How to Promote Learning While Playing in the Sandbox

Where is a great place for toddlers to get a sensory experience while learning?  If you guessed the sandbox then you are correct!


Summer is here which means there are lots of opportunities for your little one to learn, explore, and enjoy the outdoors.  If your little one will be spending some time in the sandbox then this guide will help you to encourage development in all areas while you are digging and building sandcastles!  This guide is broken up into the different areas of development so that you can easily navigate and target any area you would like to focus on.  Many of the activities work on multiple areas of development.  So lets dig in!


Following Directions

Have your little one work on their receptive language skills (how they understand language) by having them follow simple one step directions such as, “Give mommy the shovel.”  Once they have mastered single steps directions try for two step directions.  This is a bit more complicated and will take a while for your little one to master.  Ask them to “Get the bucket then fill it with sand,” to try out a more challenging two step direction.

Taking Shoes and Socks Off

No one likes to play in a sandbox with their shoes and socks…it is just not right!  Instead of taking your little ones shoes and socks off for them, let them do it!  This is a great time to let them practice a skill that will help them to become more independent. It is easy to get in a rush and do things for our little ones to save on time.  They need opportunities to practice themselves and this no-hurry situation is perfect! Help them along the way if they need it, but give them a chance to do it by themselves.  Make sure to give them some positive praise after they have tried out this new task!



Grab a shovel and show your little one how to dig!  If they don’t know how model the skill first, and then help them by using hand-over-hand assistance.  Once they get the hang of it back off on helping and let them fill the bucket all by themselves.


Label Emotions

Some children love the sandbox…others hate it!  Talk to your toddler about how they feel about it.  Tell them it is “ok” if they are sad or scared of the sandbox.  If they dive right in tell them that they look excited or happy. By labeling emotions your encouraging them to be able to identify their own emotions and regulate them as well.

Imaginary Play

Bring your toy animals, dinosaurs, trucks, and cars all in the sandbox to practice imaginary play skills.  Help your little one make noises for them (the car goes “vroom”, the cow says “moo”.)  Model for them how to make a pretend sand muffin or how to build a garage for their trucks.  Click here for a great example of how to teach your toddler through imaginary play!


Grab a shovel and start filling up a bucket with sand, then ask your little one if they would like a turn with your shovel.  Modeling sharing is one of the BEST ways to teach your little one to do it. After you have modeled this a few different times see if they start offering you their shovel.  If not, ask them if you can have a turn or trade with them.

Many times we think that sharing can only be taught with other children present but one of the best ways is to actually practice at home with their parent first. ( If you would like more tips on sharing I created a quick guide to make it a bit easier, just subscribe so we can email it to you!)



Wet/dry is a good place to start when teaching your toddler about opposites.  If your sand box is deep enough your little one may find a wet layer of sand at the bottom.  If not you could always give them a little water to make the sand wet so they can see and feel the difference.

Big/small is another fun one to teach in the sandbox as you will have fun showing them how to make a big hill of sand or just a small one.


As your little one is shoveling sand into the bucket, count each time they pour in a scoop.  See how many scoops it takes to fill the whole bucket.  This is a great way to introduce those early math skills through play!

Early Literacy

Have your little one draw in the sand.  Model the skill for them by using your finger to spell out their name.  You can even help guide their little hand the first time they try to imitate you.  Early literacy skills do not always require books!  This pre-writing activity is a great way to have fun and learn at the same time!


Grow Vocabulary

Look around your sandbox and think about what words your toddler may have not heard before.  Time to pick out some target words!  You want to pick a variety of words that fit into the different types (nouns, verbs, and adjectives.)  Click here if you would like some extra tips and tricks on how to encourage your child’s language development. If you need some ideas on which words would work best just download the target list below to get started in the right direction.


About Kayla ONeill

This is me and my beautiful bouncing baby boy! Before my little guy arrived I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education Birth to 21 as well as my Masters in Education. For six years I worked as an Early Interventionist serving children and families from birth to age three before becoming a stay at home mom to be with my son.

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