The Scoop on Sand and Play

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

Day trips to the beach, a play date at the local playground, or an afternoon in the volleyball pit always seem to result in perpetual cleanup efforts. Despite efforts to avoid or contain them, sand grains spontaneously appear anywhere and everywhere. It often seems impossible to clean all the sand out of shoes, clothes, towels, hair, toes, and ears. Even the gritty texture of rogue sand grains in the mouth is proof that sand has a special way of impacting life’s routines. Despite the sometimes necessary, and often aggravating, cleanup efforts, research has shown play in sand to be very valuable for the development of young children. Sand can also benefit play areas by way of safety and user comfort. As is usually the case, however, sand is not a perfect media for all play conditions. The use of it comes with a few simple cautions. Each of these topics warrant further discussion and are addressed below.

Developmental Benefits of Sand Play

Simon Nicholson, in 1971, wrote, “in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”6 When this concept is applied to play environments, one of the most readily available and manipulatable materials providing these necessary variables is sand. The malleable nature of sand supports physical/motor development, cognitive development, sensory development, social development, and verbal development.1

Motor skills are developed as children dig, shovel, scoop, build, and move sand around. These actions build muscle tone, increase body awareness and refine the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. Cognitive skills are improved through the dynamic properties of sand and water play which foster creative play, use of imagination, cause and effect observations, problem solving, and relationship comparisons.

A recent study4 showed that sand play supports not only sensory stimulation but also acts as a symbolic play element during imaginary play rituals and storytelling exchanges. The sensory experiences through sand play were also shown to encourage development in other areas such as motor skill development, social play, and emotional regulation.

Semi-structured sand play activities also improve children’s self-esteem, shared attention, emotional engagement, and curiosity, as well as limit tendencies for self-isolation and promote self-reflection. Sand play has been suggested as an effective method for developing core deficits in children with autism while simultaneously supporting the varying functional abilities of all children in the play environment.4 The fact that sand play affords play value, to diverse demographics, supports the theory that children playing together in sand areas have more opportunities for spontaneous speech and use of language skills; some of which involve interactive questioning, give and take opportunities, and social conflict management.

Safety and User Comfort

In addition to myriad developmental benefits, sand affords other benefits to play such as impact attenuation and heat dissipation. Sand is often used as a safety surface for playgrounds because it is much better at absorbing impact forces than grass or bare soil.1 It does have its limitations however and should be limited to 4′ fall heights as noted in the CPSC Public Playground Safety Handbook.

Anyone who has dug their feet into the sand at the beach can attest to the fact that sand, below the surface, stays nice and cool and is a relief to bare feet on hot days. The temperature buffering capacity of sand is superior when compared to rubber, artificial grass, and many other surfacing materials.

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

Cautions for Sand Play

When using sand in play environments there are a few cautions to be aware of; none of which should outweigh the benefits when utilized and maintained properly. It is important to remember that not all sand is the same. The physical make-up of some sand is not appropriate for play areas due to high levels of fine particles and dust. These are not natural sands, but synthetic sands that contain small particles of dust (crystalline silica) which can become airborne and enter the respiratory tract. Prolonged, long term exposure can have health implications.7 Avoidance of these sands or installing washed sand is suggested to eliminate any hazards associated with respiratory disease.

If improperly maintained, sand pits can also potentially harbor bacteria and other pathogens. There is not much research available on the cleanliness of play sand, but one could argue that interaction with any outdoor soil would expose a child to similar levels of bacteria and pathogens. In addition, harmful objects such as glass and other foreign sharp objects can make their way into sand pits. If the sand is not cleaned periodically these items can build up and cause physical harm.

When possible, sand play areas should be:

  • inspected regularly for safety
  • sifted regularly to remove foreign objects
  • equipped with adequate drainage
  • thoroughly flushed regularly to wash out pathogens
  • covered when not used, if possible


Sand, when thoughtfully included in play environments can be valuable for the developmental needs of a diverse population of children and, despite a few challenges, can be a great asset to parks and recreation and education professionals. The challenges, including cleanup demands, however, are far outweighed by the opportunities afforded.  Sand play can and should be a process that is safe, non-limiting, and unstructured to afford children all the benefits of play.


1. Gibbs, Marianne. Developmental Advantages of Sand/Water Table Play. Accessed April 15, 2012.

2. Laforest, Sophie. Yvonne Robitaille, Daniele Doval, Dominiqu Lesage and Barry Pless. Severity of Fall Injuries on Sand or Grass in Playgrounds. Epidemial Community Health, Volume 54. pp.475-477. 2000

3. Lloyd, Bronwen and Nina Howe. Solitary Play and convergent and Divergent Thinking Skills in Preschool Children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. Volume 18. pp. 22-41. 2003.

4. Lu, Lucy. Fiona Peterson, Louise Lacroix and Cecile Rousseau. Stimulating Creative Play in Children with Autism Through Sandplay. The Arts in Psychotherapy Volume 37. pp. 56-64. 2010.

5. Morena, Gita. Sandplay: What it is and How it Works. Reviewed by Lavon Bobo. Journal of Sandplay Therapy. Accessed April 15, 2013. Updated March 29, 2013.

6. Nicholson, Simon. The Theory of Loose Part: An Important Principle for Design Methodology. Landscape Architecture Quarterly. October 1971.

7. Is Crystalline Silica and Asbestos in Play Sand Harmful?. Q&A with Angkana Roy, MD, from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Accessed April 17, 2013. Posted May 26, 2009.

by Chad Kennedy, ASLA, Landscape Architect

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