5 Benefits of Sand Play for Children

benefits-of-sand-play-for-children

I hold quite a few fond memories of playing in the sand as a child. We lived for a short time in a remote area where I had freedom to roam and explore the natural world around me. I remember spending hours in the sand and mud, digging, squishing, building, and so on. The earth in my fingers and toes felt cold and gritty, and my imagination transformed the sand to pies and mountains.

I hope my own kids find just as many opportunities to enrich their lives with one of earth’s natural toys. Our backyard has a sand box and I often encourage them to dig and feel the sand in their fingers whenever they can. I tell them that super dirty means they had super fun! I also use a sand tray in my counseling practice in various forms. It’s a wonderful tool for process and self-exploration.

Sensory

Sand is an excellent tool for exposing children to a wide range of sensory experiences. In my play room, I have a sand tray with soft white sand and a box of moon sand. They feel very different from one another and children often comment on how they respond to each one. Wet sand feels different from dry sand, and sand in the play room is much different than backyard soil and beach sand. Items of varied sizes and textures placed throughout the sand create an added layer of sensory fun. You can see the difference in the pictures below.

White sand.

White sand.

Moon sand.

Moon sand.

 

Creativity

Wet sand and soil, whether it’s from the backyard or beach, is best for creativity. Kids can use their hands, along with buckets, scoops, and rakes. Place some other fun items nearby to boost to their creativity, such as rocks, sea shells, small flags, and sticks. My kids love the sand and water tables when playing outside.

This is a picture of my son at 1 year playing in our backyard water and sand box.

My son at one year playing in our backyard water and sand box.

Wet beach sand is the best for building and molding!

Wet beach sand is the best for building and molding!

 

Socialization

Any time people are performing activities with their hands that allow the mind to wander, it promotes creativity and a willingness to talk. When I work with adolescents in therapy, I often give them a small sand tray or theraputty to play with while we talk. Most kids love sand, so it’s a great gathering place for socialization. During this social time, kids are learning to share, communicate, be creative, and witness other children being creative. An article on EarlychildhoodNews.com explains how sand 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.

 

Learning

Children learn through all kinds of play, and sand is no different. You can give the children freedom to create and foster learning through reflection, tracking, and questions. You can also use sand with more directive-based and structured activities, such as finding and counting the marbles in the sand. The same article on EarlychildhoodNews.com gives some great ideas for teachers. In one example, they suggest how teachers can promote learning through sand play:

Teachers should “encourage problem solving, perspective taking, and/or consideration of feelings” (Chaille & Britain, 1997, 65). Open-ended play can be fostered by using key phrases like the following:

How could you change/fix that?

What else could you do?

What would happen if you…?

What do you think/feel about…?

How did you do that?

Is there another way to…?

Children in my playroom love to put marbles in the moon sand. They bury them and then dig to find them and often count the marbles as they put them in a bowl.

Children in my playroom love to put marbles in the moon sand. They bury them and then dig to find them and often count the marbles as they put them in a bowl.

Sand Tray Therapy

Using sand as a therapeutic tool is a popular form of therapy. Some therapists seek certification in sand tray therapy and there are always continuing education opportunities for those who want to learn more.

I can’t imagine not having a sand tray in my office.  Children use the sand table in child-centered play therapy to process, communicate, and create. I use the sand tray with adolescents by asking them to create certain scenes. For example, I may ask them to show me on one side how their life was before their parents divorced and life after the divorce on the other side, and then write down all the feelings associated with each side. I’ve also had children set a scene from a traumatic event, such as a robbery, and play out the scene. When I did this most recently with a 9 year old girl, I asked her what it was like to see the traumatic event in the sand tray. She responded by saying it felt really good to show me what happened in this way. The sand can be a powerful tool for any therapist. Below are some suggestions on sand tables and portable sand trays.  

Sandtastik Portable Sand Tray

Wooden Sand and Water Table

Inflatable Sand Tray

This is an image from a scene created by a 10 year old I worked with years ago, showing three phases of her parents' divorce. On the left side she is in the middle of both parents, and in the next ones she is with one parent or the other. She wrote down feelings associated with each scene and we processed these one by one. As you can see, she is in the middle of a difficult custody dispute at this time.

This is an image from a scene created by a ten-year-old I worked with years ago, showing three phases of her parents’ divorce. On the left side she is in the middle of both parents. Next, she is with one parent or the other. She wrote down feelings associated with each scene and we processed these one by one. As you can see, she is in the middle of a difficult custody dispute at this time.

  • Thanks Anna. I think kinetic may be the new name for moon sand. I love to use this sand, especially when mess is an issue!

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  • Hans

    How old can child do sandplay? Is it three years old or what? Is there some research about this?

    • Thanks for the comment Hans. Sand play is good for any age. Of course the younger children need more supervision so they don’t eat the sand or do anything else unsafe (or messy depending on where the sand is located). Even at a toddler age, the child gains a wealth of sensory experiences, motor skills, and creativity. I also suggest playing with them to add the benefit of child-parent bonding. Best of luck Hans! 🙂

  • Jena

    Hey Kim,

    I was just wondering if these 5 benefits are listed from your own perspective of sand play or if they were taken from a reference. If it was a reference could you please post it so I may read it for further information. Thank you!

  • Pls can you describe how I can use sand tray method to teach a grade one learner in the classroom