Can children REALLY learn through sand play?

Now the weather has taken a turn for the better, it seems that outside play is the thing on our minds… get in the sunshine, get some fresh air and play, play, PLAY!

There are some great pieces of equipment for the garden – swings, slides, play centres, water tables and of course the age-old sand pit!

Wooden sandpit Garden Games

But, come on – these are for playing, right? The children don’t actually learn whilst they are playing do they?

Well the short answer is… YES!!! Of course they do! And it’s REALLY easy to help this happen!

So I’ve decided to give some teacher insights into sand play – and how it ACTUALLY helps children learn…as well as some tips on how to enhance children’s play in the good old sand pit!

So what can children learn from playing in sand?

To be honest – all sorts! So I’ll break it down into the areas of learning…

Physical Development:

Play in the sand pit is great to develop hand-eye coordination and small muscle control can also improve as children learn to manipulate and use sand accessories. Outdoor sand play on a BIG scale also helps large muscle skills to develop as children dig, pour, sift, scoop, and clean up spills with brush and dustpan.

Why not add sticks to the sand pit for children to use to write letters or numbers with, or just make patterns! Add a variety of buckets, spades, sieves, colanders, funnels and containers… and maybe some spoons, brushes and rollers for children to explore with! Also have a big brush available, with a smaller dustpan and brush, for children to sweep up afterwards!

Personal, Social and Emotional Development: 

When children work together at the sand table they are faced with real problems that require sharing, compromising, and negotiating. Children may be involved in role play as they cook, build, dig ,or create with the sand, using their imaginations to take them into their world, playing alongside or with the other children. As children take on roles associated with their dramatic play, they learn important social skills such as empathy and perspective taking.

Why not add different resources to the sand to enhance the children’s imagination and enable them to role play together – add mixing bowls, muffin tins, wooden spoons and sieves for the children to ‘cook’ with the sand; add diggers, hard hats, spades and shovels, tubes for tunnels and even cones to make a building site; add dinosaurs, pirates, animals etc for the children to create different worlds in the sand! Keep the children’s interest by changing the resources often… or letting them lead what goes into the sand with them! 

Mathematical Development:

There are lots of ways in which this can be developed during sand play by providing children with measuring spoons and cups, containers in a variety of sizes and shapes, balance scales, or counting equipment such as bears, beads or even just their toys from the toy box! As the children play with these things in the sand, it gives and ideal opportunity to model and use mathematical terms like more and less, many and few, empty and full and heavy and light. By hearing you use the correct words, they are more likely to pick them up too! You can also challenge children to count how many scoops it takes to fill a container, or maybe they could guess first! You can even print shapes in the sand, or try and make different shapes with wet sand!

Why not add some old scales to the sand pit so you can weigh different amounts of sand to see which is heaviest/lightest? Let the children line up their toys in the sand and count how many they have got? Add lots of different containers to play with – old boxes, packets and plastic bottles are ideal! You could even encourage the children to put them in size order… There are also some great shape and number accessories available for the sand pit including moulds, pebbles and squidgy sparkly numbers and shapes which could even be used a buried treasure! Keeping with the pirate theme, you could bury items of ‘treasure’ and see how many you can dig up – maybe even put them in size order when they have been discovered! 

Understanding the World: 

There are lots of ways to develop more science based concepts with sand – from changing the sand by adding water, washing up liquid, oil etc, to using magnets to find buried metal treasure… or even using a metal detector to incorporate ICT. The children could make birthday cakes out of sand to explore family customs and routines… or maybe build sandcastles to talk about being on holiday! Can they find mini-beasts in the sand? (obviously purposely placed plastic ones are better for this!)

Why not use ropes and pulleys to move buckets of sand, or punch holes in a plastic bottle, fill it with sand, and watch what happens. You could try different sizes and placement of holes and see how it changes! Add a water/sand wheel, PVC pipes, ramps, sieves, funnels, or rolling pins and see how they work with the sand. Or add water, filters, or gravel to the sand and talk about how it changes.

Expressive Arts and Design:

Sand play is great for art based activities and imagination! Children could draw in the sand with sticks or make castings, moldings, and prints. As children sift and pour, you could play background music and encourage them to sing. Maybe you could use some of the sand to mix with paint to create different textures… or add different amount of water to the sand to explore the changing texture of the sand.

Why not add different combs to the sand to let the children make different patterns. Have a variety of materials for the children to add as they build – pebbles, shells and even pasta! Why not show the children art work made with pebbles in the sand (search on google for ‘Pebbles in the sand art’) and help them create swirls, patterns and even objects with pebbles collected from the beach! You could try the same with shells and pine cones! 


Reading and writing can even be encouraged through sand play! Just by simply adding a few labels in the sand pit, a treasure map to follow and ‘read’, some buried letters to discover and name, a stick to write your name with or make patterns and swirls… or why not encourage the children to make their own signs for their building site, cafe or whatever the sand pit has become! Mark making can be really simple…

Why not add different sticks for the children to explore making marks in the sand or add some large sheets of paper for the children to put sand on to try and make a letter or pattern. Let the children make their own treasure map – or add one of your own to use in play! You could sacrifice some wipe clean books to be used in the sandpit… children love to explore books in unusual places! Talk to the children about the different equipment that they are using, giving them the opportunity to extend their vocabulary – do they know what a colander is? Can they use words to describe it? What sound does it start with? Can you find a word to rhyme with it (even if it is a made-up ‘alien’ word)?

And as for Communication and Language development, this is all about following instructions, understanding what they are asked to do, maintaining attention and concentration on their play and talking about what they are doing, introducing a story into their play… all things which come naturally with sand-play!

The verdict?

YES – children REALLY CAN learn meaningfully through sand play… and though many of these ideas are best for outdoor sand pit play, there are many ways they can be adapted for indoor use! And indoors you can even use the more expensive coloured sand too – even better to spark imagination!

For me, it is hard to beat a wooden sand pit – one that is fairly plain so that it can become ANYTHING, but especially one that you can actually get into as well… but it does go without saying that a lid or cover is ideal as cats love sand pits too!

So – now you have the insight, get out and PLAY!!! IT’s a great excuse to enjoy the sun (and the sand!)

I’ll leave you with an (ever growing) list of Sand Play Accessory ideas… if you have any ideas of your own, please leave a comment to let me know! I’ll add it to the end!

  • cardboard tubes and ping-pong balls 
  • spatulas
  • rolling pins
  • sand wheel
  • funnels
  • sieves
  • colanders
  • mortar and pestle
  • stones
  • shells
  • scoops
  • measuring spoons and cups
  • aquarium gravel
  • gardening tools and gloves
  • sprinkling cans
  • plastic flowers and vases
  • wooden spoons
  • buckets
  • jewels
  • shakers
  • zoo or farm animals
  • table blocks
  • pipes, tubes, cylinders
  • pine cones
  • nuts
  • jars and lids
  • clothespins
  • counters
  • potato mashers
  • block people
  • magnifiers
  • magnets
  • dishes from housekeeping center
  • rubber puzzle pieces
  • marbles
  • sand combs
  • filters
  • zippered plastic freezer bags
  • cloth scraps
  • vehicles
  • berry containers
  • model railroad accessories-tunnels, trees, people
  • latch hook canvas
  • spice containers
  • net bags from onions or citrus fruit
  • aquarium nets
  • large marbles
  • balance scale
  • feathers
  • corrugated cardboard
  • baking bowls, pans
  • pulleys
  • small pitchers
  • soup ladles
  • mixing bowls


7 thoughts on “Can children REALLY learn through sand play?

  1. Mine love sand play, and as you say its so educational too with so many benefits! Only problem I have is stopping the little ones from eating it! but it is great

  2. My two adore sand and we try and do day trips to the beach on hot days during the summer. Unfortunately our garden is a bit small for a sand pit but if we move I’d love to get one. So many good ideas on your post and I totally agree that there is lots of learning value from sand play.

  3. We have a sandpit and it is probably our most played with item in the garden, I agree that there is a great amount of benefit from playing with it. Even the baby loves exploring it with her hands and feet although, like Anna, we do have the eating issue too!

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