Sand Art: Adventures in a Child’s Mind

How sand art painting helps reveal what your child is thinking

It was just a plain brown dog, but by the time the story ended, six year old Ryan’s new friend had nipped at a butterfly, barked at the sun, and stirred up a cloud of dirt. “Can I bring it home?” Ryan asks his mom hopefully.

Six year old Ryan making sand art

This is one puppy no parent will mind letting into the house. Ryan has just created a sand art painting.  Starting with the beginning of a design – the outline of a dog – Ryan was guided to make the dog his own by creating a story about it and then learning how to paint in the details with colored sand.

Sand art painting is a tactile process that especially appeals to active boys and girls because they physically interact with the art. Children peel away parts of a picture to uncover a sticky surface, then pour on sand and rub it in place. Sand art painting is done with the hands, rather than with a brush or other tool. This tactile activity enhances the sense of touch, building and improving fine motor skills while it helps kids slow down and enjoy the process. And they love the colorful results, which can be different every time.

By choosing a favorite image – in Ryan’s case a friendly dog – children put themselves directly into their art as they paint. They think about the characters and personalize their responses. Adult helpers can ask “Does your dog have a name?  What color is it mostly?  Does it have the same color on its nose or a different color? How about its tail?” 

After creating the main character, it’s time to tell more of the story while painting the background. Adult helpers can ask “Where is your dog now?  Outside or inside?  Standing on grass or dirt?  Is it a sunny day?  What kind of clouds are in the sky? Or is it night time? Are there stars?”

By sitting beside your child and guiding the process, you give him freedom to be silly or serious, realistic or fantastical in his choices about color and setting. You can help kids learn basic visual concepts like contrast (“If your dog is blue and you make the sky the same blue, we won’t see your dog anymore. Let’s look at the colors and see which ones are different enough to show up next to the blue.”) Focusing attention on the art project rather than on the child lets children feel free to say what’s on their minds.

Approaching art as a story helps kids open up. Thinking about the animal or main character awakens children’s curiosity, helping them engage with the art on a more personal level. Making up a story enables children to relax and bring their daily experiences, along with their imaginations, into their art. 

Here are some tips on how to get the most out of sand art painting with your child:

  • Choose sand art canvases with your child’s favorite images.
  • Ask questions that help your child make choices, rather than suggesting answers
  • Join in the fun! Do some sand art painting yourself so you’re familiar enough to help your child make the kind of picture he wants.

Written By Jan

Jan thinks of herself as a creative dabbler, and loves trying out new materials and tools, especially sand, paper, fabric, and kathunkita machines*. Jan started out as a letterpress and offset printer, and gauges her happiness on how many things she can make happen each day. Her motto is “Try something new, it will change you, and when you change your life you can change the world.” With this philosophy she opened a walk-in art studio in 1996 that still serves as an incubator for new projects and products. Jan is a Certified Play Expert (CPE) and an MBA.