Boy builds castle in sandbox.

Doris Liou

This essay is excerpted from The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids by Alexandra Lange, 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.

Book cover for The Design of Childhood by Alexandra Lange.

As the number of such gardens increased, they began to be located in schoolyards and eventually became the property of the school board and parks department. A 10-acre "outdoor gymnasium," with aboveground play equipment like swings and seesaws as well as sand, opened in the West End in 1889 as well as 20 other playgrounds in Boston. One opened in New York that year and another, in Chicago, in 1892 at reformer Jane Addams's Hull House. The Hull House playground was more elaborate, with sandpiles, swings, building blocks, a giant slide, and ball courts for older children. When Boston mayor Josiah Quincy VI was inaugurated in 1897, he proclaimed every ward should have a playground, and the city followed through. In 1907, neighboring Cambridge opened its own gardens, using local schoolyards. Older children were sometimes turned away due to fears that they might get bored and cause trouble, but superintendents found that 1 in 3 would soon come back with a young relative, asking to "mind baby in the sand."

What were children doing in the sand? G. Stanley Hall, the psychologist who pioneered the study of child behavior, grew fascinated by the societies that spring up around sand play. In 1888, friends of Hall's, the Rev. Dr. A. and his wife, Mrs. A., decided their boys did not have enough to do at their summer cottage 20 or 30 miles outside Boston. Mrs. A. decided the solution, "not without some inconvenience," was to have sand brought in from a faraway beach and dumped in their yard, steps from the back door. Hall wrote of their experience in Scribner's Magazine as keenly as any naturalist: "The 'sand-pile' at once became, as everyone who has read Froebel or observed childish play would have expected, the one bright focus of attraction, besides which all other boyish interests gradually paled. Wells and tunnels; hills and roads like those in town; islands and capes and bays with imagined water; rough pictures drawn with sticks ... " The first summer or two are for excavation and discovery, with primitive shelters made of propped-up boards and bricks. After a time of treating the sandpile like wilderness, the boys begin to introduce rural civilization. A knot of wood becomes a horse, men are whittled from sticks, and gradually hunting and gathering are replaced by agriculture, new farmhouses dwarfed by elaborate barns, miniature fields planted with real beans, wheat, oats, and corn. The sons of the A's are joined by friends from other cottages, who build houses and barns of their own. Slowly they reinvent the plow and the wheel out of wood, wire, tin, and leather, then start stamping money out of felt. The key is the availability of "loose parts," elements children can pick up and transform into environments themselves, rather than having places to jump, hide, and tunnel set out by unseen designers' hands. Children are the designers here, and, even though they are under adult supervision, they have more autonomy than within the fenced and labeled precincts of fixed equipment.

Sand was also a material of choice at the first Progressive schools. The Horace Mann School at Columbia University compensated for lack of open space by creating a rooftop playground, stocked with a small garden, a sandbox, art materials, and woodworking tools, along with an aquarium and cages for animals. The teachers there integrated indoor and outdoor play, while creating indoor and outdoor curricula: a more-directed version of the loose-parts model that still allowed children freedom to explore. At John Dewey's Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, children gained hands-on experience with indoor and outdoor sandboxes, using them to learn about landforms and erosion, or as a relief-map base for building twig forts and log cabins of previous civilizations. "On their sand table the whole class may make a town with houses and streets, fences and rivers, trees and animals for the gardens," wrote Dewey and his daughter Evelyn in Schools of To-Morrow (1915). "In supplying the needs of the dolls and their own games, they are supplying in miniature the needs of society." Back at the sandpile of the A's, "Why do you have no church?" the boys were asked. "Because," they replied, "we are not allowed to play in the 'sand-pile' on Sunday, but have to go to church." "And why have you no school?" "Why," said they, exultingly, "it is vacation, and we don't have to go to school."

But eventually adults enter the Eden. Once it is known that Hall will visit the sandpile in the fall, and may write about it, the miniature community spruces itself up, as if for a state visit. A young lady adds decorative paint to roofs and walls. A carpenter makes tools for show and not for use. Some boys age out of their immersion in the parallel society and become self-conscious. Fall comes, school and sports call, and the sandpile quiets down, though some residents spend the winter making new inventions indoors for summer use. The parents of the boys are happy with their experiment, estimating that eight months of schoolwork have been covered in a summer in the sand. The boys have solved their own problems of administration, carpentry, industrialization, sewage, and monetization. They have cooperated and rarely been idle, even as they played in the yard under observation and minimal intervention. "Here is perfect mental sanity and unity, but with more variety than in the most heterogeneous and soul-disintegrating school curriculum," Hall writes. The boys have created a unified and ideal curriculum out of the sandpile and one that, he believes, prepares them for adult lives of action and imagination.

Today the sandbox is as likely to be the rectangular space of the computer screen.

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.

Even as the number of real sandboxes dwindles, the word sandbox proliferates, applied to any bounded environment that offers freedom to explore and construct, to smash and build, smash and build again. Today the sandbox is as likely to be the rectangular space of the computer screen, where digital sand, in the form of Minecraft cubes or Scratch block commands, are used to explore building, civilizations, and geography. "From the beginning, Minecraft was a sandbox creative building game," read the timeline in the official Minecraft wiki at the time of this writing. Video games played in sandbox mode, or purpose-built sandbox games, allow the player access to the whole world (the box) at once, and allow her to change that world at will (the sand). There is no preset narrative to force the player to run, hide, or shoot, and no marauders to destroy what she has built. Time is her own. The pleasure is in the creation, as it was for the young sons of the A's with sand and twigs and other scavenged materials.

Sandbox has taken on a pacifist and constructive meaning in games, but it could have gone the other way. Tabletop sandboxes were used as educational tools for small children in Dewey's era, but long before, they were military tools for diagramming war strategy. A plan of attack might originally have been sketched on the ground of the battlefield with a stick, but even during the Roman Empire, sand tables would have been set up within military encampments, with tokens representing soldiers and units in the coming battle. Minecraft is probably the most popular sandbox game of the moment, but earlier hits like SimCity and Spore demonstrated a market for open-ended gameplay, and before them, 1990s games like Lemmings 2: The Tribes and Railroad Tycoon had modes in which players could explore the game at will.

In a detailed history of sandbox games published on the website Gamasutra, Steve Breslin unpacks the metaphor in terms of its relationship to a preindustrial childhood: "It implies that it is a young child in the sandbox (and a pre-videogame child at that, with no toys), and assumes an idealized childhood imagination, an unlimited creativity. It is a good metaphor, and a useful one, but the metaphor is also a little misleading, insofar as it suggests a sort of dream-world imaginative capability of the audience, which is not always justified." Breslin sees adults as less capable than the child of coming up with a new world from scratch and describes games based solely on "leveraging the player's imagination" as "ambitious, and more than a little risky." The freedom of mind that early-childhood experts seek for children in the sandbox is lost by adulthood, he implies, except for adults who make games. "Game design itself," Breslin notes, "is, undoubtedly, the ultimate sandbox game: you the designer get to determine the game's objectives, and not only that, but also create and assemble the artwork and other presentation elements, balance the game as you see fit—create a whole world to play in." As a result, he argues, such games may actually require more care to create than those with a short-term goal represented in coins or other in-game prizes: "The great risk of the sandbox is that it can be boring," writes Breslin. The care goes into design work that is behind the scenes, as in the prepared environment of the Froebel kindergarten or the stocking of a playground with sand, wood, or junk. In Minecraft, the wide array of materials at the Creative player's command as well as the implicit competition and explicit community created by YouTube videos, photos, and blog posts of other players' creations spur players on.

The original sandpiles were framed by the walls of the city; later inventors of equipment, like Aldo van Eyck, would use colored pavement or geometric shapes in concrete to give children a territory for invention. Sand is a material that lends itself to sharing, making, and remaking. In either the digital or real-life sandbox, the player has to create her own intrinsic fun. Maybe sandbox games are the playground adults don't realize they still need.