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Sand and Water Play for Young Children

By Rosalind Heiko

Sand and water play is intrinsic to working in play therapy. In my office, I have three main trays of sand and rock (one is garnet sand, one is micro bead sand, and one is beach sand), another one of kinetic sand, another of desert sand and…well, you get the idea. I’m obsessed with sand.

One of the earliest memories I have of my son at age one and a half was his distaste and screams when placed on on sand at the beach. Fortunately, he and his family love beach visits now. But it took a lot of patience and time for us to acclimate him in getting used to the sensory experience of touching, sifting and playing at the beach when he was an infant and toddler. I have the opposite experience in my playroom when introducing children to its delights. Most children delve into the trays with gusto, although more anxious and withdrawn children tend to be more reticent about putting their hands and figures into the sand.

The sensory experience of sand can be enormously interesting, challenging and inviting. Crosser (2008) describes an exploration sequence for young children whereby they can at their own pace, tentatively engage with sand and water play. She notes that learning in this way and with these materials, promotes:

a) physical development [i.e., sifting, scooping, pouring, digging];

b) social skills [i.e., groups of children explore and work together to share, compromise,

negotiate, and engage in play schemas];

c) cognitive development [i.e., helping the children develop concepts through presenting an enriched sand environment];

d) mathematical concepts [i.e., by providing measuring, balancing and counting opportunities];

e) the utilization of mathematical terms {“…like more/less; many/few; empty/full; heavy/light”];

f) the development of science concepts” [e.g., through investigating patterns and utilizing magnets, buried treasure, ropes and pulleys for buckets, punching holes in a plastic bottle filled with sand, running ramps, sieves, funnels, filters and gravel];

g) the development of language skills [i.e., by writing names in the sand, and telling stories about their play in the sand].

Her article is packed with wonderful suggestions for teachers and parents to use accessories such as “…common objects and household discards that might spark ideas when paired with sand”. Going through our kitchen drawers can elicit strainers, sifters, scoopers and more

Crosser concluded that “It is through purposeful, self-self-initiated play that children move beyond the world of what is to become the strongest, the wisest, the most competent and skilled participants in the world of what could be“. When we provide containers of sand and water for play - or just bring our children to the beach, lakeshore or local park sand pit - they can make some amazing discoveries and absorb some fascinating lessons.

Rosalind Heiko, PhD, RPT-S, ISST(aka Dr. Roz), is a is a licensed Psychologist, certified School Psychologist, and a Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor with APT and a certified Sandplay teacher with ISST who trains therapists internationally and nationally. Her new book, A Therapist’s Guide to Mapping the Girl Heroine’s Journey in Sandplay, was just published with Rowman & Littlefield (July 2018). Her chapter ”Tempered in the fire: Self-care & mindfulness in preventing clinical burn-out” is published in Integrative family play therapy: A new paradigm by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers (2015). She is the Director of Pediatric & Family Psychology, P.A. in Cary, NC, specializing in working with trauma with children, adolescents and families professionally since 1983. She believes wholeheartedly in the power of laughter and the delight that play therapy brings to her clients and trainees. You can reach her through her website:


Crosser, S. (2008).

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