Oh, for those simpler days when the children were small. It sure didn’t feel easy back then, but taking in the view through our kitchen window in the early evening light, I can’t help but reminisce about blissful times with my babies, before they became: 1) a teenager accelerating down PCH; 2) a sage, but moody adolescent growing an inch every month; and 3) a rambunctious boy who has to squeeze time in between his long school day, homework and bi-weekly soccer practice to shoot hoops and rubber-band guns.
The sight that triggers my nostalgia is not scenic beauty. It is an 8×12-foot rectangle of dirt with a perimeter of rotting wood planks. It is an abandoned, forgotten place that was once a vibrant center of imagination, experimentation, and many of my most magical mommy moments – the sandbox.
Another family might have turned the space into a garden or a small patio by now, or at least used its frame for firewood. I don’t let go that easily.
The sandbox was first recommended by the director of an idyllic preschool/childcare center my eldest daughter attended. She told me that 80% of play time was spent in the school’s large sand yard, and knowing I wanted a play area, not only for my child, but for a toddler play group I was facilitating, she suggested that we create as large a sand area as possible.
The irony of hauling a truckload of sand to our home when the beach is minutes away was not lost on my husband. Still, after a bit of my begging he agreed to put his carpentry skills to work.
The sandbox was an unqualified success.
Our dog Earl kept cats away so that we didn’t need to cover it. In exchange for his sentinel duties he was allowed to bury an occasional bone.
My mother was right (again) about the sand when she promised, “Babies don’t eat more than one handful.”
Spring, summer and fall, the sandbox was the hub for long periods of child-directed, uninterrupted play. There were troughs filled with water from the hose, shovels of all shapes and sizes, rakes, buckets, cups, bowls, trucks, plastic pitchers, pans, rolling pins and potato mashers.
I watched through the window while I worked in the kitchen, or sat in a chair next to the box, observed, soaked up the simple wonder of contentedly playing children and daydreamed. On summer evenings after dinner I relaxed there, often with a glass of wine.
My daughter invented the game “restaurant.” I was always the customer, was given a menu on a piece of bark from which I ordered soups, pastas, and salads concocted out of sticks, leaves, mud, eucalyptus pods and water. When my second daughter was a toddler, she became the waitress, and was always jokingly scolded by the cook (her big sister) for being too slow. We all laughed (especially little sister) as she tried to speed up her waddle through the sand to carry me bowls of leaf pasta with mud sauce.
When my son was old enough, he liked to dig with the biggest shovel he could hold and make a huge mountain. There was a root from the eucalyptus tree that grew through a corner of the sandbox, and he and his sister liked to dig deeply next to it “to China.”
A flood of recent neurological studies confirm play as essential for a child’s cognitive growth, socialization, emotional and physical health, motivation, and love of learning. Sand and water can occupy children for hours, though obviously if you live in the city or have no outdoor space, it is impossible to create a sand area. But a small play oasis for you and your child to enjoy can be created anywhere, even in a corner of a room. Make it:
1) Safe. Infant expert Magda Gerber’s criterion for safety was that if the parent was “locked out” for several hours, the child – though probably upset – would be unhurt.
2) Convenient. Ideally the play area is near to where the parent works or does chores. Sometimes we find that we can move our activities closer to the children’s play area, i.e., have an outdoor table and chair where we read, make lists, have a laptop, etc.
3) A peaceful place with simple toys and objects. When infants and toddlers create their own play with toys, rather than toys playing for them, they play longer, learn more, and enjoy most.
Years after my girls stopped their daily sandbox play, we hosted a creative summer day camp at our home. It was run by my friend Kathleen, who is a theater director, writer, singer and songwriter, oozing with imagination. The children were divided into age groups for the various daily activities like: theater games, painting, stories, and swimming at the neighbor’s pool. I was astounded when I came home at the end of the second day of camp to find the group of Tween girls joyously cavorting with cups and pans of mud in the sandbox. This spontaneous activity was then requested by the girls as part of their daily schedule — they needed their “muffin time” every day.
I was over-the-moon that the sandbox was once again providing magical moments. For me this was proof of the therapeutic value of play, and I wondered – did these girls have enough sandbox opportunities when they were toddlers?
Today’s children — over-scheduled, pressured to achieve, hovered over, and exposed to violent media images at a vulnerable age are at a greater risk for anxiety disorders than previous generations. So, I’m going to postpone demoing the sandbox. You never know when someone might need muffin time.