The swamp maples are showing a hint of fall color, but summer is still very much with us, and the outdoors is warm, spring-bug free, and perfect for outdoor play. But over the bleating of the TV in the family room comes a petulant "Mommeeeee, whaaaaat can I doooooo?"—a sure sign that school vacation is winding down. If the kids are small, you find yourself barking, "Time Out!" more often than you like. If you've a preteen, anything but a day of mall-crawling is "Borrr-ing!" Everyone in the family is anxious for school to start—children too, even if they won't admit it—but there are still weeks of freedom for them to endure ...for you all to endure.
What say you off "Barney" or "Hollywood 9-0-whatever-0," herd the kids outside, and all of you get to work building a kids' sandpit big enough for serious excavating? Add in a shovel and bucket and a few other simple wheeled toys and together they offer much of the fun of a trip to the shore.
Let the kids help dig the sandpit, measure and hand-saw wood, hammer, and paint. Give kids a series of small jobs they can complete success fully ...even if it does take twice as long—or perhaps because it does. Make the projects family fun rather than work. It's still vacation, remember?
The best-used outdoor "toy" I ever made for our kids and their little pals was the sandpit—about a cubic yard (29 cubic feet or 50 buckets) of sand dumped into a 1 1/2' deep, 3' x 4' oblong hole dug in the lawn of the side yard. Singly or two to four at a time, the children would spend hours there, building roads and caverns and hideouts. Without much squabbling either; sand play is physically active but focused. There were plenty of Tonkas and homemade sand scrapers, scoopers, haulers, and building blocks to go around. Plus, this was when Star Wars first came out, and model Sand People were right at home stalking R2D2 and 3CPO through the minidunes.
Now that the children are college age, the pit has gone back to lawn and you'd never know it existed. But under the sod, between the quince bush and big apple tree, is a wedge of well-broken-in sand waiting to be uncovered and topped up for grandchildren, if and when. They'll find a small fortune in lost Star Wars figurines buried there if they dig deep enough.
Size and Shape
To determine the size pit you need, wait till your kids get down on their hands and knees—head-to-head, playing together with little cars, model animals, or small dolls. You'll see that two children establish a more or less target-shaped play space: a one-to-three-foot-diameter joint-play circle inside a larger maneuvering circle from four to five feet in diameter. Three children need perhaps six inches more in circle diameter, and four a bit more still. Surrounding the active play space is a ring of floor space where they will keep toys not in active use.
Our sandpit was built when Sam and Martha were two and four years old and requiring constant supervision, so it had to be placed in eye-shot of the kitchen and sun room windows. The best location on our place was in the lawn, just a few steps from the kitchen porch and shaded at midday by a spreading apple tree—an important consideration now that we know how full sun can do serious damage to fair skin.
When the excavation was a foot deep, I encountered a huge apple-tree root that was too big to be grubbed out easily and large enough that I felt the tree needed it more than we need a perfectly round sandpit. So I ended up digging out a kind of peanut shape, a little less than a yard wide and some five feet long. As I watched the kids play in it over the years, I decided that the tree root had put me onto the ideal sand pit shape. The curved oval offered adequately separated independent-play spaces at each end, joint play space in the middle, and a racetrack all around.
Once site, size, and shape are decided, you need to dig the pit, assuring that it will hold shape and drain quickly. Cut out sod in easily moved chunks. You can plug good sod into bare spots in the lawn, or stack it upside-down to molder into the compost. Do not just dump the sod in a split-donut-shaped rim around the pit thinking it will reduce the digging needed, and help keep sand in. I followed that reasoning and can attest that it is impossible to mow the grass on the round hump without scalping the top and stalling the mower. If you do want to rim the pit with sod, pack a sloping fillet of thin sod chunks or top soil around the outer edge to form a gently sloping volcano shape that can be mowed easily.
Dig out the dark-colored top soil and add to compost or scatter in the garden. If it is as good as was the loamy soil under our apple tree, screen out rocks and mix with compost for potting soil. When you get to light-colored subsoil, you may need a square-ended cutting spade or even a mattock or pick to remove it ...but do dig till you get down 18 inches, and two feet is better to let the kids dig really satisfying pits and tunnels.
If your subsoil is hardpan or clay, the pit may not drain well, and stagnant water can make the sand smell like a swamp. If the sandpit is on a slope, dig a narrow trench out from the pit bottom in a slight down angle till it exits the brow of the hill. Put in perforated drainage pipe or drain tile or fill with crushed rock or coarse gravel, cover with a layer of plastic sheeting, and replace soil and sod. Or, in the center of the pit, use a posthole digger to grub out a dry well a foot across and as deep as you can reach, and fill with rubble, stones, or crushed rock.
Rim the pit cleanly by digging an undercut around the rim—scraping about six inches of soil out from under the sod all around. Especially if soil is wet, loose, or sandy, set corrugated metal or plastic lawn edging in under the sod all around the cut to keep the edge from subsiding, and letting topsoil intrude into the sand wedge. The edging will also bar soil critters from moving in and will slow the inevitable mingling of soil with sand. Don't run the edging up to ground level, as the sharp edge could cut a child; push the ring of sod jutting beyond the undercut down over the edging to form a rounded lip at the pit's edge. The mower won't reach down, but the kids will keep grass around the lip worn down.