Little Red Hen

Centre for Early Childhood Care and Education
8 Lower Shantalla Road Galway


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The Value of Play
Sand Play
Water Play
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Sand Play

Sand, like water, can be a soothing, absorbing and entertaining medium for young children. Adults can even be caught occasionally running sand through their fingers (or toes - depending on the location), enjoying the texture and the qualities of this wonderful and natural substance.

In an early childhood setting, sand is usually found outdoors in a sandbox or indoors in the sand table. Wherever the sand is located, it is bound to be a busy and popular site. Sand play is one of the areas where children can be involved at whatever level they want to be. From gently exploring the material by repeatedly running it through their fingers to elaborately creating roadways and villages, there is no wrong way to play with this open-ended material. Sand is an essential component of any developmentally appropriate play setting.

What are children learning while they are playing with sand?

The main value in sand play is that it is fun. There really needs to be no more justification than that in supplying this activity. However, there are a lot of other things going on when children are playing with sand that are worth noting. The following examples of the learning that takes place during sand play are, by no means, meant to be an all-inclusive list. They are just a starting point. Just ask your child child about playing with sand - he or she are bound to describe lots of other wonderful benefits of playing with sand.


Children are learning about the properties of sand while they are playing with it. They are experiencing how sand feels when it is dry - how it flows through their fingers and how it takes the shape of the container that it is poured into. They are also experiencing how sand feels when it becomes it holds the shape of a container better than dry sand, how it can become packed more tightly and how it feels colder to the touch. There are plenty of opportunities for comparison between wet and dry sand.

Children are also experiencing the Piagetian operation of conservation of matter as they play with sand. As they pour sand from a tall, narrow container into a short, fat container they are finding out that the amount of sand can remain the same, even if the shape changes. As they incorporate varying sizes of containers into their play they are finding out about concepts such as "more than", "less than" and "equal". They are learning to problem solve as they figure out, for example, how to keep their mountain from falling into their road way.

Other cognitive skills that are being developed as children play with sand are prediction ("Where are those plastic animals hiding?"); cause and effect ("Oh, that's what happens when I pour the water on the sand!"); and seriation ("OK, let's see - this smaller measuring cup fits into this middle sized measuring cup and they all fit into this big cup.")

Language skills are being developed as well during sand play. Vocabulary such as "gritty", "grainy", "coarse", "fine" "sieve", "colander", "texture", "measure" can be easily incorporated into conversations about sand. Of course, like all activities in an early childhood education setting, the opportunity is there to develop expressive and receptive language by participating in conversations with playmates and adults during the sand play. Children can become quite talkative at the sand table as they exchange ideas and create scenarios with the play materials they incorporate into their play.


Pouring, sifting, measuring, smoothing, rubbing, patting....all of these fine motor activities occur naturally during sand play. From the simple pouring of sand through their fingers to the elaborate construction of castles, children are developing the use of their fingers, their hands and their eyes in fine motor and perceptual motor activities. Gross motor activities are more likely to occur during outdoor sand play. Children carry buckets of sand (a real opportunity for comparison between wet and dry sand!) from one area to another. If the sand box is big enough, the day is warm enough children can move their bare legs and feet through the sand. Another wonderfully tactile experience!


While observing children at a sand table, adults can see examples of unoccupied play, onlooker play, solitary play, parallel play, associative play and cooperative play - sometimes all at the same time! As  mentioned earlier, there is no wrong way to play with sand (OK, OK... for those of you who have had to deal with sand being thrown in someone's eyes, I'll concede on that point - there may be at least one wrong way to play with sand!) therefore, one child may approach the sand table with the sole objective of running her fingers through the sand as she looks around the room, watching other children at play, while another child may organize a construction crew at the sand box who all work together building a village. In this way, sand is a perfect example of a developmentally appropriate activity. It suits the needs of varying age groups of children, as well as suiting the individual needs and interests of children.

 What is the Adult's Role in Facilitating Sand Play?

Although there are lots of things to be learned at the sand table, this does not mean that there are lots of things to be taught at the sand table. The learning that occurs comes from the children themselves as they explore and discover. The adult's role in all of this is to set the stage, help to get children started whenever necessary, stay observant so that he or she can move in when appropriate and be an overall facilitator of the play.

Being with a child who is playing in the sand can be a relaxing and conversational time for both the child and the adult. The adult can settle herself close to the sand table and gently comment on what she observes a child doing while he is exploring the sand. It is up to the child, then, if he wants to turn her comments into a conversation by replying back to her or not responding if he wants to continue with his play by himself. For example, she might comment on the texture of the sand, i.e. "This sand feels cool and damp" as she pats the sand with her hand or she might make an observation on what she sees the child doing, i.e.,"You packed a lot of sand into that container." Her role can also be to ask open-ended questions, "Now that all the sand is in the bucket, I wonder what is going to happen next?" which might stimulate the play or, if the child is wrapped up in his own play, may be ignored. The adult must remember to take her cue from the child by moving in when it seems appropriate to do so or moving away when the child is absorbed in his own activity.

The adult's role also encompasses supplying the appropriate play materials. You don't necessarily need to have an agenda in mind when supplying the materials.  Some of the materials that can be interesting and fun to include in sand play are:

buckets, bowls and containers

small fish nets



small flags

gardening tools

spoons of various types

flat pieces of wood

small plastic animals or dinosaurs

measuring cups

plastic flowers

small plastic people

measuring spoons

baking and cooking utensils

cars and trucks


toy furniture

popsicle sticks

sieves of varying sizes



screening (as long as there are no sharp, poky edges

shakers with large holes, i.e., Parmesan cheese shakers

small twigs (with no really pointy ends)

plastic paint scrapers

potato mashers


small plastic insects

rocks and pebbles of various types including smooth beach rocks


A major role of the adult is to observe the play of the children and make plans according to their observed needs and interests. One of the ways that the adult does this is to observe how the children interact with the play materials provided and adapt the environment accordingly. If there are not enough play materials available (i.e. children are fighting over who gets to play with what) then more materials can be added. If there are too many things out at one time then some should be removed. If the play starts to wan then the existing materials should be replaced or added to. If the play is very vibrant then the adult might want to build on this interest by adding materials that will keep the play going.

Sand play, like water play, is an integral part of any childcare setting. It's relatively inexpensive, materials are easy to come by and it is the favourite activity of many children and adults. Next time you are squishing sand between your toes at the beach or digging in your garden, think about the wonderful qualities of this natural substance and all the benefits that can come from being allowed the opportunity to play with sand.