to the sand box.
Teachers can incorporate the arts into sand play by encouraging children to draw a song in the sand; make castings, moldings, and prints; and write a sand poem. As children sift and pour, play background music and encourage them to sing. Try using sand combs and describe pattern and design.
You will think of many more accessories to change the sand play area to keep it fresh and inviting. Look around for common objects and household discards that might spark ideas when paired with sand. “A developing brain doesn’t know the difference between an inexpensive set of measuring cups and an expensive set of stackables purchased at a toy store” (Newberger, 1997, p. 8). You might even decide to make alternative rice, nut, corn, bean, mulch, packing peanut, aquarium gravel, or cornmeal centers to compare with sand play.
Children have a natural affinity for sand play. Teachers can build on that interest by providing children with inviting props, asking appropriate questions, and scheduling ample time for children to work through their play ideas. While the teacher provides the stimulating environment to enhance concept development and skill building, it is important that the sand play area remain free and child-centered so that children may generate their own play schemes imaginatively.
It is through purposeful, self-initiated play that children move beyond the world of what is to become the strongest, the wisest, the most competent and skilled participants in the world of what could be. We need to invite children to explore the time-tested natural ingredients of play so that they, too, might stretch their toes really far and touch China.
Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is associate professor at Ohio Northern University, Ada, Ohio.