Sandpits Outside – Challenging Myths and Misconceptions

8 April 2015 · 18 comments

in Developing School Grounds & Outdoor Spaces, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Outdoor Play, Urban, Whole School

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I am currently working in Australia and as I travel around, I’ve had a chance to visit a few nurseries and primary schools. One of the most apparent features are the large sandpits. Oh yes!  Sandpits appear to be commonplace in Australian school grounds and outdoor spaces.

Now, given that Australia has its fair share of heat, flies, visiting animals and after-hours people and most other issues, I believe Australian educators, along their Scandinavian counterparts are setting a positive example for the rest of the world to follow. It seems that once a practice becomes part of the norm, part of just what happens in a school, then the less the issues are seen as issues.

So, below are some concerns that I commonly hear about sand in UK schools – let’s air them. Get them off our chest. The benefits of having sand available in schools and nurseries far outrank the risks and the effort needed to get a sand pit set up and maintained.

 

“Where we live, it’s too cold to play with sand in the winter…”

Put your sand inside a hut or create a den with sand inside.  I’ve seen several of these in Scotland. It’s a nice way of providing shelter and makes an alternative to a standard play house. Below is a converted shed at Cowgate U5’s Centre.

Glendhu Childcare Centre in Launceston, Tasmania have a covered sandpit. The transparent ceiling and side panels means that lots of light shines through. It is immediately outside one of the doors to the outdoor space.

Oz Nursery sandpit 2

Children who visit beaches all year round, will tell you that it’s not too cold to play in sand in winter. The child in the photo below is digging into the sand at the end of November in Aberdeen, NE Scotland. When snow does lie on the beach, the textural comparisons are fascinating.

Hole digging

Ensuring children are adequately clothed for being outside on cold days is common sense. Have spare clothes available, e.g. from unclaimed Lost Property boxes for those who need it. In the UK it is extremely rare to have a day that’s too cold for sand play. I can’t remember one!

 

“It gets too hot to play with sand in the summer where we live.”

This is Donna and Sherry‘s tipi sandpit in their pre-school in Melbourne (thanks for letting me use your photo). It’s a small-scale approach to providing shade. Try and use material that will filter out uv light to avoid sunburn. Provide water nearby. Add ice cubes from the freezer and watch them melt into the sand.

The most effective shade is provided by trees. It is noticeably cooler in woodlands than open asphalt playgrounds. Shade sails are a man-made alternative and I’m seeing lots around Australia.

Oz Sand pit 2

The sand pit featured above is at Clairvaux Catholic Primary School in Geelong. The school has a very sensible approach to sun and shade. During the summer months when the sun’s rays are at their strongest, the children must wear sun hats and protective clothing so they can play where they wish during break times. If a child arrives at school without the suitable clothing, then the child is expected to play in the areas, such as the sand pit, where shade is provided. They are certainly not kept inside!

“Imagine animal poop… ew!”

I feel this fear is over-rated. Generally cats and dogs don’t hang around school sandpits. Bird droppings may happen, as they will anywhere outside. However, if you have a visiting animal there are several precautions you can take. Putting a net or cover on the sand when not in use, works best.

If you have a bespoke sandpit which doesn’t have an easy shape to cover, then have a look at Teacher Tom‘s solution below (thanks for letting me use your photo). At his pre-school, the sand gets covered with burlap (hessian) bags donated from a local business.

The Jackman Avenue  Public School grounds in Toronto is one huge sand pit. No cover is possible. I did ask if animals “doing their business” was a problem. It wasn’t. However, if you  want to be sure, rake down the sand last thing at night and look for animal prints the next day.

Alternatively, consider the use of sonic repellents. These emit a high frequency sound beyond what human ears can hear but is an irritant for nearby animals.

 

“A sandpit needs a cover…”

No it doesn’t. Every sandpit needs to be properly looked after, cared for, managed and maintained. This may include a decision to put a cover on a sandpit. But there is no legal requirement in the UK for this to happen. Indeed, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents statesIf it is necessary to cover the sand an open cover made of, for example, a wire mesh is recommended to allow for natural cleansing and aeration.

Oz Sand pit 1

If you stop and think, such a requirement would be hard to enforce. There’s lots of parks and beaches where sand is not covered and where it would not be feasible. Also sand is used as a fall surface in playgrounds. Is this all just a cover up? (Pun intended – I tell really poor jokes).

 

“You can’t move a sand pit about…”

Oh yes you can! Here is a temporary sandpit on blue tarp, with a few planks around the end. If you are not sure where to site a sandpit then this is one way of experimenting to find the best place. Furthermore, it can be wheelchair accessible and babies can easily crawl onto it.

Another option is the use of tyres to create temporary sandpits. Do be aware that these do not stay pristine for long. Sand will be displaced. So plan for the mess around the edges and systems to manage this, if needed.

Finished Sandpit

 

“I hate flies on sand…”

Flies on sand? But there’s flies everywhere. Here in Scotland, when the wind goes down the midgies come out which give itchy bites. On hot days we get clegs which give big, nasty bites. If you live in a fly ridden place then take the protective measures you normally undertake, such as wearing insect repellant or mesh clothing. Experiment with aromatherapy oils to see whether citronella, tea tree or another scent moves insects on. If you have a real problem invest in a Mosquito Magnet or Midge Terminator.

 

“Outdoor sandpits are unhygienic…”

Most countries and local authorities have strict guidelines that must be followed for the construction, management and maintenance of a sandpit. The Royal Society for Prevention of Accidents has this advice. A very sensible leaflet has also been produced by Toyguard, the UK pre-school hygiene specialists who pride themselves on their environmentally friendly products. Learning through Landscapes, the UK school grounds charity, has a detailed advice sheet for schools covering a range of issues which have surfaced through their work with schools.

In my experience, the most unhygienic sandpits I see are ones that are covered up and not played with. The wet sand is left to stagnate. This is not okay. Sandpits need lots of natural light (a natural bleach), fresh air (added through being played in) and decent drainage.

 

“Sand stains my child’s clothing…”

Builder’s sand does contain a dye. White sand or silver sand is usually sold in DIY or toyshops and labelled for play. This should not stain. Be aware that lots of different sand is sold for different purposes. Sand that is used as a fall surface is different to builder’s sand. This is different to the sand found on golf courses. This differs to sand found in long jump pits, etc. So ensure you know what sand you need. Do not remove sand from a beach.

 

“My child comes home covered in sand…”

It is very hard to remove every grain of sand from a child. However, children from a very young age, e.g. 2 years old, can be taught how to remove their shoes or boots and tip out the sand. On cooler days children can wear all in one suits with elasticated cuffs that will reduce the amount of sand getting into clothes. If getting sand in hair is an issue – and it can be with braided hair, then one option is for the child to wear a hat or shower cap. On warm days, children can be taught to brush sand off themselves. Having a good strong brush available for this purpose is handy. It’s also a lot of fun for children to use the brush.

At Inverallochy School, there is a large open-access sand pit. The parents who do not wish their child to play in the sand pit are expected to have that discussion with their child and to trust them. The school does not police the children’s use of the sandpit as it simply isn’t viable with staffing levels.

 

“The sand gets everywhere…”

Whether children are at home or school, routines can be put in place to keep outdoor mess outdoors, such as learning to brush off the sand in the sand pit! This will minimise the impact indoors. Below – in the Swedish outdoor nursery, for 2 to 5 year olds, you can see the entrance into the indoor area. Children sit on the benches to remove their outdoor gear. They may not leave until all the clothes have been removed and footwear too. You can see the upright wooden boot remover! These routines really encourage independence.

Thinking about the construction of a sandpit can also help reduce the amount of sand dispersal. The wooden decking around the Inverallochy sand pit makes a big difference here.

Inverallochy sandpit

 Another option is to put a sand pit in a sheltered spot or corner where wind blown sand is reduced. In the photo below, this sand pit is informal. It’s been developed through years of sand being moved from a nearby school sandpit. It’s a quieter and gives a group of children more peace to play.

Oz informal sand pit

Wind-blow can also be reduced through screening with plants and trees.

“Sandpits are not accessible by children who can’t walk or who are in wheelchairs…”

With a little bit of creativity they can be. Below, the sandpit is for 1 and 2 yr old children in an outdoor nursery in Sweden where the children have year round access in all weathers. The ramp is there for the children to crawl up.

Depending on the individual needs of each child, sand can be provided at a table outside. Long handled tools, buckets on string and other props can be used for children to access sand. Some children enjoy sitting, rolling around, lying in sand and even being buried. Ask and discuss with each child, building upon their ideas, suggestions and reactions to sand.

Above is a sand table designed for wheelchair users who can’t leave their seats. It came highly recommended from a friend who works at a Camphill School. Below is a public sandpit (note no cover and the smooth raking) which provides a gentle ramp for buggies, etc.

Accessible Sand pit

I also saw a beautifully designed inclusive public play space for children. In Perth, the Nature Play Solutions Landscape Architect, Wendy Seymour, ensured the sand feature can be accessed at wheelchair height at the Theatre Gardens Playspace. Also, beside the sand is a “shuffle-along” seat. Anyone can sit there, but a child with mobility issues can move themselves down into the ground level sand, should they wish to do so. Subtle and clever!

Nature Play Solutions

Finally, if you have EVER blogged about sandpits and children playing in sand, please leave a link to your posts in the comments section. Thank you very very much. Also the first photo comes from a lovely nursery, Milford Lodge, up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland.

This is an updated version of a post which originally appeared in July 2010.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Gwynneth Beasley July 17, 2010 at 21:38

Seriously – if those are parents comments about sandpits it is no wonder kids have nature deficit disorder. Staining? COld? Hot? You are kidding! I am pretty sure the majority of Australian kids have sandpits in their back yards when they are young, some are just temporary, and I don’t think any of the kids get stained clothes from it! Thanks for debunking some of the myths!

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jenny July 17, 2010 at 22:07

Great post Juliet! As for it being too hot in Australia for sandpits – we have a giant shade cloth over ours, problem solved. And on those incredibly hot days, we might “close” the sandpit for those dangerous midday hours. Actually, if you wet the sand the sandpit is the coolest place to be on hot days (if it is protected from the sun)

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Teacher Tom July 18, 2010 at 00:09

ROAR on, sister!

We went many years without an outdoor sandpit, but having added one earlier this year, I’m seeing such amazing play and confidence developing among the kids. I’m lucky to have a community of parents who expect their kids to come home dirty, cold, sweating, and with every pocket filled with sand.

We’ve also become an indoor-outdoor school this year, which means there is sand all over the classroom floor every day, and since we’re a co-op those same parents are responsible for cleaning it up. Instead of complaining, they’re working to come up with solutions WITHOUT EVEN INVOLVING ME!! It’s fantastic! Just last week one mom brought in a variety of mats to try out by the doors to help kids knock the sand off their shoes. We’ve had to send our vacuum to be repaired 3 times since we started this and no one has complained. I’m very lucky.

And by the way, that burlap bag sandbox cover was sewn largely by the children themselves with the help of one of our parents with sewing skills!

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Debi July 18, 2010 at 03:52

The timing of your post couldn’t be better – I just posted about our backyard beach (http://goexplorenature.blogspot.com/2010/07/fun-friday-backyard-beach.html). Ours is mobile & kept in the shadiest part of the backyard. And the kids love it. Boo hoo to those who knock it! :o)

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Juliet Robertson July 18, 2010 at 08:40

Thanks for all your thoughts. It’s been a funny sort of week. I’ve been interviewed for two different research projects about various outdoor learning matters.

In both, the subject of barriers to getting children came up. Now I could go down the line of blaming heath and safety bureaucracy, or parents, or lack of resources and money, etc., etc., etc. But the biggest barrier is our mindsets.

Indeed I’d argue it’s our only barrier. Where there is a will there’s a way. Where people aren’t willing, there is no way or a harder way.

We’re in the business of changing minds and hearts as well as children’s lives.

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SquiggleMum July 18, 2010 at 11:58

Nice one Juliet! Here’s a post of mine about setting up our backyard sand area:

http://squigglemum.com/kids/backyard-sand-play/

And here’s another too, on a bit of a tangent, about my son tossing sand around and the lesson he taught me!

http://squigglemum.com/faith/with-joy/

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Iain July 20, 2010 at 13:27

Thanks for the mention Juliet. In the last few weeks we have been approached by several local authorities who have received grants to build play facilities including sandpits, so we are reformulating a concentrate to give periodic treatment of large areas.
Our best advice is to rake out all debris before you use the sand pit and regularly give toys a clean. For those worried about animals we recommend putting a net or wire mesh over the area (dependent on size). This allows the wind, rain and sun in which will keep inhospitable for bacteria moulds and fungi and keeps out animals, twigs and large leaves.
Please email me if anyone has any specific queries!

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Helen Reeve April 9, 2015 at 07:11

Hi Iain. We have a large sandpit which we currently cover with a tarp, but reading this I’m not sure if this is the best idea? We have guinea fowl who like to wander through and poo in our garden so we need to protect the sand from them. What would you recommend?

Many thanks.

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Juliet Robertson April 9, 2015 at 07:27

Hello Helen

It’s Juliet here! Iain runs Toyguard and probably doesn’t check this blog that often! Thanks for your comment.

It all depends on how you manage your guinea fowl as well as how you manage your sandpit. I would agree, keeping the sandpit free from guinea fowl poo is matters. Tarps do this job nicely – but make sure the tarp is removed daily (give or take) and the sand pit is used. Another option could be to consider simple barriers around the sandpit that prevent the guinea fowl from entering – the children may have some suggestions to try here.

The LtL advice sheet gives advice about sterilising areas of sand when poo is found which may be useful.

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Juliet Robertson July 20, 2010 at 17:27

Catherine – It was your sandpit blog that caught my attention several months ago and made my heart sing with joy because a big parent blogger is espousing the simple pleasures of spending time outside with her children.

Iain – As usual great advice. I just wish more people would listen to you! Iain – founded Toyguard several years ago and is not the run-of-the-mill businessman. When I first met him, he was on a rant about how it’s the children that matter!!!

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homeage July 21, 2010 at 11:44

I can’t believe people getting so worked up about sandpits! Sandpits are probably cleaner than most beaches I’ve been to, and I can’t wait to put one in my yard (when I have one!) I have only ever encouraged my daughter to play in sand and dirt (even if the sand is the black kind and she is wearing a pretty white dress! Fun is more important than laundry!).

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Eileen Laurie April 9, 2015 at 06:07

I live in Sweden, probably wetter and colder and windier than most of the UK. There are sand pits in the schools. The children wear outdoor clothes. It is not so complicated.
Thanks for the site!

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Juliet Robertson April 9, 2015 at 07:19

Hello Eileen

Thanks for your comment! I should have mentioned “Scandinavian countries” in the same breath as “Australia” – you are correct – lots of sandpits and little fuss about them.

PS Really enjoyed reading your website. Thanks for providing the link.

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Suzanne April 14, 2015 at 20:06

On my page about parks and playspaces in Stockholm you are able to see sandboxes in all seasons in use…

Many parks are like giant sandboxes – not always so much fun on dry windy days – or when sand is on the tarmac and creates a slippery surfaces or blocks drains… so it is good to sweep in your own yard/setting to ensure that there are not too many falls – and that at the next heavy rain the place does not get swamped… I have experienced both …

BUT without a shadow of a doubt the sandbox is a fabulous space…

The children were busy in the sand today… it is SO nice when it is no longer frozen like concrete…

http://interactionimagination.blogspot.se/p/parks-and-play-in-stockholm.html

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Juliet Robertson April 14, 2015 at 21:21

Thanks Suzanne – the links to your blog posts are super and much appreciated. The reasons you cite about sand as a safety surface in playgrounds is precisely why some playground equipment companies prefer not to use sand. I suppose it is all about balancing the pros with the cons here.

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