Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

An Intellectual History of the Sandbox

Illustration by Doris Liou.

This essay is excerpted from The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, out now from Bloomsbury.

The first American playground had no climbing bars, no seesaws, no swings. In 1885, a group of female philanthropists decided that the immigrant children of Boston’s North End needed somewhere other than the increasingly crowded and dangerous streets to play. They paid for a pile of sand to be poured into the yard of a chapel on Parmenter Street at the beginning of summer. “Playing in the dirt is the royalty of childhood,” said Kate Gannett Wells, chair of the Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association. 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. The success of the first sandpile spurred subsequent summer installations on Parmenter Street and Warrenton Street, each supervised by a matron. By 1887 there were 10 sand gardens, mostly located near the settlement houses that served recently arrived immigrant families. Country children had plenty of dirt, while wealthier city children likely had yards; it was poor children who needed access to free, communal play spaces…

Today, the sandbox has become so familiar that, as Jay Mechling writes in the essay “Sandwork,” “playing with sand in its various states is so universal that the play has become nearly invisible to us, so taken-for-granted that it bumps up against what Brian Sutton-Smith (1970) called the ‘triviality barrier’ of children’s play,” and falls below adult notice. Yet while the digging and sifting are invisible, the tame little sandbox itself has been demonized as unclean, visited after hours by vermin or used as a litter box by cats bearing toxoplasmosis. Like its early playground neighbors, the merry-go-round and the seesaw, equipment that was once trivial has become an endangered species in the urban environment. Once upon a time sand was a little bit of freedom, especially for children whose summers never included a trip to the beach.