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

Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at http://nashworld.me


  1. Wow. My email inbox just dinged with the latest email from ASCD… my ASCD “Smartbrief.” I know, it makes some of you think “sensible underwear.”

    Anyway- the lead article on this one is entitled: “Back to School/Do the Math: Latest ‘new math’ concept: Start early and make it fun.” Better still, it is apparently the first of a series. The article is from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    If you are interested in this post, you will also want to read the article here: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09242/994281-298.stm This rather in-depth article runs quite parallel to my post in many ways.

    It also reminds me a bit of Readicide by Kelly Gallagher… but from the mathematics side.

  2. I was thinking similar thoughts yesterday while watching my kids (ages 3 and 5) play at the local park where there is a very large sandbox next to a water fountain and a mock “river.” Aside from volume and mass, these kids, who were complete strangers to one another, were working together to build dams (and later destroy them). It is fascinating to watch this week after week. Different kids, same scenario: kids working together to solve problems with no adult intervention. There is a lesson there.

    • Ahhhh yes. Spontaneous stream table stuff. How fun. I would have been side by side with them myself. Playing with the nature of things…

      Your comment included the idea of “no adult intervention” reminds me directly of a fantastic article that I read last year by Thomas Guskey called “Students at Bat.” This following link is a direct link to download a .doc version of the article: http://tinyurl.com/nt89f7 I think you’ll like it.

      (my two are the same spread: 2 1/2 and 1/2… busy times!)

      Thanks for stopping by.


  3. I always look forward to reading your words, and again, I was well rewarded.

    Human toddlers have played for tens of thousands of years before the idea of cradle-to-grave formal education reared its head. Pre-K is a sad compromise for children not blessed with family (or even neighborhood) sand boxes. Your family is truly blessed.

    In my neck of the woods, we have managed to demonize sand boxes as pits of toxoplasmosis and the drug addicts’ hidden syringes, stories planted by the same knuckleheads who perpetuate the razor blade-in-the-Hallowe’en-apple myth.

    Your words, though, betray a tic most of us have in formal education–we keep viewing brains as machines. They are not, of course, and you know this well, but too many folks view the brain just this way. When our brains are viewed as complex machines, it’s easy to conclude we can develop formal, standardized test to assess their “output.”

    The older I get, the more I think our behavior and attitudes get unfortunately framed by our words. Or maybe I’m just a crank.

    Now here’s the kicker, one we don’t talk much about. What do you (in the universal sense) like to do at the beach? Play, no? I love watching sand slip through my fingers; I love planing out “roads”: I love digging holes. It’s easier to do when a toddler’s around, since it’s not so odd, then, but a few of us older farts still play.

    Why do we play? To get a more finely-tuned machine of a mind? That may well be a by-product, and reason enough to justify to Arne Duncan that maybe some play is OK, but that’s not the reason we play.

    We play because play is fun. OK, a bit tautologous–I’ll leave it to the master, Dr. Seuss, to put this to words:

    Did you ever fly a kite in bed?
    Did you ever walk with ten cats on your head?

    Did you ever milk this kind of cow?
    Well, we can do it. We know how.

    If you never did, you should.
    These things are fun and fun is good.

    Fun is good. Fun is human. Fun is us.

    • I think the “razor blades in apples” myth was created by kids like me, who at the time, were trying to get out of eating the healthy items in the goody bag.

      As far as viewing brains mechanistically, you raise good points. While to me it is terribly easy to switch from a very objective analytical viewpoint to a more holistic, friendly, human view… it isn’t likely so for many. That I certainly agree with.

      Seeing brains as “input/output” machines works on a molecular level. However, on a human level -the one in which we work with on a daily basis- that sort of micro view is too often ineffective and just plain ugly.

      And yes… you’re a crank of course. Though I would argue that in this case, you’re spot-on. Our behavior and attitudes DO get framed by our words. We both know this is true. We both love and appreciate words and what they can do, or we wouldn’t be here doing this. I appreciate you framing it in those terms. That is now a mental checkpoint for me (until I forget it next). 😉

      And Dr. Seuss? Wow. I completely forgot about this nifty little web page I created back in 2001: http://tinyurl.com/l9ctkw I thought it would be clever to design a page that scrolled left to right. Forgive me for that.


      • Hokey Smokes!

        EVERYONE needs to click on your link! I am going to show it to my administration–wonderful things are not just possible, they’ve already been done.

        (We have just been designated a Title 1 school–while this may not be great news for those who speculate on local properties, it may be a big opening for those looking to expand our school system’s technical prowess.)

        • Hey thanks a ton. (unless of course you were really kidding, and “hokey” smokes was more than a typo)

          BTW all… if the above link dies soon, use this one: http://tinyurl.com/l4lz3o as we are moving some things to a Linux server soon.

          Interesting commentary on Title I. We are a title school as well. Though no one likely wishes for this designation, it IS there for a reason. Essentially, it means you have an overwhelming number of students in your school who likely lack the same rich set of background knowledge/experiences that many other children have been blessed with. (on average)

          The only problem with saying any of the above is when looking at INDIVIDUALS. But on average, I think we all know the effects of poverty on a lifetime of learning at the POPULATION level.

          That said, you are right. There is a reason we have assistance programs for such schools. This is smart money… if it is spent “smartly” and with a well-planned purpose.

          An alarming number of schools are now teetering on the edge of that designation, huh?

          • I don’t mean to interrupt here, but “tangentally” speaking, Sean, I think another reason play is important is to build background knowledge allowing our brains to make connections which help us understand what we have yet to experience.

            And really, it pretty simple. I know for a fact playing in a sand box, whether four or forty, would help connect to understanding the feeling and workings of the sand later as I watch crabs on an episode of Earth or read about two main characters in a romance novel rolling about on the beach in a passionate love scene.

            I think that’s your point, so I won’t be tautologous (which I often am, but now own a great word to explain my behavior).

  4. Sean,
    Excellent post (as usual)
    It really gets you thinking about how important play is. How important time spent with your children is, ie…How an everyday trip to the grocery store can be a learning experience stimulating the senses, such as touch and smell.
    It also should make people angry. Fired up that it’s all about assessments, and not about learning.
    ” Do current practices in your school allow for purposeful play, or has it been politically pushed out of the classroom?”

    • Argumentative types would respond to you with the fact that assessment IS “about learning.” But I think you’re right in that broad systematic assessment (as we have come to know and hate it) really does very little to effective assess the deeper aspects of student learning.

      Quote of the day: “Bring back show n’ tell!”

      • Show n’ Tell is an assessment tool, and a splendid one. It is also a wonderful opportunity for kids to develop social skills needed for (*cough*) business meetings.

        Forget about numbers for a second–is there any teacher worth the title who cannot see (“assess”) what a child needs help with in the “simple” act of Show n’ Tell?

        (‘Scuse me, I got quotationmarkitis this morning….)

  5. Great post and gret comments. There should be more time for “play.”
    Dr. Seuss, as usual, has it right “These things are fun and fun is good.”
    School and learning should be fun!

    • That fact that somewhere along the line “fun” and “learning” were forced to undergo a very nasty little divorce. It’s quite silly, really. Of course there are some thing worth doing that aren’t entirely a kick in the seat. I can remember plenty of things that were boring and grueling and ultimately valuable.

      I think it’s all about an overall framework. With enough good, honest fun in your life… the moments where grueling grunt work provides a bridge to something worthwhile seem to be acceptable.


  6. I really enjoyed this post, it is a nice refreshing take that helps to keep things in perspective. I am a big time supporter of play, and try to have as much unstructured playtime as I can at home with my two kids. It always seems to be the time when my kids are the most creative and having the most fun. I try to incorporate this into the classroom whenever I introduce a new tech tool, for example we spent a fair amount of time the other day playing with google earth and just looking up everyone’s house and exploring the surface of mars in our geography class. There’s probably those who would say that’s wasting time, but it was fun and I know my students were hooked into geography.

    • Seriously- the fact that we can say things like: “I am a big time supporter of play” with a straight face, is a good indication that we have lost it as a species… or we’re at least gosh darned close to doing so.

      That just reads so humorously to me. It’s sort of like saying: “I’m a big time supporter of smiles.” Right? The more I think about the post and the comments after, it is just funny to think that we have to seriously discuss such issues.

      Am I wrong?

      And Google Earth- absolutely. The only way to learn the early lessons with that tool is to jump in and play. Play and explore.

      • you know I hadn’t thought that when I wrote it but now that you say that it is pretty insane, thanks for the insight!

      • I’ve been ruminating on this for a bit. I was sitting in Walgreen’s yesterday, awaiting a prescription or two after getting my roots planed, and saw so many unhappy people. (Granted, waiting to pick up meds for something already wrong with you makes for a selected population.)

        Here’s the point: our stated goals in public education ultimately reflect what we believe, as a culture, to be valuable. Judging by the national debate, we define success by job title, by income, by zip code. We haven’t always done that.

        I have quietly argued in the faculty lounge that my goals are to produce children capable of handling the republic we’re handing off to them, and to increase their chances of happiness. Yes, “the pursuit of happiness” matters.

        A lot of folks think happiness should be saved for the after-life, and I guess if I were a miserable adult, I’d be suspicious of a teacher who pushes happiness. The problem (as I see it anyway) is that so few folks even know what happiness means anymore.

        People don’t know what they want; heck, people are even asking the question anymore, they let others answer it for them. If people really thought about things, would people covet handbags for the initials inscribed on them? Would people who live in the suburbs covet SUVs that never leave asphalt? Would people watch television for hours a day?

  7. Sean, thankyou for a brilliant post. What I’d like to add to the comments is that there is so much happening on an unconscious level in children’s development before it kicks in on a conscious level. Just look at how intent young children are when they are listening to a story or a song or an explanation. Sometimes parents will say, she’s not talking yet, but you can see the child concentrating on what the parents are saying, responding through gesture or indicating understanding. There’s a lot of unarticulated understanding that goes on in what you call play. I’m not sure if any deep learning can occur without this process. And yet secondary education often consists of teachers ‘telling’ information or isolating discrete facts in worksheets and assignments. This is failure for learning.

    You’ve really made me think about how I can ‘sandbox’ (I think it works well as a verb) learning in the secondary classroom.

    • Hey Tania!

      Agreed about subconscious. However, I don’t think that ends with children. I think a ton of learning happens in teenagers on a subconscious level as well.

      I like to tell folks who think the students in their classroom aren’t learning, that they’re learning alright. Every single student in your room is learning every day. They do so from the moment the darken your threshold. The real question is WHAT are they learning. Think about how that plays out in your own head as you enter various classrooms.

      And yes, we do still “tell” a great deal in secondary schools. Now I’m a pretty fine storyteller (at least I think) and I do trot out that skill in the classroom fairly frequently. I think it is as an essential skill today as it was in the cave. However, this is quite different from the phrase I heard the other day: “giving notes.” I’m “giving notes” today.

      What is that? To me, a “note” is a comment I scribble in regard to something. This may be in regard to something I think, something I want to remember, etc. A “note” isn’t something you can give to me. You can certainly tell me to write down a pile of facts from the board, etc… but you can’t give someone a “note.” You can require someone to copy down the definition of a word. You can attempt to pour knowledge into the head of a child. You can even promise you’ll give it your 100% best effort, but you can’t just give the gift of understanding. Telling is delivery. Last I checked our job was to be in charge of learning. Learning is more the receiving end of the equation. Am I right?

      You can’t even give a “note.”

      Boy. You made me ramble there. Good work.

      • Yes, yes, the unconscious learning happens in all of us. Just think about how seemingly dry periods in our own mental productivity eventually burst out in creativity and ideas which have obviously been brewing invisibly over time.

        I think your ‘telling’ is more like storytelling or bringing ideas to life, setting the scene, involving the students in discussion. That’s different from ‘instructing’ and nothing like ‘giving notes’ (chortle). You’ve heard me go on about my elder son’s university experiences; some students skip lectures because they can get the dot points from provided powerpoints. But where’s the interaction? And why is tertiary learning so passive, so theoretical? Does it have to be that way? Maybe for sciences it’s different, but for the arts it’s like this.

  8. Hi Sean and Everyone,

    What a delightful discussion! How validating, inspiring. Yes, play does belong in school.

    Have you seen the book Play by Stuart Brown?


    or heard of The National Institute for Play?

    More fuel for the fire.

    There’s also the great ASCD article
    The Neuroscience of Joyful Education by Judy Willis.


    Thanks, Sean, for bringing the topic of PLAY right to the forefront as many of us begin our school years.

    • Sorry it took a while for this to post. Your three-link post was shunted to the spam folder. I wish I could change that. I wish I could encourage folks to trade resources via hyperlink when possible… and cite resources similarly. Thanks so much for adding such things in line on this thread.

      Those are actually all new to me. The NIP? While I was a bit skeptical of the title straight out of the box, the website is quite interesting. I have poking around there for the past twenty minutes or so. Interesting site.

      As always- thanks Connie.

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