Back To The Sandbox

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.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Roseann Murphy says:

    Thank you so much for this article. It brought many memories to surface…brought tears to my eyes…the times in the sand were priceless.
    Sand is an interesting medium… Think of the tiny zen gardens sold in garden shops with wee little tools for adults to rake the sand during stressful times…the beach and the luxurious miles of sand castle building…by adults and children alike for hours at a time.
    I am glad you still have the sand area. Hold on to it for a long time. If every school had sand areas…to rest and relax and dig and measure and pour…we would have more peaceful free time. I love the memory of your Mom, she was so right in the “one mouthful” statement. One has to taste it to “make sure”…
    Thank you again for this insightful, gentle, thought provoking site….

  2. Roseann Murphy says:

    Janet, I just received this email from Cassie…I forwarded your article to her and this was her response:


    I just got done reading that wonderful article about sandboxes Janet wrote. Those were some great playing memories even for me and for Mercedes and the boys! I remember wonderful long mornings with Charlotte and Sage and Kelsey!!

    I hope you are doing well and hope you have a great day. I will see you all in four days. I hope that it sunny out.”

    With love


    That was over 12 years ago….and your article brings back wonderful memories for my children as well!! Thanks again!

    1. So wonderful to hear from Cassie! Thanks for sharing this. Those days and your advice, Roseann, had a huge impact on my life…obviously. Thank you again!

  3. Dona Maria says:

    Beautiful piece. Since we only have a patio and patch of grass, and my children are now a bit older, we have moved to a sand and water table but I am thinking that the sand box needs to be filled again for the summer. Even though we too live within walking distance of wide white beaches. Thank you!

  4. I so know how you feel, we are in the process of getting rid of the small treasures that have made our children’s childhood special, most importantly to my heart is the garden swing. I nursed, cuddled, sang, laughed and talked with my children on that swing. If I could bottle it up and take it with me I would.

    We have a sandbox as well, it has given them many hours of joy. Too bad Arizona is not really the place for a sandbox, I would love to have one there as well.

    1. Oh gosh, maybe you could bring a piece of the swing with you. But, HA, that idea is coming from a cluttered person, not a tidy one like you! Hmmm. Not good for sandboxes in Arizona? Really?

  5. The Easter bunny stocked our sandbox this year. And it has already served for many hours of fun already. I think we do tend to often complicate things more often than needed..

  6. Just wanted to let you know that I linked to this post in a post on The Mom-tage! Thanks!

    1. Thank you! I’m going to come check you out when I have a moment!

  7. Mari Nosal says:

    This brought up so many fond memories from my school age group. What we determine as non age appropriate activities for children is an example of how we think about what is best from an adult perspective – not the childs. The kitchen area in my classroom could be perceived as to “young” for school agers by adults. Surprise – they love it. The play stove etc. is still usefull but transformed into an age appropriate play area by leaving the kids to their own devices. It becomes a resteraunt where a cash register is positioned with play money, and a menu with misspelled words. When observing deeper, the children are learning math skills at the toy register, socialation by taking turns being customer and waiter, and literary skills writing menus! I once observed a sandbox being turned into a “beach” wear pirate bounty such as gold coins were buried by the school agers to be dug up as pirate booty. Again, a lesson in comraderie, team work, and growth in the imaginary venue occured in an item that adults might determine age innappropriate for school agers. This story was a perfect example of what can occur in teacher/parent coached versus teacher/parent directed environment. Great story!

    1. Fantastic! This sounds like so much fun, and how lucky your students were to have such a creative-minded, enthusiastic facilitator!

  8. Thanks, Janet. Right now with my two (1 and 4), I feel like it’s not easy. However, with your help, and the wisdom of RIE, I try to slow down and enjoy my children. This is a good reminder to appreciate the now!

  9. WOW! really a sandbox? How young can they be for it? My son just turned 1, think he’s ready?

    Do you think water/sand table gives the same kind of magic when space is limited?

    I guess I could just dump a bunch of sand on our apartment balcony lol

    I’m really excited by this post, I can’t wait for summer, its been such a hard winter.

    1. Hi Shana! Hmmm… might be tough in an apartment, although I know parents who have put a sandbox on a balcony. I think sand/water tables are certainly better than nothing. Sand and water can keep toddlers occupied for hours and hours… Sorry about the hard winter! We were just in NYC (very busy with relatives, but I thought about contacting you!) and it was really, REALLY cold. But spring and summer with a boy your son’s age should be wonderful! As my mom said, they usually only eat one mouthful of sand…and they’ve had their fill.

      1. send me a line anytime your back in NYC.. I’d love to personally and thank you for all that you do here!

    2. Hey shana! Apartment mom here – we have a mini sandbox inside a very large clear plastic sterilite box from Target. My toddler son climbs inside the big plastic box and plays in the sand in the smaller box. I usually give him some little animal figurines and maybe a spoon or small cup. It’s basically mess-free! Both the small and large boxes have lids so it’s very easy to store.

  10. I love that, Janet. It is beautiful and even I still love to play in the sandbox (while the boy is still busy with his toy cars).
    But you have no idea what this post did to me – since I am about to open my indoor sandbox. A play group with lots of sand you can spill on the floor! Something Vienna needs (cos we’re not California). I can’t wait to sit there and observe the kids and I’m already looking forward to lots of sandy menus…

    I’m even more motivated than I was already!
    yay! thank you!

    1. Oh, that’s going to be excellent, Nadine. Can’t wait to hear how it goes!

    2. Christina says:

      we often use coloured rice inside ( I know some cultures this offends) my children love this tactile experience also, we are trying to get hold of some sort of trough so we can have sand on the deck for dry sand play during winter, sandpit stays very wet in winter as there isn’t much sun.

  11. If you have limited space, try using one of those little plastic swimming pools and fill it with sand, instead.

  12. Realizing you are in California, any thoughts on outdoor play in the winter in cold regions? 🙂

    Both baby (6 months) and I fare better when we spend time outside the house each day. I bought a large piece of plastic tablecloth and throughout a very damp fall we have managed to have fairly regular outdoor independent play time. I’m loathe to give it up, but not sure how to manage as it gets colder and colder.

    I’ve found lots of ideas online about how to get outside with your baby in the winter, but it’s all stroller or carrier-based (e.g. the Scandinavian outside-napping thing) (or about older kids).

    Specifically, I think that if I dress my daughter warmly enough (snow suit, mittens, booties, etc), she will be effectively prevented from doing all of the things she’s interested in right now (rolling, trying to crawl, grabbing/inspecting with hands/mouth).

    Any ideas you have would be great!

    1. Christina says:

      Hi there. Could you have a outdoor playpen? even if it is for 10 or 20 minutes, she will get fresh air, and will still have plenty of time for the rest of the day to roll and move inside???? we don’t have such cold winters so are able to be outside throughout the year……

    2. When my now 16 year old was a little guy, he licked to just sit out in the snow for a bit. Of course all bundled up. He and the dog enjoying each other and the snow.

  13. Beautiful timing! My husband, myself and our 3 yo son literally just finished building his new sandpit this afternoon!

  14. Christina says:

    Sand is great, we have a lrage sand pit at home about two meters by one and a half, can easily fit 5 4 yrs olds and still have space to play. my kids (and friends) spend hours in it, even in winter. my one yr old has tasted it a few times, but its true probably only about a handful ,she no longer eats it, really isn’t tasty. sand it very therapeutic, there is no ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ way to play with it, the opportunities and experiences are endless. we spend many hrs in our back yeard, swinging on the swing set, using the sand pit with trucks, pots pans, buckets, spoons shovels etc as well as shells, sticks flowers picked from the grass/ garden. it is so true that ‘todays’ kids are so over scheduled and don’t have enough time to just be or just play and wonder without being rushed and hurried to all sorts of activiites. somehow people seem to have this idea that kids are ‘missing’ out if they don’t go to afterschool activities, I feel just playing at home is so important, all those other skills can be learnt through play or once kids are older, my oldest is 4, then I have two yr old and one yr old, they love being at home (also go to playgroups/ preschool) playing and inventing their own games….. another great post Janet, Thank you.

  15. Linda Lindsay says:

    Hi Janet,

    Thanks very much for your articles. For Someone like me living in a foreign country where language was a problem,I found your advice and the other suggested links a “fountain on a desert”. I’m a first time mom coming from a country where babies/children barely have toys,get spanked and hardly ever give a chance to make a choice on the things concerning them. I was hell bent on not raising my kids that way because I didn’t want them to end up like me(with a degree and diploma in areas that I barely have interest in). So after having my first born now 5.5month old boy,the Internet was my friend whenever I had the chance. I kept searching for the very sites with the out most good of children at heart and not”make mama’s and papa ‘s happy and babies/children ok”. Thanks a lot. No wonder I always have so many opened tabs/windows of your articles in my phone’s browser.

  16. thanks for this article Janet, so descriptive that I felt I was at your house! we have lots of wooden pallets in our yard and now I am thinking that a sandbox is the perfect project for them. thanks for the motivation, my 3 year old will love it!

  17. This is where I’m at right now!! I can see our two from the kitchen window playing in their sandpit and it is just delightful to watch. We also have big sandstone seats around it to sit on and join in and our dog gets in on the action too, especially when he’s looking to cool down over summer! We had a sandpit growing up and I have so many wonderful memories of it. It’s nice to watch my children creating their own memories now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations