The Importance of Outdoor Play: How Sand Play Can Benefit Your Child's Development

Children don’t just play – they learn. Like many games and toys, playing in sand is more than just fun. It’s also a valuable developmental tool that can offer your child a new way to learn.

The benefits of sand play for children have been recognized for centuries, but the modern world has harnessed its developmental potential using molds and toys to engage young minds.

Does playing in sand really help child development?

How does it work?

How many senses do you think you have? You probably want to say five - sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. But in fact, human beings have a lot more senses than these. Senses such as balance or kinesthesia are usually taken for granted as we become adults.

But for your children, these senses are still developing. Your child instinctively looks for ways to help themselves learn and grow, whether it’s by spinning around and around in the playground, swinging on a swing, or, yes, by playing with sand.

As your child reaches for the spade, fills their bucket, and plots their perfect sandcastle, without even knowing it, they are stimulating their senses, training their spatial awareness, developing their hand eye coordination, and improving their motor skills. Playing in sand even trains both large and fine muscle strength.

But it isn’t just the skills and senses we take for granted that children train when playing in sand. Building sandcastles also lays the foundation for the development of sophisticated skills, and is an excellent introduction into mathematical concepts like capacity, mass, and spatial awareness.

The benefits of playing in the sand are well-known among childcare and education professionals. Renowned pedagogue and educator Frederic Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten, provided each of his children’s gardens with a sandbox after noticing its immense potential for learning and development. In recent years, pioneers in the field of psychology have developed sand play therapy, which harnesses the therapeutic benefits of sand play to treat anxiety and promote brain function.

Don’t overlook the benefits of humble sand. In a world of mass commercial toy production, sand remains a natural, nontoxic, plentiful and accessible source of fun and development. And, with nearly two hundred years of use in education, it’s clearly stood the test of time.

Additional benefits of sand play

It isn’t just the classic development you’ll find in a medical textbook that sand play can help support. Other benefits include:

  • Imagination and creativity. A great part of our development involves learning to visualize. Sand play helps children understand how different materials might react according to how you use them. But they also give them an opportunity to be creative – what would they like to build? How will it look? If they are building a structure, who might live in it? If they are making a sand man or creature, what might they be called?

  • Teamwork. If your child plays with a friend or a sibling, building sandcastles can train social skills that will serve them well into their adult life. As children work together, they encounter problems and form solutions – how to compromise when two children have different plans, how to work together to build a sandcastle quickly, and how to share knowledge and teach each other as they learn new skills.

  • Sensory experiences. The strange and satisfying texture of sand is a new avenue for children to explore. Young children need exposure to different substances and textures to learn how to differentiate between them. Over time, your child will understand the differences between sand, glass, and wood, and learn to make texture predictions by looking at new materials.

  • An added benefit is that they love it! Children often instinctively begin to play in the sand the moment they come to a beach.

How can I support my child’s development with sand play?

The first and most important step is obvious – to give your child time with the sand. As we’ve seen, children have mostly excellent instincts when it comes to developing themselves, and are drawn to sand.

If you have limited access to beaches and sand boxes, consider other moldable materials – snow (with gloves), earth (provided it is, of course, clean), or synthetic alternatives such as kinetic sand are all options.

You can also provide your child with toys or items to maximize their enjoyment while playing with sand. Molds are a popular method of doing this – they let your child make ambitious shapes, expanding their possibilities. Alternatively, provide them with seashells, pebbles, or other appropriate small items to add as decoration to stretch their imaginations.

Lastly, your attitude makes a great difference to playtime. Although healthy independence is important, asking questions, showing curiosity and making suggestions encourages and challenges children simultaneously.