On Sandboxes and Classrooms

Backyard classroom

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.

Future Engineer

And more?

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.

High School Football

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 what?

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?


*Future Engineer by katherine lynn on Flickr
*High School Football by JamieL.WilliamsPhotography on Flickr

Facilitating A Squirrelly Strategy


The following video was recently posted by a colleague on a nascent district network that will go “public” in a few short weeks.  In what I see as an emerging “best practice” in setting up and facilitating online networks, we are busy adding rich instructional content prior to inviting members.   In other words, making it look -even upon first glance- as if “someone is home.”  Far too many folks try to set up a network on the Ning platform only to have it flail about in cyberspace because it doesn’t immediately grab people as a place where they can imagine investing a little of their time.  Take five minutes to watch the video before reading further…

How great is that?  In Angie’s (a fellow instructional coach) description immediately below the video, she said: “A great video with amazingly appropriate music to show goal setting and teamwork to achieve a goal.” I certainly do see those ideas reflected within the video.  However, I clicked to view the video full screen before reading, and my personal reaction was somewhat different.


To me, even more than goal setting and teamwork… this video speaks to the idea of honoring a constructivist approach to learning… and the gentle scaffolding required to get students to the ultimate goal within such a framework.

It seems that I chose to see the video not through the interactions with “momma squirrel” but instead through those that happened between the baby squirrel and the human observer. To me, the human (with the bigfat human brain) was the person in that situation who clearly knew how to achieve the objective.  You could easily argue that the momma squirrel didn’t get it.  Although, we truly have no idea what the ultimate goal was.  Perhaps going a different route, one that avoided the wall altogether, was not an option.  Though perhaps it was.  This we’ll never know.

Like a teacher honoring the fact that all true learning takes place within the brain of the learner… the observer(s) didn’t intervene at first.  They allowed the most powerful personal learning (in the brain of the baby squirrel) to take place first. They gave credit to the struggle that is inherent in accomplishing anything of real and lasting worth. They allowed small failures themselves to “teach.”

However, they ultimately they chose a strategy in which to intervene in a “least invasive” way… and then carried it out.  This initial strategy did not prove immediately successful for the learner.  The baby squirrel simply didn’t succeed after the “help” was applied.  The observers then took a step back, rethought the situation, likely looked around for other pertinent resources, and then applied another strategy to facilitate the baby squirrel’s accomplishment.

Pink Pearl

This series of calculated interventions is a good metaphor for what I see as one best case scenario for teaching and learning. Of course with today’s tricky world, and the complex sphere of standardized assessment we live within… allowing this full continuum of experience to play out with every learning objective is just not feasible. Yet, if we are truly focused on constructivism as a “best case scenario” for learning, then we will all make room for that very thing within our classrooms.  We can’t exist in a purely constructivist world today.  However, this is not an “out” for studying and practicing this approach to learning.  It is merely something to consider as you map out the classroom environment for you and your students as learners.

Once a teacher gives credit to the power of this approach to learning… they then begin to see its potential in more and more places. I think this is the point where we become sharp about when to allow this type of learning to run its course and when we have to “cut and run” to nail down the less “essential” objectives in order to allow the time for everything we want (and are responsible to) for our children.


So yeah, in short… I love the video as a reflection and teaching tool. In fact, I wrote 75% of this blog post in the comments section of that particular video on our network.  I could link to my comment there, but then I’d have to break my rule of going public with a network before it is already a microcosm of what I want it to eventually become.  You wouldn’t want me to hedge on my own philosophy for this would you?


So what do you think?  Did you see something different?  What metaphors did you see in the video?  How might you use this little clip as a teaching tool?


Pink Pearl by Heather Beltz Ingram on Flickr