All they want to do is to dig in and play. And as your little ones grow, sand play is a great way for them to develop their motor skills and coordination as they discover the endless possibilities they can build with sand and a bit of imagination.

Children appreciate the power of being change agents as they experiment with familiar materials in novel ways. As they create following their ideas and imagination, they also gain confidence in their own abilities. Sand play allows them to be agents of change, and creators of their own imagination. Parents and teachers can support children’s creativity by letting your child know that you value their open-ended explorations with tactile materials, and emphasizing the process rather than the end product. Try not to offer a pattern or model for children to copy. Instead, watch how your child can turn sand into castles, porridge for the baby doll or a skyscraper complete with a multi-storey carpark. The little ones can have hours of fun and learning with sand.

Benefits of sand and play

Fine motor skill development

At age three, children enjoy engaging in physical activity such as pouring, stirring and mixing.  At the same time, they develop muscles and motor skills through these actions. By handling sand accessories, they also learn how tools can be used in the process.

Hand-eye coordination

From age three, children can demonstrate motor control such as showing how they can pour sand from one container to another without spillage.

Promote creativity and imagination

By four, children enjoy interacting with small groups of children during associative play. Parents and teachers could provide a variety of materials and tools, plus an environment that encourages children to experiment freely. Foster children’s independent thinking by encouraging them to find new ways to explore with each material and contact with sand. You can also fire their imagination by asking them to hunt for buried treasures — stuff you had hidden earlier for them to find.

Touch sense development

Observing children’s play helps the parent/teacher determine when to provide accessories that will promote new play themes. When your child begins to make “rhum-rhum” sounds as he pushes dry sand into piles with his hands, it’s an opportune time to add a scoop or a toy bulldozer. Careful observation will also give you insight into each child’s interest, social-interaction skills and problem-solving capabilities.

Language development

Playing with sand is a social activity that promotes interactions and literacy such as developing vocabulary, practising and experimenting with language. Children at age three can use words for some colours and shapes. They listen and are quick to acquire simple vocabulary for size and quantity such as full or empty.

Practise spatial words to reinforce concepts such as “is the dog at the back of the truck” during sand play. Language can come alive with action words as young construction workers dig in the sand pit — “Shovel the hole”, “Move the rocks”. Children can be introduced to sandy deserts, imagining surviving in harsh conditions and what they might need for three days of camping in the desert. With parents’/teachers’ guidance and support, all children can communicate their ideas, feelings and creativity through sand play.

Mathematical development

Sand play is a good time to teach little kids about math. For example, children learn the different between a cup that is full and another that is half-full when you get them to fill one cupful of sand, and another half full. You can show them what light and heavy, more and less mean using cups filled with different amounts of sand. You can even do a counting game where they can count how many cups of sand could fill a bucket. The possibilities for mathematical development are endless!

What you will need

Types of sand

Some parents/teachers prefer the smoother texture of beach sand, while others find that coarser builder’s sand does not stick as readily to children’s clothes and shoes. Sand with a reddish tint containing iron can stain children’s clothes. You can buy sand from a gardening store or a toy store.

Sand tables

These are available at toy stores, like Toys R Us, and usually come with sand accessories like spade and fork. For low-budget home use, a baby’s bathtub, a pail or plastic dishpan to hold sand will work. Ensure material is durable, does not rust and has no sharp or pointed edges. Place on a table at a comfortable height for children.

Sand accessories

Save toilet rolls, empty bottles, small boxes and egg cartons, discarded spoons, pitchers and pails for the sand table. Or pick a collection of leaves, twigs and stones from the garden. Add a new item or two each time so the table is not overcrowded and children are not overwhelmed.

Camera ready

Take snapshots or instant photos/videos of the sand projects your children have created. Display at children’s eye level, along with their dictated stories or titles. Alternatively, place the pictures in a photo album or on the school website, with accompanying stories to share in the library corner or at home. Children can then relive their happy memories and to quote William Blake “See a world in [their own] grain of sand”. 

Safety first

Sand play is usually associated with noisy and unruly activity, consequently usually limited to outdoor settings. Yet, with proper guidance in a well-planned set-up, your little ones can have a fun and safe play. Here’s what teachers/parents should look out for when kids are into sand play.

Sand lots

Play indoors

Use plastic sheeting to protect hardwood floors. Sand scratches surfaces so it is best to lay down protective covering before play. Vacuum or sweep sand up after play because unattended sand may hurt.

Play outdoors

Outdoor play is always fun and it is advised to situate the sandbox far enough from the house. This distance gives room for sand to fall off the children by the time they make it to the front door. A shaded spot will be a good place to keep children out of direct sun.

Sand play can be messy, so if you organise cleaning materials and activities, you could simplify the clean-up process. For example, challenge children at age four to classify their sand toys by their pouring or sifting functions as they are packed away.

Rules for safe play

Involve children in establishing simple rules for sand play, then model and discuss these behaviours. “No throwing sand”. “Keep sand in the box”.  Other rules about sharing equipment and cleaning up should be discussed and adopted. Teaching children not to rub eyes, poke fingers into ears and other parts of their own and other children’s bodies is important. Always make sure they wash their hands before touching any utensils in the kitchen or their food.

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Contributed by:
Early Childhood Development Agency