Allie Ticktin, MA, OTD, OTR/L, SIPT - June 13, 2022
Everyone loves a cute picture of kids building a sand castle at the playground or being buried in the sand at the beach. But, sand play –– while super fun and developmentally beneficial –– doesn’t come naturally to all children. Whether you’re just starting your journey with introducing sensory play experiences to your child, or you’re looking for new ways to mix it up, sand sensory play is a great place to start. When it comes to sensory play, sand is an important tool used in occupational therapy, and it’s an easy play activity that can be replicated at home and, well, the beach!
What Is Sensory Play?
Sensory play is any type of game or activity that engages children’s senses. While we usually only think about the five senses of taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight, we have three other senses: proprioception (body awareness), vestibular (sense of movement), and intercoeption (internal awareness). Infants, toddlers and preschoolers learn best through activities that stimulate these seven senses.
Sensory play can provide children with a wide range of skills they will carry into the rest of their lives. From problem-solving and basic math to social skills like sharing and planning, as well as physical motor skills like jumping, climbing, cutting, scooping, and pouring.
Additionally, playing with sensory tools—like cold jello, sticky noodles, warm grains of rice, etc.—can help children get comfortable with the different textures in the world around them. As adults we forget that most new encounters can feel like big, foreign experiences like new tastes, textures, sounds, and feelings. Sensory play can help introduce children to and feel more at ease with these new experiences on a small, controlled scale. The process can also help them associate trying new things with good memories.
Most of all, it creates a safe space for them to engage with smell, textures, or tastes without expectations. If you have a child who struggles with particular textures, like spaghetti noodles’ slimy texture, playing with them without any expectations might help them adjust to it.
What Is Sand Sensory Play?
Sand play is not only fun, but it is also valuable as well. Regardless if it’s at the playground, in a sandbox, at a sand table, or at the beach, playing with sand can provide a lot more than a good time. Sand sensory play is also therapeutic. Play is the language of children and the sand tray provides a safe medium for expression, free from judgment. It’s also kinesthetic in quality. The experience of touching and manipulating the sand can be therapeutic.
Sand is an especially great way to get textures into the hands of children with tactical sensitivities.
What Are The Benefits of Sand Sensory Play?
Both sand and water play are excellent ways for children to express themselves and provide a multitude of therapeutic benefits that can help with sensory processing difficulties. But these tools aren’t only necessary for difficulties; they’re awesome activities to foster growth and development in any child. And, one of the best things about sand and water play is that it is beneficial for a wide age range of children. You can use some of the same toys for your one-year-old as your five-year-old. Bottom line: it’s a great material and tool for learning.
Gross & Fine Motor Skills
When your toddler uses buckets and scoops to pour sand into a toy truck it helps develop their gross motor skills and strengthens muscles. The effort of grasping and holding the shovel, pouring and stirring water, and squeezing toys will develop his fine motor skills. For instance, some children may have difficulty holding a pencil, but find it easier to write in the sand. It also aids in hand-eye coordination and the use of both hands together to play.
Sand is a great way to provide sensory experiences for children as they introduce them to different textures such as slippery, slimy, gritty. Sand allows children to learn with hands-on materials to take in new information through their senses. Also the heavy work of scooping, crying etc can assist with calming down their bodies.
Sand play also allows your child to develop their social skills by learning to share toys and space, wait for a turn and make conversation. It encourages role play and crucial social skills like cooperation and sharing.
Sand play is a surprisingly valuable tool for self-regulation. This type of heavy work can offer proprioceptive input, which has a calming effect by grounding the body. It can help dysregulated children focus and slow down by helping to calm their bodies and regulate.
Sand Sensory Play Ideas
If you’re looking for ways to get your child exposed to the many benefits and fun sand play can offer, here are a few ideas. If you’re not having a natural sand play experience at the beach or playground, you can buy clean sand specifically for sensory play activities online or any educational store.
Make Your Own Colored Sand
You can make your own colored sand by pouring a small amount of vegetable dye into a bowl of sand. If your children are able, allow them to mix the sand and dye together themselves so they can be a part of the creative process and exercise their motor skills at the same time. Your children will have fun playing with sand in a variety of colors. And, you can take this activity one step further and turn your sand play into an art project by pouring the colored sand into a clear jar in layers of different colors to create your own unique designs.
Parents can breathe easy with kinesthetic sand. It has all the benefits of sand play without the mess. Kinetic Sand lets your children pull, shape, and mold sand into creative and colorful shapes that stick to each other. It feels dry, but is easily moldable, and doesn’t dry out. Some examples for play using kinetic sand: use cookie cutters, write in the sand with a pencil or stick, make impressions in the sand with household objects or toys, sculpt an object, excavate army men or small dinosaur fossils, play kitchen, or use a plastic knife to slice the sand into chunks to practice fine motor and utensil skills.
Writing is often a tedious skill for children to practice, especially if they’re feeling trapped behind a desk when they would rather be playing. Have your child practice their writing skills in sand as part of their playtime. Build a sandcastle, then have them name it and write that name in the sand. Draw animals and have them write the names of those animals. Or, have them write their own name and age in their sandbox.
Bury Toys in the Sand
Practice tactile discrimination by having your child just use their sense of touch to find an object without their sense of sight by burying toys in the sand and having your child search for them. Any kind of small toy will work, but your child will enjoy the adventure more when you use toys or objects your child likes best.
As an extra sensory experience, add water to sand play. Make mud, sandcastles, dams, and more by mixing together water and sand. Since dry and wet sand have two very different textures, your children can become used to more textures and have additional opportunities for increasing their sensory comfort. Your children will also be able to practice fine motor skills such as dumping, scooping, mixing and pouring.
Whether your children enjoy digging for dinosaurs, molding sand into fun shapes, writing in the sand, or making creative art, these activities will help them feel more comfortable around tactile input (or different textures) and are an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
Sand Play Watchouts
However, as with any new sensory experience, it’s important not to force your child. Some kids do not like the feeling of sand initially and will be resistant. Don’t get frustrated or discouraged! This is totally normal. Instead, pull back and introduce it slowly as they are ready - always let them come to it on their own terms. If your child exhibits reticence to sand play, try again by placing the sand on a blanket for them to explore, or putting sand inside a container like a bowl. Have your child experience the sand by stirring with a spoon, instead of directly with their hands. Another alternative to sand is to blend cereal like Cheerios into edible sand to place in a sensory bin.It’s especially great for toddlers who might still be at the mouthing phase.
No matter how you introduce sand to your child, have fun and be patient.