Sand Sanitation and Safety

Adding sand play to your educational program enhances childhood development in the following ways:

  • Physically. Sand play improves fine-motor skills and hand-eye coordination
  • Cognitively. Sand play increases vocabulary, lets children explore changes in property between wet and dry sand, and lets children examine cause and effect (such as when sand is poured out of an object).
  • Socially and emotionally. Sand play gives children the opportunity to imitate others and encourages fantasy play.

Playing with sand allows children to learn about the physical properties of this substance. For example, children can experience how sand feels when it is wet and how it takes the shape of containers that it is packed into or when it is dry as it slips through their fingers or is poured out of a bucket. When they describe sand and how it feels–whether it is identified as gritty, grainy, or pebbly–children expand their vocabulary and learn cognitive skills. Playing in sand, whether indoors or outdoors in a sand tray, table, or sandbox, encourages children’s imaginations and allows them to develop language skills while they act out stories with toys, dolls, or other props.

Sand is the perfect activity for children of varying ages because each child can experience sand in a different and unique way, depending on their age and skill level. Besides the educational benefits, sand is a source of great entertainment for kids. But before you start filling the sandbox, you need to follow sanitation and safety precautions.

Sand Play Area

A safe sand experience begins when you choose the sand for your sandbox or sand tray. Purchase new, sterilized “natural sand” from a hardware, gardening, or toy store. This coarse sand, which is culled from beneath ponds and then sterilized, should be labeled for use in children’s sandboxes and should be a light tan color. However, keep in mind that such coarse sand, often used as a safe surface underneath playground equipment, will not stick together when dampened with water. Play sand, which also should be labeled for use in sandboxes, should stick together when dampened and will make the perfect medium for mold use and sandcastle building. Stay away from white or light powdery artificial sand because it may contain rocks, chunks, and materials made of asbestos, a material that is poisonous to both children and adults.

Once you have ensured the safety of the sand, be sure to choose sand toys that will minimize injuries while maximizing fun. Plastic toys (including buckets, shovels, and molds), vehicles (including boats, trucks, and cars), and household objects (including measuring cups, strainers, funnels, and containers) are good choices because they can be cleaned and sanitized after each use. Avoid toys or objects that contain wooden or metal parts since they may crack or rust if they become wet. Avoid small objects that pose choking hazards to children. Although digging for buried treasure is a favorite part of sand play, be sure that the treasures are safe and large enough to prevent choking hazards.

Sanitary Sand Play

Whether you use an outdoor sandbox or an indoor sand tray, keeping the sand area sanitized and clean is important for preventing the spread of germs. Both indoor and outdoor play sand should be discarded and replaced every two years. If the sand becomes contaminated sooner, dispose of the sand and purchase new natural sand for use. You should not attempt to sterilize sand; simply replace it as recommended.

If you replace sand and cover sandboxes from insects and animals as recommended, the risk of spreading diseases (such as ringworm) via sand is low. To prevent the spread of germs, children should wash their hands immediately before and after sand play. If a child has a diaper accident or diarrhea in a sandbox, replace the sand immediately and sanitize the sandbox before use to prevent potential illness.

Ideally, an outdoor sandbox should be kept covered when not in use. Uncovered sand may be an inviting litter box for roaming cats and birds, and bees may be attracted to food or beverage particles that children leave behind. If the sandbox did not come with a commercial cover, use a canvas or plastic tarp.

If your childcare program uses sand as a resilient surface around play equipment, covering the entire sand area each night may not be easy. Multiple large plastic or canvas tarps may be necessary to protect the sand from contamination. If this is not possible, and the sand remains uncovered, be sure to check the sand carefully for debris before each use. A window screen can be used as a sifter to remove any debris from the sand. If you find dangerous debris such as glass or animal waste in the sand area, do not allow children to play there.

Spilled sand can lead to falls and injuries. During indoor sand play, keep a broom and dustpan near the indoor sand table so spills can be easily cleaned up. Discard sand that falls on the floor or ground or save it for spreading on steps and walkways during winter; do not place the contaminated sand back in the sandbox or table. After outdoor sand play, use a soft brush to remove any sand particles from children’s clothes before they go back inside. Keep a mat by the door to reduce the amount of sand that is tracked indoors.

In addition, for both indoor and outdoor sand play, keep eating and drinking areas separate from the sandbox. If your childcare program has an outdoor picnic area, locate the sandbox far enough away so that spilled beverages or food particles do not become an attraction for bees or other insects.

Safe Sand Play

Constant, vigilant adult supervision is necessary and crucial to a safe and successful sand play experience. Children who play in sandboxes or at sand tables can ingest the sand or other play items, leading to injury. Distractions from supervising the children-including the telephone-should be eliminated or minimized so that you can pay careful attention to the children at play.

Although an adult should be supervising sand play, it also is wise to discuss sand safety rules with the children in your care. Make sure children know that throwing or eating sand is unacceptable and that they should be careful not to get sand in their own eyes or in another child’s eyes. (If outdoor winds are blowing sand into the children’s eyes, dampen the sand slightly with water before play.) It is inevitable that some children–especially toddlers–will attempt to ingest sand anyway, although most children will quickly realize that sand tastes terrible and will stop on their own. If a child tries to eat sand, simply respond firmly by telling the child that sand is for playing with, not eating.

If a child gets sand blown or thrown into his eyes, you should take the child to a sink with running water. Use a clean cup to pour cool water over the child’s eye to remove the sand particle. It is important not to discourage the child from crying since tears help to remove eye irritants. Encourage the child to blink repeatedly, and do not allow the child to rub her eye. Usually a few minutes of repeated flushing and blinking will remove the sand particle. If the child continues to complain of sand in the eye, seek medical attention. If the particle seems to have been flushed out, watch the child carefully; if you see any continuing irritation or redness, seek medical attention.

Be sure children are protected when they head to the sandbox. All children should wear shoes to protect their feet. Sunscreen of at least sun protection factor (SPF) 15, hats, sunglasses, and protective cotton clothing will help prevent painful sunburn. It also is advisable to avoid the peak hours of ultraviolet sun exposure from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. If there are no shade trees, then large beach umbrellas or canopies can provide shade and additional sun protection to outdoor sandboxes during sunny days.

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