The scoop on safe and fun sandpit play

Published on Tuesday, 02 February 2021
Last updated on Thursday, 28 January 2021

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Where an adult sees a humble sandpit, a child sees a world of playful possibilities. There are endless options for fun imaginative play in this creative space, and sandpits invite children to explore, experiment and investigate.

With so much potential for natural play and learning, the sandpit has a valuable role in early learning settings and should be maintained to ensure it is a safe, fun and hygienic place for children.

Unstructured play enhances learning, social and physical development and the sandpit can be a versatile learning resource for children when educators prepare the space with items such as diggers and trucks or kitchenware. Throw in a selection of loose parts and children can decide for themselves the purpose of an item, rather than following instructions.

‘Loose Parts’ theory is based on the idea that children are empowered creatively by the presence of open-ended materials that can be constructed, manipulated and transformed through self-directed play. In a sandpit this can be as simple as adding a collection of shells, flowers and leaves, wooden shapes or old pots and pans.

Expressing creativity

Open-ended play allows children to express their creativity freely and sand is an appropriate play object for all ages. Babies and toddlers can simply sit in sand and take in the texture and quality of it, while older children can use sand for exploration and creativity. Children can dig in sand, sift it, build with it, pour it, enjoy the feel and smell of it, ‘bake’ with it, and watch how it moves. They can also create small worlds to pretend and role play in.

Promotes physical development

Gross motor skills in the arms and upper bodies of children can be further developed through sand play. Moving sand around can be heavy work and if is wet sand becomes even more difficult to scoop and manipulate. The legs and lower bodies of children also get a workout from squatting in the sand or from lifting and carrying buckets of sand to other areas. There are also benefits for fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination is improved through small movements made as children work with sand accessories such as scoops and shovels.

Encourages social skills

Playing in the sandpit is a great way for children to be social and play together. While in a sandpit together children will be faced with opportunities to share tools, negotiate play space, and work together to make, create and problem solve. This will help with language development as they communicate with other children, describe their play activities and listen.

Promotes cognitive development

Children learn about the physical properties of sand by playing with it and by comparing wet and dry sand, and there is plenty of sensory stimulation gained by feeling and moulding sand. Children learn to problem-solve as they figure out how to prevent their towers from falling over and they can discover cause and effect when water is added to the sand. They will also learn mathematical concepts through using containers of varying sizes and shapes to learn about concepts such as "more than," "less than," and "equal."

Sandpits are popular play spaces, but they are also a potential source of infection and there are important hygiene and safety practices to follow to keep these environments safe for children.

Sandpits can become contaminated when animals, particularly cats, use them as toilets. Toxoplasmosis can easily be spread from animal droppings to humans in unclean sandpits when children put dirty hands in their mouth. Insects can also live and breed in damp sand and may bite or sting children.

For these reasons, it is important to maintain a clean and hygienic sandpit, here’s how:

  • Ensure the bottom of the sandpit allows water to drain through but stops soil from mixing with the sand. Good drainage can ensure the sand does not become damp and stagnant.
  • When not in use cover the sandpit with a tight fitted cover to prevent animal access and to ensure it doesn’t become a repository for litter or sharp, dangerous objects. Plastic covers, which do not let air through, can keep the sandpit damp. Using fine mesh will let the rain through which will tend to wash the sand, helping to keep it clean as long as the water can drain away. Covers should be light and easy to remove.
  • Rake the sandpit before the first session every morning, and at regular intervals each day, to identify and remove rubbish and other matter. Centres should include raking and inspection in their policy and procedures guidelines and should keep records as evidence that checks are carried out regularly.
  • Turn over the sand monthly to aerate it.
  • If the rain does not regularly wash your sandpit, consult an expert on how to clean your sand safely or hire them to clean the sand for you. Disinfectant will not clean a sand pit as sand and soil will neutralise the disinfectant before it can work.
  • Dig out the sand and replace it if it is mixed with a large amount of soil. How often this is needed will depend on where the sandpit is located and the way that children play in it.
  • Replace the sand at least annually but preferably every six months. Washed beach or river sand is recommended. If sand becomes contaminated or is suspected to be contaminated by human or animal faeces, blood or other body fluids, it must be discarded using your usual refuse disposal procedures.
  • Children and adults should wash their hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub before and after playing in the sandpit.
  • For sun protection ensure the sandpit has adequate shading via a tree, shade cloths or a solid roof. Ideally if shade structures can be removed this can allow the sunshine to disinfect the sand when not in use.
  • Remove toys and play items from the sandpit at the end of the day and wash them.
  • Have procedures ready for health issues such as a child getting sand in their eyes or cuts.

For some creative ideas to engage children in sandpit play, try one or all of these eight super sandpit play ideas.

References and further reading:

Best Start: Play in the sand!

Childcare Committee: Sand play

Ministry of Education: Playgrounds

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