The Fascinating Benefits of Playing in the Sand/Snow/Water

Every time we take a family beach trip, my husband and I marvel that sand is the antidote to a toddler’s short attention span. It’s incredible really – no matter what kind of mood our son is in, as soon as his hands touch the ground, he is overtaken by a cool, calm, concentration.

The same goes for snow. And for water. In their most basic forms, all three are instantly captivating and wildly stimulating. I can almost see the connections firing in his little brain as he pours, digs, pushes, and buries.

My mother has spent years in Early Childhood Education, and I was joking with her about how nice it was to have such good, cheap fun. She agreed, but added, “There’s a lot going on with development there too – you should look it up.”

She was right: there are hundreds of benefits listed when you look up playing in the sand, snow, and water. Some of them are obvious, like helping kids develop their muscles when they dig in the sand, take big stomps through the snow, and haul heavy buckets full of water. It’s no surprise to anyone that playing outside is the best way to tire your kids out.

But there are a lot of less obvious benefits that exist too. Like getting a major lesson in the fundamentals of math, space, and conceptualization: What does empty mean? What does full mean? If I keep scooping, will the bucket get filled? How many times will it take? Will it always take that many times? The bucket was light, and now it’s heavy. I was dry but now I’m wet. The pile of snow was short and now it’s tall. They might sound basic, but when you think about what it must feel like to think these thoughts for the first time, they seem pretty existential.

These natural elements also force creativity. A tub of sand, snow, or water isn’t going to do anything on its own, but the possibilities of what you can do with them are endless. I like putting my kids in as many scenarios as I can where they have to instigate their own fun – it pushes them to make their brains work just that much harder. When there is nothing to dictate how they should be playing, you can also learn a lot about who your kids are as people and what they themselves authentically enjoy doing.

The two benefits I found that were my favorite were, surprisingly, opposites. First, playing in the snow, sand, and water lets kids affect change on their environments. It is an instant lesson in understanding their own power, place, and significance in the world. Even tiny hands can easily manipulate the elements. A forceful splash makes water fly into the air; a swipe across the snow makes a deep valley; a drag of the fingers in the sand makes a fascinating design. I want my kids to know that they are autonomous and able, and that their actions have consequences (be them good or bad.)

But on the other hand, playing in the sand, snow, and water gives kids a big lesson about how things morph and change beyond our control. No tower of sand will last very long, no snowman will look the same for more than a few days. I can’t help but think of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition where they spend weeks making an elaborate design with colored sand, then dismantle it completely once it’s done, as a symbol of how transitory the material world is. Sure, the theory is a little heavy for children, but it’s a nice natural lesson for them that it’s ok when things change.

The best thing about all of this? There’s not a kid in the world who can’t have access to either sand, snow, or water to play in, despite where they live or what resources they have available to them. And knowing all the good that’s happening without even trying? Consider it one more great excuse to hit the beach.