Summer Fun: Learning in Your Sandbox

by Marie Faust Evitt

g rainfall in the sandbox

Children never tire of filling buckets with water and emptying them in the sandbox. These two simple elements provide many possibilities for exploration. I am fortunate to have a large outdoor sandbox at the preschool where I teach, but even a small sand area helps children learn through play.

As children work, simple questions can help focus children’s attention. What happens when sand gets wet? How are wet and dry sand the same and different? Which is easier to shape?

An easy way to expand explorations is to attach a garden hose to a rain gutter with a C-clamp in your sandbox. Children will explore for hours how water runs down gutters and creates pools and streams. After children have numerous opportunities to observe the water flowing and trying different ramp set-ups, you can expand their learning by giving a challenge such, “Can you get the water to the other end of the sandbox?”

g rainfall in the sandbox

A challenge often helps children focus on a specific problem and encourages more experimentation. You can introduce scientific thinking by asking, “What do you predict will happen if you add another gutter?” Then follow up and ask, “What did happen?” When children have opportunities to reflect, they become more aware of discoveries.

Note: Be sensitive to water use if your area is experiencing a drought. Children can use a plastic tub or dishpan to make a lake at the end of the gutter or use heavy plastic to create a larger basin. It is essential to have constant adult supervision when using containers of water. Empty them immediately when the activity is over.

sandbox play

Children love trying to block water from running down gutters by making sand dams. This gives them numerous opportunities to test their ideas of how to hold back the flowing water. They may try using dry sand instead of wet. They may pile on the sand, filling the entire gutter. Maybe they will try holding the sand in the gutter with a shovel. Maybe they will add pebbles to the sand to help hold back the water.

g rainfall in the sandbox

Encourage children to describe what they are doing as they work. You can say something as simple as, “Tell me about what’s happening with the water.” Then deepen their thinking by asking how that compares with what was happening earlier. “Did adding the pebbles change how long the sand stayed in the gutter?”

Have paper and crayons handy so children can draw their creations. Drawing helps children notice details. Ask children to tell you how to label their drawings.

Adding sand trucks, plastic boats or plastic animals expands possibilities for explorations and creative play.

f sandbox

Working in the sandbox promotes problem-solving skills as children negotiate where the water will flow, where boats will float and where to build roads and bridges for sand trucks.

Many books enhance the experience of learning and playing with sand and water and help build literacy. I particularly enjoy Sand Cake by Frank Asch, which describes how Baby Bear and his dad use their imagination at the beach, and Beach Feet by Kiyomi Konagaya.

For more curriculum ideas, see my book Thinking BIG, Learning BIG: Connecting Science, Math, Literacy and Language in Early Childhood.

 Have fun learning with sand between your toes.  

This post was contributed by Marie Faust Evitt, head teacher of a preschool class for four- and five-year-olds. Prior to teaching, Marie was an award-winning newspaper reporter and freelance journalist for more than 20 years. Her articles and essays on education, parenting, and child psychology have been published in Newsweek, Parents, Child, Parenting, Scholastic’s Parent & Child,, and Family Fun. She posts about her classroom activities at and on Facebook here. She lives in Mountain View, California.

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