When my oldest daughter was 15 months old, her dad built a sandbox. I (Kirby) knew it was going to be perfect! I could hang clothes out to dry while my toddler blissfully discovered pouring and measuring and building and dumping. Montessori had come to my house!
I gathered up my basket of wet clothes, led my little girl over to the new sandbox, and headed for the clothesline. But she just stood there, staring at the sand and looking puzzled. Then it hit me—she didn’t know how to play with sand. So I abandoned my laundry and we spent time making mountains together and filling up her dump truck, pouring water onto the sand, and digging holes. After that, she knew what to do, and she knew how much fun it could be.
It’s not just kids who haven’t learned how to play with sand. Lots of parents don’t know what to do with a sandbox either. So here’s a list of activities you can do with your pre-schooler in the sand. All of these games build cognitive and physical skills too.
In Dry Sand:
Start out letting your child get a feel for the sand. Walk in it barefoot. Scoop up handfuls of sand and let it sift between your fingers. Bury her feet. Dig a hole or make a big pile of sand.
Bury plastic animals or toys in the sand and have your child dig to find them. If they are uncomfortable with the texture of sand, this may motivate them to get their hands in there. It also builds hand and finger strength.
Scoop and pour with measuring spoons and measuring cups. Use a ½ cup to scoop up sand, then have your child pour it into a 1 cup container. Have them guess how many scoops you will need to fill up the 1 cup container. See what happens when you pour from the bigger cup into the smaller one. Wonder aloud how many teaspoons it would take to fill up the cup, then count together as you scoop sand from the spoon into the cup.
Bring out pots and pans and spoons and pretend to cook. Add ingredients to the sand (acorns, grass, etc.) and stir. You can even use your measuring cups and spoons for adding sand and other ingredients.
Play with cars and trucks. Make roads in the sand and have the cars drive on them. Dump trucks are especially fun, because you can scoop sand into them, drive, then dump the sand.
Pour sand over a wheel to turn the wheel.
Play a memory game. Put four different-looking objects on a tray. Let your child have a good look, maybe even naming the objects out loud. Then have him hide his eyes. Take one of the objects and hide it in the sand. Then have him open his eyes and guess which one is missing. Then he can dig it up and see if he was right. Take turns being the one who hides an object or guesses what’s missing.
Make a village in the sand. Put sticks in the sand to form walls or teepees. Use small milk cartons to make houses. Bring out small dolls to live in the village.
If you have gone somewhere as a family, make a model in the sand of the place you went. Use dolls to recreate what you did there. This reinforces memory and helps a child pay attention to details.
Look at a picture (from a story book, greeting card, or photograph) and build a model of it in the sand. If you are using a scene from a book, use toys to act out the story.
Hide animals in the sand, and when your child finds them, have her match the toy to a picture of the same animal.
Bury shells of different sizes. When your child digs them up, have him put them in order from smallest to biggest. (Two-year-olds should just have big and little. Three-year-olds can have little, medium, and big.)
In Wet Sand:
Make footprints and look at them. Compare your adult footprints to your child’s footprints. Try to make different designs in the sand by walking, hopping, and dragging your feet.
Make tracks together in the wet sand with cars or trucks, dolls, and plastic animals. Experiment with different objects to see what kind of print they make.
Have your child close her eyes. Make a track or imprint in the sand. Then show her a few toys and see if she can guess which one made the print. Let her make prints and have you guess too.
Draw pictures in the sand with one finger.
Write messages in the sand. Draw shapes, letters, and numbers.
Dig a hole. Fill it up with water and see what happens to the water.
Make a drip castle. Put sand and water in a bucket. Make a hill for the base of the castle, then scoop a handful of sand and water from the bucket and let the sand drip from your fingers onto the base. You can make towers and designs this way.
Sculpt faces, boats, cars, and houses out of sand. Decorate with shells, acorns, rocks, or grass.
Crafts with sand:
Color sand with Easter-egg dye. Keep the sand in baggies to use for crafts.
Bring out a piece of cardboard and glue. Let your child put glue on the cardboard in a design or picture. Then have him sprinkle sand on it. You can use colored sand or plain sand. Some kids like to squirt out a LOT of glue. If this is a problem, put some glue in a jar lid and give them a paint brush to paint the glue onto the cardboard.
Make sandpaper letters using the above method. Once the glue is dry, your child can use his finger to trace the letters using the strokes he will use to write. This tactile approach can be helpful in learning letters.
Make sand candles. You need melted wax for this. You can color the wax by adding crayon pieces to the hot wax. Have your child dig a small hole in any shape. They can then poke their fingers into the sides of the holes in a pattern. Have them add shells or rocks if they want. Tie a string to a stick that can rest across the top of the hole. The string will hang down to the bottom of the hole, forming the wick. Pour in the hot wax. If you want to make layers of different colors, pour in your first layer, then wait until the wax turns cloudy before pouring in your next layer. When the wax cools and hardens, dig up your candle.
Do you have other games you play with sand? Please share your ideas in the comments!