Thursday, May 19, 2016

Creating naturalistic play areas - Part 1: ADDING SAND AND GRAVEL

Creating a natural playscape for a childcare setting can be quite an investment. As tempted as we may be by all the ideas swarming Pinterest, the reality is that many of us cannot afford such fantastic features or don't have the time nor the skills to design them. That's why I've started writing about easy, simple and cost-effective ways to implement outdoor play ideas using mainly natural materials or recycled materials.

Welcome to Part 1 of our new series "Creating Naturalistic play areas": Adding sand and gravel.

If you have missed the introduction post to this series, click right here:  Creating naturalistic play areas

So.... today, it's going to be all about Sand pit and gravel pit.
Sand and gravel are fantastic open-ended materials you can find abundantly in Nature. And they appeal to all children no matter how old they are.

In my setting, these are definitely two of the main attractions in the garden.  I have always had a sand pit. I started with one children could jump in. Unfortunately, I can't find any pictures of our intial sandpit but here are some similar ones:

I love the way they have used tree logs to mark the border of their sand pit. The picture comes from the Elite Childcare Solutions

I wish I could have one like this with a tree right in the middle

Now, my first sandpit was not as good as the two in the photos above. No way. But it did the trick for a while. As we live in a rural area by the sea, there are lots of unwanted creatures wandering our grounds at night time. I needed to have a cover but our sand pit had a funny shape and was too large to cover. So I decided to get a big sandpit on legs, wide enough for lots of fun but with a proper wooden cover. OK kids didn't have the pleasure anymore of jumping in feet first in the sand but they still loved it. My husband recycled left over ship lap planking to make it. He made a big square box added legs, a splash of paint. And voilĂ !
Now, I can hear a question coming: "what to add to a sandpit?". Loose materials is my answer. And I would also add very strongly: ALTERNATE!! Don't leave the same materials laying in the pit. The children need diversity and change to go further in their play. Challenge their imagination. Challenge their problem-solving skills. Use the season to choose what type of loose materials you will use. For instance in Autumn time, add leaves and why not small gourds to the sandpit? In Spring, add empty bird nests if you come across one. (We have lots of birds nesting in our trees and many of them end up on the ground during storms). Or even freshly picked wild flowers. The possibilities are endless.

After a year or so, the sand started seeping through the bottom of the pit. I got in touch with one of the children's fathers who was a carpenter and who recommended MARINE PLYWOOD. Marine plywood is a little more pricy , I admit,  but it is durable and performs much better and much longer when exposed to moisture. With our very wet weather here in Ireland, that's exactly what I needed. All in all I think I paid €95 for the wood. Once again I relied on my husband 's DIY skills to make our new sandpit. Here is our new sand pit today:

As you can see there is nothing fancy about it but it is big, and at least 8 children can play happily around it without being squished and squashed! If there is a garage nearby, ask for any old tyres and use them as individual little sand pits too, just like the one below:

Or leave you sand pit on the ground and make its boundaries with tree logs or rocks as seen above. It doesn't have to be a sand pit on legs. But before you create your sand pit area, think about how you can cover it up. If your pit has a funny shape or if it is too big, finding a way to cover it up might tricky or expensive. Here are some examples of what can be done as a cover:

Attach a dowel rod at the end of the tarp with zip ties through the grommets to use as a roller/stretcher.

After a while I realised that the children were adding gravel from the ground to the sandpit and I thought "why don't you add another pit but fill it up with gravel this time?". No need to make a new one. Our old sand pit was laying there completely redundant. Gravel would not seep through its bottom, so there we go! I asked my dear husband if he could make a new cover for it as the old one was pretty heavy. This time he decided to use clear lights (transparent corrugated sheeting).

We recycled some left over from a building site nearby so it only cost me €14 altogether for the wooden frame and the screws. I added pieces of wood, bigger rocks bark, shovels trucks .. and plastic animals at the request of the children (we also had plastic dinosaurs for a while). Oh Boy!! It became such a big hit among the children.

The sensorial experiences are infinite and imagination runs riot around these 2 pits. Children suggest, guess, estimate, compromise, solve problems among themselves all the time. The benefits are limitless and yet, 90% of the materials used are completely natural.

For more ideas for easy built /easy made sand pits and gravel pits, check up my Pinterest board below. Again, there are tons of different ways to make a sand/gravel pit. Some require more work and money than others. The idea is to keep it simple I think and to use nature as a canvas.

Click here for my Pinterest board

Again, there are tons of different ways to make a sand/gravel pit. Some require more work and money than others. The idea is to keep it simple I think and to use nature as a canvas.

And please, please share with me anything you may have done at home or in your own setting. I would love to hear how you created a sand/gravel area to your outdoor space. Leave a comment below. Thank you.



  1. This is an incredibly beautiful outdoor space! I can see that you put a lot of thought and love into it.

    1. Thank you Vanessa. it's an ongoing process and there are so many possibilities. I am trying to keep it simple but enticing to all age groups. Recycling is definitely a key word as well as "natural".. Thanks for reading my blog. I will make sure to check your website shortly.


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