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.
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.
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.
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.
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…?
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.