Along with water play, sand play is an important sensory activity for young children to enjoy. If you’re not blessed to live next to the beach, then you make use of a variety of sand pits, boxes or tables to include in your own home or garden. Sand play places texture right in the hands of children with sensory issues and can even be used as a form of therapy for children with autism and other conditions. This guide describes the many benefits of sand play as a sensory toy and how to incorporate this activity into your routine.
Sand play refers to any activity where your child has the opportunity to touch and play with sand, perhaps moving it from one container to the next, building a sandcastle or pushing a toy truck through it. If you’re using a sandpit, then they will feel the texture of the sand not just on their hands, but on their feet and other body parts too.
There are three main areas of sensory development that are strengthened during sand play:
As sand play is such a hands-on activity, it allows children to take in new information through their senses and can also serve as a calming therapy for those who need it. For children with autism who may find it challenging to verbally express their needs or inner thoughts, sand play may be used as a nonverbal therapeutic intervention. By using this alternative method of communication, a therapist can unlock any trauma the child may be experiencing, or simply learn more about what they find interesting.
By hiding toys in the sand, this allows the child to express their feelings through highly creative play and without stress. Communication is made easier when the child feels both comforted and content and with plenty of personal space during their sand play activity.
Sand play also enables children to build their spatial awareness, meaning their knowledge of where an object is in relation to themselves. An enjoyable spatial activity is to hide toy dinosaurs or other animals in a sand box and have the children pretend to be archaeologists and dig for them. As they use a spade or other digging implement and strike a part of the toy, they’ll love the adventure of revealing the rest of the object.
To take your sand play to an extra sensory level, it’s simple to add water. Dry and wet sand have incredibly different textures, and whilst dry sand is fun for activities such as pouring and sifting, wet sand also offers plenty of opportunities to train those fine motor skills. Whether you want to make mud cakes, sandcastles or build a dam, your children will love the sensory comfort that comes from playing with wet sand. Older pre-schoolers might enjoy practising their writing or letter formation in moist sand too – simply give them a stick and let them try spelling out their own name, their age or the name of their favourite toy.
Whilst natural sand is fantastic for developing the senses, kinetic sand is a manmade product made from 98% sand and is available online or in a variety of toy shops. This type of squeezable sand allows your child to pull, shape or mould the sand into thousands of creative and colourful shapes without making a mess. Kinetic sand feels dry to touch but can easily be spread or moulded around without drying out. It works well with cookie cutters, sand writing, sculpting, excavation activities, slicing and making impressions in the sand with typical household objects. If you’re finding it hard to incorporate outdoor sand play into your child’s routine and don’t have access to an indoor sand box, then kinetic sand is a fantastic option so you can keep up your child’s sensory play all year round.
Leading sand sensory play
If you’re setting up a sand play area for your children to enjoy, remember to set the ground rules about the type of behaviour that is appropriate, for example not allowing the children to throw sand at each other. For those who are including water play too, you’ll need to monitor the space constantly to maintain safety. Remember to provide plenty of tools such as measuring cups, buckets and spades, sifters, funnels and plastic animals or dumper trucks to facilitate learning. You might suggest some sand play challenges such as creating a sand castle or making a moat, but it’s also beneficial to encourage open-ended play too, where the children focus on their love of playing in the sand rather than having an end goal in mind.