What science happens in your sandbox?

A child looks at a row of cone-shaped holes in a sandbox.A pile of sand, a sandbox or a sensory table full of sand are tools for imaginative play, sensory exploration and science investigations.  In the April 2013 issue of Science and Children, the Early Years column, I wrote about how children wondered what made a series of cone-shaped pits in a line in the sandbox. Their question came after a long period of unstructured play and it inspired an investigation into how water can move sand.

Children build with wet sand at a sensory table.As children work with dry and wet sand, they notice and make use of the differences due to the properties of water:

  • Wet sand sticks together and can be made into deep holes and tall “mountains.” Footprints and other impressions are easy to make and see in wet sand.
  • Children scoop, pour, and measure dry sand in a sensory table.Dry sand can slide off a shovel and flow into a hole or fill a bucket.

The water molecules adhering to sand grains and each other aren’t visible to the children but they can explore this property, and think about how that is the same or different from the way other materials behave.

Some teachers bury small objects, such as shells, for children to discover while digging. In nature, sand and other sediments cover and bury objects and previously laid down layers of sediment.

Using a magnifier children can see the shape of the sand grains and notice different colors.

Child feels the sunlit sand.Children may notice the temperature differences between sand in direct sunlight and sand in the shade.

Impressions made by feet or objects can be filled with wet plaster of Paris (mixed by an adult in a plastic bag) and later pulled out of the sand to reveal the cast of the shape. Some fossils are formed when the space that a dead plant or animal occupied is filled with minerals over time.

Early childhood programs that have a water source that can be used with the sandbox provide an opportunity for children to create and observe water flow. As children work, ask them to tell you what they notice is happening. Record their words, have them write or draw about their observations. This documentation, along with their recollection of the experiences, is their evidence for any statements they make about the properties of sand and the force of moving water. Talking about what they observe is an important part of learning. Sharing their ideas about why and how is part of “doing science.”

These early childhood investigations and experiences support later learning about properties of liquids, engineering design, earth science concepts such as erosion and sedimentation, energy, forces and motion, and systems. Take a look at the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for K-grade 2 and see how the performance expectations (and the practices, core ideas and crosscutting concepts they were developed from) are supported by sandbox play and investigations. The NSTA has guides to the NGSS to help us use them in teaching children from early childhood and up.

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  1. Marie Faust Evitt
    Posted April 21, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m so glad you wrote about sandbox activities, Peggy. So much learning happens while playing with sand! We use our large outdoor sandbox virtually every day in my preschool class. Sometimes it’s for specific curriculum explorations such as how craters might form on the Moon or how people can build roads and bridges. Most often the sandbox is an area for free exploration—digging holes and building sand castles.

    I think the children’s favorite explorations take place when we hook up water hoses and let water flow down rain gutters into the sandbox. They love channeling the water to create streams and ponds. They try to dam the water with sand and often discover how the water eventually wins.

    I love your idea in your April Early Years column in Science and Children of introducing squirt bottles and turkey basters to the sandbox to explore on a smaller scale how water moves sand. I’m going to try that soon.

  2. Lexie Will
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Throughout many of my classroom experiences, I have seen the sand tables/buckets used in a number of ways. One way they were used was in a Kindergarten classroom where the students were investigating the sand, digging for objects hidden in the sand, and studying the properties of sand by what they felt (working with the senses). Using sand buckets/tables in a classroom allows for teachers to be creative and implement a variety of inquiry experiences in the classroom. The students love to explore, and using sand buckets is a great way to get students engaged, active, interactive, and investigating/exploring in the classroom.

  3. Ashley Rodeberg
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    During an experience in a Kindergarten classroom, I was also able to observe students interacting with sensory sand buckets. At these buckets the students would search for fossils that they had made earlier that week, along with dinosaur toys. While doing this, they were focusing on being paleontologists and what they do for their career.

    By using the sand and hiding different objects in it, the students were able to explore a different texture of material along with being able to experience the life of a paleontologist and fully understand what they do. This added more excitement and reality to the activity that simply giving the students samples of fossils and dinosaur toys and telling them what paleontologists do for a job would do for them.

    I really like the idea of including how water effects the sand and all of the different variables that can be included!

  4. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Marie, Lexie and Ashley,
    Thanks for contributing your experiences and thoughts about how the sandbox can be a site for science learning. I love to see how Marie’s students work in their outdoor space (see the Thinking Big Learning Big Facebook page). They are mighty builders!
    Lexie, what kind of questions did the students have about sand?
    Ashley, imaginative play about being a scientist can be inspired by reading about the work of scientists. “Scientists at Work: Dinosaur Hunters” by Richard and Louise Spilsbury (2007, Heinemann) is an NSTA Recommends reviewed book. It is recommended for grades 3-5 but the photographs are accessible for younger students, and teachers can read just one section at a time. “Bones, Bones, Dinosaur Bones” by Byron Barton (1990 HarperCollins) has been a long time favorite for preschoolers.

  5. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted May 13, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Take a look at these preschool students designing a system to carry water and direct the flow, in the Thinking BIG Learning BIG Facebook album https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.576326925724839.1073741860.115622591795277&type=1

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