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Learning Through Sand Play

Eskay Blog 2 sand tray

Playing in sand, whether at the beach or a sandpit in the park, is one of those old fashioned childhood joys that not every parent has access to. Instead, a tray of sand at home offers all the sensory stimulation and engagement of a child’s imagination as the park or beach. It’s a cheap and simple activity that also has the essential elements of the best learning-through-play rewards – the development of physical motor skills and appropriate social responses through role play.

Basic Ingredients of Sand Play

There is only one essential ingredients of sand tray play and that is enough sand to fill a box, plastic container or similar shallow vessel that offers access to enough sand real estate for your child to create and experience their own sandy adventure. If you have the space, you can fill a child’s plastic moulded wading pool with sand but size is not that important. We’ve seen sand trays in draws, the cheap pet litter trays available at your local supermarket and even a salad bowl. A smaller sand tray just means smaller items can be added, which doesn’t limit the engagement of your child’s imagination. In fact, what may seem like a limitation to an adult is exactly the kind of situation in which a child can grow and develop their resourcefulness.

Exploration Phase

If your child has never played in sand before you’ll find the first phase of their encounter will be exploration. They may stroke, grab, throw, or shape the sand in an effort to experience this new material. This is a natural response and is a way for them to check this new environment is safe. The sensory part of this phase will be the most important so let them enjoy the feel of the sand and allow them to choose to interact with props or other items when they are ready. To encourage the best scenario of play-based learning in a sand tray, ask open-ended question like “what else could you do?”, “how did you do that?’

Dramatic Play with Props

Any small item that is in their toy collection suddenly takes on a new life when it enters your child’s sand tray. Lego characters, plastic figurines or characters, ornaments, plastic farm animals or craft items like paddlepop sticks and pipe cleaners can be arranged on the sand to play out a scene. Your old collection of buttons can be of use here too. A community of characters and props allows your child to express ‘dramatic play’. This form of play is important for the child to develop its sense of identity, community and culture through bringing to life the sand tray characters in imagined scenarios. Dramatic play will directly improve your child’s cognitive and communication skills. The small toys or props become the method for your child to play out their experience of the actual world in the symbolic sand world. In this scenario a parent or teacher can gradually add or change things to provoke different responses.

Playing with Nature

Anytime you can combine the garden or nature in your child’s play is of benefit to their healthy development. If you can’t place your sand tray outside, take the child outside to the park or your own garden to collect sticks, stones, leaves, seed pods and flowers to bring back and arrange in the sand tray. If you have shells they will also make great tools for digging or props for role play or general creativity. Draw patterns with sticks or fingers and create a picture or story that the child can be in charge of.

Sand tray Tools

The traditional beach toys like shovels and buckets are just as valuable in a sand tray but also consider a sieve and cups. Use mathematical terms like ‘more’, ‘full’, ‘empty’, ‘heavy’ to describe what is happening. Ask the child to place things together and then describe the sequence using size or shape.
Such is the value of sand tray play, child behavioural therapists use the sand tray play to diagnose and treat emotional problems. In the hands of a parent it is also a wonderful tool to assist in the development of your child’s emotional, physical and social skills.