The precise genesis of sand play and the original rationale for it are not known, but it is a quite natural evolution from the kinds of informal play with earth that children all over the world seem to engage in during early childhood. Sand was a cheap and hygienic solution to early educational theorists' suggestions of the value of free play with materials. The earliest references to children's sand play appear in accounts of playgrounds in mid-nineteenth-century Germany. The educational ideas in this part of the world were greatly influenced by the writings of Friedrich Froebel, who introduced the concept of the kindergarten, or children's garden. His writing stresses the importance of free play and children's contact with nature, and in his plan of a model kindergarten he encouraged the design of a garden. This offered opportunities for children to contact natural materials, including perhaps sand, but he did not specifically include a sand area in his design. The first known use of sand for play provision is the heaps of sand called sand bergs piled in the public parks of Berlin in 1850. The kindergarten movement in Germany went on to include sandboxes in their design in the latter half of the century, and in 1889 an issue of the newspaper of the Pestalozzi/Froebel children's houses described how to build a sandbox.
The idea was brought to the United States in 1885 after the physician Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska saw a sand berg in a Berlin public park. The first "sand gardens," very large sandboxes, were built in Boston. In his 1922 book on the growth of the national playground movement, the sand garden is described by the sociologist Lee Rainwater as the first stage of public playground design. The idea caught on quickly in the United States, and by 1889 there were twenty-one of them in Boston and one in New York City. They were created mostly in poor neighborhoods, often alongside settlement houses for servicing the children of immigrants, and were managed by women. One was built in 1892 in Chicago at the famous community settlement house called Hull-House. The idea of public sand play places grew rapidly in Europe and the United States in the early part of the twentieth century and later spread to the other industrialized countries.
In 1887 G. Stanley Hall, the pioneer of child study in the United States, wrote The Story of a Sand-Pile, wherein he dwelled upon its great values for learning through symbolic and social play. He observed that boys in particular were active in this play and continued to be so until about fifteen years of age. While children today rarely play with this medium after the early childhood years, it does seem to offer opportunities for a wider age range of children than any other material except water, with which it is generally coupled. Authors of early childhood education subsequently wrote consistently about the developmental benefits of sand play, and sandboxes became basic to the design of kindergartens. But sand play provision declined in public spaces in the later twentieth century due to growing concerns over its supposed toxicity due to animal feces and a decreased willingness of municipal agencies to carry out the necessary occasional maintenance.
From the earliest photographs of sandboxes in the United States and Europe we can see that they had wheelbarrows, rakes, buckets and spades, and molds of animal and other shapes. Today implements are usually limited to smaller tools, and these are made of plastic rather than metal.
See also: Playground Movement; Theories of Play.
Frost, J. L. 1989. "Play Environments for Young Children in the USA: 1800–1990." Children's Environments 6, no. 4. Also available from <http://cye.colorado.edu>.
Hall, G. Stanley. 1887. The Story of a Sand-Pile. New York and Chicago: E. L. Kellogg.
Rainwater, Lee. 1922. The Playground Movement.
Roger A. Hart
sand·box / ˈsan(d)ˌbäks/ • n. 1. a shallow box or hollow in the ground partly filled with sand for children to play in. 2. (also sandbox tree) a tropical American tree (Hura crepitans) of the spurge family whose seed cases were formerly used to hold sand for blotting ink.