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
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
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
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.