A toy inventor could work for a very long time without coming up with a play material as versatile and enjoyable as sand. Think about it! It can be poured when dry and molded when wet. It can be used in science experiments and art projects. Whether you are digging your toes into it or sifting it through your fingers, it offers an amazing sensory experience. It’s no wonder that kids love sand. You will, too, once you think about all of the ways that you can use sand to entertain and educate your children. Try these!
1. Beachy Fun
Most of us associate sand with the beach, and if you’re lucky enough to live near a beach, you and your children should take full advantage of it. A great beach doesn’t have to be picture-perfect white sand. Sand that’s a little browner and firmer is sometimes better for strolling and for athletic activities. Also, you don’t have to be near an ocean to enjoy a beach. Many rivers and lakes have nice beaches, some natural, some man-made.
If you take the kids to the beach, have fun digging, but don’t dig a deep hole. The sand can collapse and bury a child or even an adult. Dozens of such incidents have been reported over the years, and some have resulted in fatalities. Such collapses can occur if people dig in dunes, and they can also occur near the water. The deadly part of a sand hole collapse is that the sand may fill in the hole so quickly and smoothly that it is impossible to determine exactly where the person is buried. Many beaches prohibit the digging of holes deeper than a couple of feet. Holes of any depth should be filled in before you leave the beach.
Besides simply digging in the sand, children will enjoy drawing pictures in the sand. They can use a stick as a drawing utensil and enhance their pictures with rocks, shells, and bits of driftwood. Why not leave a message for the world? Think of it as legal graffiti! Of course, the all-time favorite beach activity is making sand castles.
2. Do You Want to Build a Sand Castle?
Some people take sand castle building seriously. Others just want to goof around a bit and then move on to something else. Those in the second category might be better off doing a bit of sand sculpting instead. It’s relatively quick and easy to create a sculpture of a turtle, crab or alligator as you don’t have to build the sand up to a great height. If nothing but a sand castle will do, here are some hints.
- Collect some castle-building tools. You’ll need shovels for moving the sand, different sizes of buckets for creating the body of the castle and tools such as spatulas, putty knives, melon ballers, and paintbrushes. Add a spray bottle to keep the sand moist.
- Pick a spot that’s not too close to the water and add a margin of safety if the tide is coming in. Begin by shoveling sand and making a big base. Wet the sand and let the kids stomp on it to pack the sand.
- Add to your base by filling a bucket with wet sand. Put some sand in and let the kids pack it down with their fists. Add more sand until the bucket is full. Upend the bucket and wait a bit to let any excess water drain away before lifting the bucket off the sand. Repeat as often as needed to create your structure. You can also cut the bottom out of a bucket to make it easier to remove.
- Build up your structure by using smaller buckets or cups filled with sand to create another layer.
- Use your spatulas and other tools to smooth the surface of your sand and add detail. If the sand starts to crumble, spray it with water and work while the sand is moist.
- Add extras such as a stick with a bit of cloth for a flag. You can dig a moat around the castle, but the water will drain away quickly. Trying to keep it filled will keep the kiddos occupied for a while, though!
If this type of sand castle sounds too much like work, you show the kids how to make a drip castle. Create a slurry by mixing sand and water. Scoop some of the mixture up in your hand and let it drip onto your chosen spot. It will create a stalagmite-type structure. Create a bunch of these, and you’ll have a fanciful-looking castle without a lot of work.
3. A Backyard Sandbox
Bring the fun of the beach home by buying or building a sandbox. There are a million variations on a backyard sandbox, but you’ll want to keep the health and safety of your children uppermost. Here are some hints for sandbox use adapted from the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA).
- Don’t use railroad ties to build a sandbox as they could be treated with creosote. Use timbers that have not been treated with any toxins, or buy a plastic base.
- Fill with natural beach or river sand. Crushed rock (quartz, marble or limestone) is sometimes sold as sand, but it may contain tremolite, a substance similar to asbestos. Also, the manufacturing process may create rock dust, which could be harmful if inhaled. This type of sand has not been prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but the AAP warns against its use with children.
- Keep the sandbox covered when it is not in use, to guard against animals defecating in it.
- Do not cover the sandbox if the sand is wet. Let it dry out first, to guard against bacterial growth.
- Rake the sandbox periodically to check for anything that doesn’t belong there.
If you buy a sandbox, don’t fall for a cutesy one with lots of bells and whistles. The whole point of sandbox play is to encourage creative play. Some sandboxes have built-in seats. These might be nice if you want to play in the sandbox, but most kids sit right in the sand. One accessory that may be worth the money is an awning or other covers for sun protection. Unless it is straight-up noon, however, it won’t provide complete shade for your little diggers. You’ll still need to be conscientious about sun protection.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money on sandbox toys. The children will need some buckets and shovels, but you can also use plastic bowls from your kitchen and plastic spoons or scoops. Toy dump trucks, front loaders, and bulldozers can be more expensive, but they give children an understanding of basic construction equipment and principles, so many parents think they are worth the expense.
Read also: 12 Water Activities for Kids.
4. Buy or Make a Sand Table
A sand table is a lot like a sandbox, only it is raised to waist level so kids can play in it without actually getting into it. That is an advantage for parents because the kids won’t always have to shower and change clothes after playing. There will also be less sand tracked into the house, but you can still expect a little to show up now and then.
It’s easy to build a sand table from scratch or create one by putting a plastic container on a base. Fill with beach or river sand, and you’re good to go. Just as with a sandbox, you should cover it when it is not in use to keep the sand dry. If you have repurposed a plastic container to make your sand table, it’s easy to pop the lid back on.
Numerous sand tables are on the market as well. Some are a combination of water and sand, with one end for water and one for sand. The disadvantage of this type is that the sand is likely to stay wet.
5. Go on a Dig!
Use your sandbox or sand table to encourage your little paleontologist. Bury some dinosaurs in the sand and let the children go on a dig. Little ones will be happy unearthing regular plastic dinosaurs. Older kids will know that scientists search for dinosaur bones, not whole dinosaurs. You can purchase plastic dinosaur skeletons online. The most realistic kits have partial skeletons so that the kids can have the fun of finding a dinosaur skull or spine and having to figure out what kind of dinosaur it belongs to. You can expand on this activity by using casting powder to embed some of the skeletons. The kids can chip them out using tools that are appropriate for their age level. Be sure to supply brushes so they can brush away the debris like real fossil hunters!
6. The Science of Sand
Sand can be the basis of a number of science experiments. First, help the kids figure out what sand is made of. You can introduce or reinforce some vocabulary words by telling them that sand is a heterogeneous substance, not a homogeneous subject like sugar. If you have a microscope, put a few grains under it. If you don’t have a microscope, a good magnifying glass will give the children a fairly good look. Put the sand on black paper so it will show up better. This is really interesting if you have samples of different kinds of sand. Look for grains that come from different types of rock. You can also pull a small magnet through the sand to see if the sand contains fragments of iron.
These are the main components of sand:
- Quartz, which is primarily silica
- Calcium carbonate, which is made up of coral and shells
- Feldspar, which is commonly considered the most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust
- Mica, the shiny mineral that gives some sand a glittery quality.
Dark colored grains may be minerals like magnetite or volcanic rock such as obsidian and basalt.
If your sand is primarily made of calcium carbonate, it will react to vinegar, releasing tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide. Drip some vinegar on the sand, and the children may be able to see the bubbles or hear the popping sound they make.
You can also teach the children some of the physics behind the building of sand castles. Grains of damp sand is held together by the surface tension of the water, which acts something like little rubber bands holding the grains together. Add more water, however, and the bonds are broken and the structure collapses.
You can also experiment with making sedimentary rock. Mix sand with sugar water in a paper cup and pour off any excess water. Let the mixture sit for several days. When you tear off the paper cup, the sand should stick together. The sugar acts as a cementing agent. In nature, other naturally occurring substances play this role.
If you add fine gravel to the sugar-sand-water mixture and stir it up before letting it set, the final product should demonstrate another scientific principle, granular convection. The gravel should end up on the top surface of your rock. Granular convection means that in a mixture of large and small objects, the larger ones end up on top. This scientific principle is sometimes called the Brazil nut effect, because in a bowl of mixed nuts, the largest ones, usually the Brazil nuts, end up on top.
7. Move It, Move It!
You can also teach some of the principles of physics using a bucket of sand. Pose this problem to the children: You need to get a bucket of sand from Point A to Point B, both points being located in the backyard or other likely spots. First, have a child carry the sand. Be sure that the bucket is heavy enough that carrying it will require noticeable effort. Experiment with other ways of moving the sand. What if the child puts the bucket of sand on the ground and pushes it? Friction makes that a fairly difficult task,
You can use simple tools to make moving the sand easier. Try a child’s wagon or a wheelbarrow to move the bucket of sand. Another method would be to string up a rope and slide the bucket along the rope. If you make one end of the rope higher than the other, you can harness the power of gravity. You can improve on that method by using a pulley to move the bucket of sand. With a simple pulley, you don’t reduce the amount of energy needed to move the bucket, but you can change the direction in which the energy is applied. Due to friction, a pulley may actually increase the amount of energy needed, but it allows you to use gravity. Compound pulleys are quite a different matter! You can take this experiment farther if the children are interested.
Explain to the children that moving materials such as sand and dirt are a real-world problem, something that must be addressed in the building of roads, dams, buildings and many other structures. They may take a new interest when they see such construction taking place.
8. What About Play Sand?
You can now buy a number of products that are made of sand combined with a silicone oil or other ingredient that causes the sand particles to stick to each other. These products may be known as play sand or molding sand or by such brand names as Shape-It Sand, Kinetic Sand, CoolSand and Motion Sand. Children who have been frustrated when trying to use sand molds at the beach or in the sandbox can be successful molding with this product.
Some parents love these products. Some find them far too messy, although they are definitely less messy than real sand. Don’t expect a compound that sticks together firmly, like play dough or modeling clay. On the other hand, due to their unique formulas, these sands won’t stick to your furniture or floors either. The grains of sand do stick to each other, so you can take a chunk of the sand and use it to gather up stray crumbs.
Most young children will enjoy play sands, doing many of the same activities that they would do with play dough. One plus of the play sand is that it doesn’t dry up if left out. You can also make DIY play sands. These recipes use sand plus ingredients such as dish soap, shaving cream, cornstarch, and oil. Some of them use water; these compounds will dry out as the water evaporates, so must be stored in a closed container. Making these DIY sands can be fun and educational for the little ones in your life.
9. Sand Art in a Bottle
Making sand art bottles is a time-honored craft that has remained popular because it is easy and fascinating. You can buy kits that have everything you need, but if you create or repurpose your own materials, this craft is almost free.
You’ll need colored sand. If you want to make your own, you can use food coloring to dye it. Put some sand plus a few drops of food coloring in a plastic bag. Zip it closed, and let the kids knead the bag until the color is uniform. Then you’ll have to let the sand dry, which can take several hours. Alternately, you can mix the sand with tempera paint powder or ground-up chalk.
You can buy bottles in interesting shapes or simply recycle some bottles. Show the kids how to use a funnel to pour in a layer of colored sand, then switch to a different color. Tilting the bottle creates a more interesting pattern of layers. To preserve the pattern, you can pour a layer of school glue on top of the last layer. You can put a lid on the bottle or seal it with a cork, but the glue will hold the pattern securely.
You can also put in shells or pretty rocks, positioned near the edge of the bottle so they will show. Another trick is to push a wood skewer gently through the layers next to the glass and then draw it out to create a feathered effect. These maneuvers must be done carefully or the layers will just mix together, and the effect will be spoiled.
Read also: 14 Outdoor Activities for Kids.
10. Sand Painting
Other than sand bottles, there are other ways that children can indulge their artistic abilities with sand. All of these come under the rough category of sand painting, but they result in a variety of products – some lasting, some temporary.
One activity involves finding or buying a number of squeeze bottles of the type that can be filled with ketchup. Fill each with a different shade of colored sand. Children can create art on the driveway or patio by squeezing the sand out of the bottles. One of the best things about this project is that there’s no cleanup to speak of. The wind will eventually blow the sand away, or you can sweep it away.
A different kind of sand painting uses white glue. Let the children use the glue to create simple designs on heavy art paper. Use a spoon or the squeeze bottles used in the previous project to add colored sand to the picture. When all the design has been covered with sand, let the glue dry and then shake off the excess to reveal the finished work of art.
You can also use sand to add texture to regular artwork. Let the children create pictures with acrylic or tempera paint on heavy paper or matboard. When their paintings are dry, they can add texture to some areas with glue and a thin layer of sand. Mix a little glitter into the sand for extra interest.
For an art experience that is messy but fun, add some sand to finger paint. Finger painting is one part artistic expression and one part sensory experience. Sand will add texture and enhance the sensory aspect. Let the kids use kitchen utensils such as plastic forks to make interesting designs in the paint. You can buy finger paint in stores or make your own.
11. Stress Relief With Sand
Think about how it feels to dig your toes in the sand, or sit on the beach and aimlessly sift sand through your fingers. Sand is a great stress reliever because it provides a unique sensory experience.
In addition to the regular sand play, some children will enjoy a miniature Zen garden, which is a shallow tray of sand which can be raked into patterns with a little tool. You can buy lovely Zen gardens, but you can also create your own. Besides sand, most gardens also contain a few pretty rocks and sometimes a plant or two. Succulents work nicely.
A child’s room is not the best place for a Zen garden. Unless your child is very responsible, it may get overturned. Some parents like to keep one on the kitchen counter or in the living area so that a child can use it to unwind while waiting for an after-school snack or relieve stress during a tense conversation.
12. Small Worlds of Sand
You’ve probably seen some images of fairy gardens. Tweak that idea a bit. You and your child can come up with any number of ideas for small worlds using sand. These miniature worlds are fun even if you have a brown thumb because they don’t have to have any plants. (If you really need greenery, you can use faux plants.)
The only necessary component for a small world is a container. This can be a shallow planter, a plastic storage container, a cookie sheet or similar container. If your child has mini figurines, you can use them to populate your small world. Craft stores and garden shops also have a wealth of fairy garden accessories that can be used in other miniature worlds. Here are some ideas, but you and your children should be able to come up with ideas of your own.
- Beach Scene. Cover half of your habitat with sand. Create water for the other half. You can create the illusion of water with a mirror, with blue glass gems or with blue aquarium gravel. Make beach towels with scraps of fabric. Add miniature chairs, umbrellas, and surfboards, and your beach is ready to be visited!
- Frog and Lizard Habitat. Use the little plastic frogs and lizards that you can buy at the dollar store for this project. Add sticks, rocks, and greenery. You can also create a pond using one of the techniques for simulating water.
- Construction Yard. You can purchase miniature trucks and construction equipment and set up a busy job site. Minifigs are perfect for this idea.
- Dinosaur World. Sand, some “boulders” and some plastic dinosaurs can create a dinosaur habitat. Watch out for meteorites!
- Fairy or Gnome Garden. If you don’t see any reason to change a classic, you can go with a fairy or gnome garden. You can fashion tiny furniture from twigs and add a few stones and fake mushrooms.
The World in a Grain of Sand
The poet William Blake wrote that it is possible “to see the world in a grain of sand.” It’s also true that children can have a world of fun with sand. They may need your help, but their energy, imagination, and curiosity can turn a bucket of sand into an enjoyable learning experience.