Have you ever wondered why we build sandboxes for children? That’s exactly what I did today. Today I wondered while wandering about the yard, putting the finishing touches on a landscape and backyard garden update. I wondered long and hard about the role of play in learning new things. In between digging holes, sinking plants, and spreading mulch… I took short breaks to watch my two year old daughter play with sand. This backyard classroom is every bit as much mine as it is hers.
I watched her take that first chartreuse-shovel scoop into a fresh sandbox today. I sat beside her as she pirated empty plant pots and filled them scoop by scoop with moist sand fresh from the bag. I saw her level off the orange pots and pour one into the other, and the other into another. Aside from the obvious tactile pleasures like digging naked toes into cool wet sand, there just seems to be so much going on with sandbox play.
A quick look at the packaging on the toy set which includes buckets, scoops, shovels, etc., reveals three things that are supposedly developed with these toys. The three listed are: fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and cause and effect.
I think those three skills/concepts are easily seen in this type of play. You could argue that the majority of toddler toys target those very things. However, I just really feel like there is something more going on here- something far more sophisticated. What did I see today? I saw what seemed to be a child unknowingly acquiring the roots of understanding two critical concepts: volume and mass. Can she define either? No. Can she really even talk about it much? Not really. That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
The brain of a human child is an unparalleled learning machine. Beyond grasping for nipples and blinking at bright lights, the first thing it does beyond survival is play. I would argue that this play is not merely pastime. I would contend that it is far more than fun. I would suggest that it is fun for a toddler because that is what is needed to feed the brain at that developmental stage. All a child needs at this point is the opportunity.
Though a child’s mind cannot comprehend an abstract concept like volume, the roots are taking hold in those moments. Filling buckets… emptying a small one into a larger one several times, and on and on. Today I wondered about whether we realize why we build sandboxes. I bet the average parent doesn’t think about the why any more than the two year old does playing. Not consciously thinking about it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Fast-forward to the end of formal public schooling. The brain inside the skull of your local quarterback cranked through calculus and physics last Friday night in an attempt to connect time and time again with his pass-catching receivers. He managed perhaps hundreds of variables without flinching in order to control the trajectory of a very odd-shaped object. He may or may not graduate having sat in a chair during a formal session of calculus or physics, but he’s doing it every day. Even if nothing more than a calculation machine, the human brain is an amazing thing. I am awed by its power on a daily basis.
Think about a student’s ability (or willingness) to grasp those first formal attempts at abstracts such as volume or mass in a school setting. What if those attempts hinge to a certain degree upon backyard experiences from age two or so? Thoughts like that poke at my gray matter. We almost universally agree about the power of diverse background knowledge as it relates to success in school. Hearing complex conversation in your home. Growing up surrounded by books. Museum visits for “fun.” Travel. Experiences. These are not things that happen in a typical high school setting (this is why you might want to continue reading past the first section of the aforementioned book), and yet all is not necessarily lost.
So where is the “sandbox” in your classroom? Does it even exist, and if so, is it really a place? Perhaps it is a time? Or is it rather interwoven throughout the environment you build for children? Do you purposefully employ “play” in your classroom? How similar is this “play” to the “explore” phase of the learning cycle model? Do current practices in your school allow for purposeful play, or has it been politically pushed out of the classroom?
Artwork*Future Engineer by katherine lynn on Flickr *High School Football by JamieL.WilliamsPhotography on Flickr .