If summer is anything, it is a golden opportunity to find an endless supply of sand where bridges, tunnels and castles can be constructed to express and feed the wildest imagination. We have fewer sandboxes in our back yards these days, so the beach is like going to heaven to escape the boring existence of our concrete jungles.
Sandboxes are a relatively recent and short-lived idea. They began to appear in America during the late 1800’s when G. Stanley Hall wanted to study child’s play. Since the experts of his day regarded child psychology as a waste of time, his research involving piles of sand to attract children who would come to play was landmark. It’s hard to remember that children of that era didn’t play, they worked. The industrial revolution was well underway, and adults believed all children needed to work because an idle mind was the devil’s workshop.
The concept of play didn’t originate in America. The idea of turning children loose in a garden where their imaginations could run wild was already practiced. “The idea came from Germany, where such “sand gardens” were introduced in Berlin’s public parks in 1850 as an offshoot of Friedrich Froebel’s emphasis on the garden part of kindergarten,” says Alexandra Lange in her book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids. Sand piles and children roaming around freely outside was considered a dangerous development.
Thankfully, child labor laws began to be enacted about one hundred years ago. They limited the work day to only eight hours, which was an improvement at the time.
Now bermuda grass, questionable bugs and the possibility of cats using sand as litter limit the use of sandboxes in our back yards. If one is constructed it will likely become obsolete in no time. It’s too hot outside. There’s no shade. Electronic devices are more fun, anyway. Maybe the game console has become the new sandbox. Minecraft cubes or Scratch blocks have replaced the sand tunnels and castles. Is that bad?
Jordan Shapiro says adults need to be careful about criticizing a child’s chosen medium of imaginative play. Whether in sand or on a screen, children develop and experiment with different identities or avatars in these make-believe worlds. They are essential to the development of toddlers, tweens and teens. Criticizing them is like telling a toddler their teddy bear isn’t real. That would be considered a cruel form of child abuse.
Like kissing the teddy bear on the forehead at bedtime, Shapiro suggests that parents engage their child’s imagination embracing the tools of choice in our world. Rather than speaking of addiction, we should see these handheld tools as transitions to the real world, he says. The real challenge is learning to monitor their play and conversation rather than abandoning them without supervision. Who would think of taking a child to a park and then walking back home without them?
Shapiro says parents should get ahead of the game. Actively introduce new things to our children and teach them how and when to play with them. Balance screen time with book time, dinner time, family time and sleep time. Constantly remind them not to mix these or let one medium dominate the others. Electronic devices can become like sandbox heaven, that way. Like going to the beach.