Most parents and practitioners are sold on the appeal and benefits of sand play to children across the ages, but do we really know what’s going on in their buzzing minds and bodies? As an advocate of sensory rich play, I’m happy extolling the virtues of playing with sand, having witnessed firsthand children’s fascination and absorption. Indeed, stage 2 of the Sensory Play Continuum (Gascoyne, 2008) was in-part inspired by watching children playing with sand using household objects from a Treasure Basket for between one and three hours! This fascination was shared by children spanning the ages, whether for pouring, transporting, pattern-making, role-play, exploration, small world play and so on.

The links to the EYFS are evident with opportunities for supporting children’s personal, social and emotional development through focus, concentration and investigation; introducing language for communication, and practice for pencil control and hand eye coordination. It offers a wealth of problem solving opportunities, introducing scientific concepts, mastery of tools and pattern, and offering an array of fine and gross motor skills and development. It also provides ample fodder for inspiring creativity and imagination. 

So the benefits and allure of sand are clear, or are they? How often do we as adults take the time and make the space to actually explore and engage with this medium ourselves? At a recent play therapy session I experienced one such opportunity and marvelled at the amazing feel of the fine sand particles sifting between my fingers; was surprised by the solid feel of a handful of sand in my clenched fist and how this slowly then quickly changed as the sand finally worked its way free leaving my hand empty. I delighted at the patterns created first with my fingers and later using natural objects, and the dune-like ridges left on my outstretched fingers as the sand fell away. The satisfaction of this medium to me was clear. The experience was all-absorbing, calming and yet exciting.

What then if children are offered carefully selected objects to use with the sand if desired, not to distract from or direct their thinking, but rather to enhance their problem solving and exploration if appropriate? One such example was seen in the Sensory Play Research (Anglia Ruskin University, 2009) where an 8 month old was happily playing with coloured sand in a shallow tray using a metal teaspoon. The practitioner discretely added some brushes next to the tray in case the baby wanted to use these as well or instead. In this instance the child simply ignored these and continued ‘spooning sand using the teaspoon, put the handle end in her mouth and then realised that the sand stuck to the wet part of the spoon so continued spooning sand and putting the handle end in her mouth’. The depth of her focus was illustrated perhaps by the fact that she ‘ignored other children crawling through the sand tray and continued spooning.’

Beforehand, I knew the importance of sensory-rich play and had an inkling of the fascination of sand. It is only by experiencing the awe and wonder ourselves that we can really understand just how deep that concentration can be, how important space, time and freedom are, how beneficial this can be, and our vital role in providing opportunities for truly enriching play. So get playing!