Homeowner’s Guide to Home Sandboxes

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When properly maintained, a backyard sandbox can provide years of fun for your kids. Here's what to know about installing and maintaining a sandbox.

If you’re a parent looking for ways to entice your little kids off the couch and out into the backyard, a sandbox may be just the thing.

Although sort of an old school idea, a simple sandbox helps toddlers develop motor skills by encouraging them to dig, pour, lift and measure. When kids play together in a sandbox, they learn about sharing. And it can be an environment in which their creativity runs wild, as they create farms, cities, racetracks or whatever they can imagine.

Let’s take a look at the different types of sandboxes and how to keep yours a clean and safe play area.

Sandbox Types

Backyard sandboxes can range from small, lightweight plastic play zones for toddlers to big areas where all the neighborhood kids can pile in and dig.

Plastic sandboxes. Well-suited for small backyards and patios, covered plastic sandboxes give kids a contained place to play, with no risk of splinters from wood frames. These are well-suited to toddlers, but probably too small for kids much older than five or six.

Sand and water tables. A novel idea for curious toddlers, plastic sand and water tables can be filled with — you guessed it — sand or water, to allow for sensory exploration. Some are either/or models, while others allow for simultaneous sand and water play areas.

Wooden sandboxes. The classic variety. A wooden sandbox, as the name implies, consists of a square or rectangular wooden frame that’s filled with sand. Some have built-in bottoms, while others require a tarp or other layer between the sand and your yard surface. There are many options for wooden sandboxes. Here a few we like:

In-ground sandboxes. A built-in backyard sandbox is a fun and easy DIY project you can complete in a day or two. By setting all or some of the box into the ground, you can create more of a seamless edge that’s less of a tripping hazard. It’s also a way to create a bigger sandbox area than a freestanding wood frame might allow for.

Sandbox Pros and Cons

There are plenty of good reasons to add a sandbox to your backyard, plus a few caveats to consider:

Pros:

  • Provides hours of outdoor fun for your kids, right in your backyard;
  • A safe place for kids to play with a low risk of injury;
  • Inexpensive, either to purchase or as a DIY project.

Cons:

  • Kids will outgrow them, after which they’ll have to be demolished and disposed of;
  • Wood can rot and splinter (see safety, below);
  • They require maintenance to keep sand clean and sanitary;
  • Once installed, they are difficult to move.

How To Choose the Right Sandbox

The sandbox you choose will depend on several factors: How much space you have in your yard, the age of your kids, and what weather conditions are like where you live.

Toddlers will be content with a small plastic sandbox or a sand and water table. These are well-suited for small spaces, even ground-floor apartment patios. If you have older kids, or you want your backyard to be a neighborhood gathering spot, then a bigger sandbox is in order. If the sandbox will be out in direct sunlight and summer heat, then be sure to get one with a roof or sunshade.

Finally, wherever you live, plan on buying or building a sandbox with a cover, or buy a tarp or other covering to put over it when it’s not in use. More on that below.

Sandbox Costs and Installation

As backyard play equipment goes, sandboxes are one of the less expensive investments you can make. Plastic sandboxes start at about $70, and wooden sandboxes around $100. If you’re shopping for a wooden model, a budget of $120 to $160 will afford you a wide range of choices.

Sandboxes are easy to assemble and should not require calling in a pro. Before you install, prepare a level area in your yard that’s free of rocks, tree roots or other intrusions that could damage the sandbox bottom.

Once the box is put together, you’ll add the sand — the manufacturer’s instructions should indicate how many pounds or cubic feet of sand you need. Be sure to use specially-marked play sand that’s made for children’s sandboxes; paving and masonry sand is not suitable for sandboxes.

Prices for play sand range wildly. The cheapest we found it was $5.25 for a 50-pound bag from The Home Depot. Sustainably sourced or colored play sand can cost a lot more.

Sandbox Safety and Maintenance

There’s one big red flag with kids’ sandboxes. If the sand is not properly protected and maintained, it can become a petri dish for dangerous bacteria and parasites that can make your kids sick. The bacteria can come from dirty hands, feet and diapers, and the parasites from animals that decide the sand would make a good toilet. Mold and yeast can also form in moist sand.

To maintain a clean and healthy backyard sandbox, take the following steps:

  • Keep a cover on when the sandbox is not in use.
  • If the sand gets wet, let it dry out before you cover it.
  • Have kids wash their hands and feet before and after playing in the sandbox. If weather permits, have them play barefoot.
  • Have kids change clothes right after they come inside from playing in the sandbox.
  • Check the sand frequently for debris. If you find evidence of animal feces or urine, at a minimum you need to scoop out all the sand around the tainted area. If the sandbox is used by toddlers who are likely to put their sandy hands in their mouths, then the safest course of action is to replace all the sand.
  • Sanitize the sand. The experts at Playground Resource recommend treating sand periodically with a mixture of one part distilled white vinegar and one part water.
  • Change the sand every year or two, or more frequently if yours and a lot of other kids use it all the time.
  • For wooden sandboxes, check periodically for splinters and repair or replace sections as needed.