Children are naturally curious about what things are and how they work.  For many parents, finding ways to encourage exploration into the topics of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) can feel overwhelming.  What is important to remember, is that STEM is part of very typical play for children.  Parents simply need to be able to recognize what STEM is and take advantage of teachable moments. Did you know that you can create an outdoor STEM activity at the beach!? Building sandcastles at the beach is a favorite past time for many, and is often an activity that parents look forward to sharing with their children. This can be done in a sandbox, at the beach, or even inside with kinetic sand in a sensory tray or table.

Building and Engineering

The act of constructing a sandcastle is, in fact, a feat of engineering.  Children may fill their sand pails with sand using a shovel, or they might use their hands to push the sand into a pile and pat it into place.  However the child chooses to construct their creation, they are learning through their play with the outdoor STEM activity. Children will learn such things as:

  • Excavation, by selecting and clearing a space for the castle to sit
  • Using tools to complete a task: shovel, pail, castle mold, hands
  • Balance and gravity, by ensuring that the structure stays up right and also what happens when it isn’t steady
  • Changes in consistency and texture… determining if the sand stays together best when it’s wet or when it’s dry
  • Planning ahead and being creative 
  • Problem solving, for example if building at the beach, should it be close to the water where the waves could touch it, or further away which would potentially require more back and forth to carry water or wet sand

Outdoor STEM Activity: Open Ended Questions

Open ended questions are a very valuable piece of any learning experience for children. By giving children the opportunity to think critically and creatively, they are learning to open their mind to possibilities.  Some great questions to ask while children are building sandcastles could be:

  • What do you want your castle to look like?
  • What do you think will happen if the waves wash over your castle?
  • Tell me about what you’re going to build (or what you have already built).
  • What materials do you want to include other than sand? This might be a great opportunity to go on a seashell hunt as preparation!

Expanding The Outdoor STEM Activity

To expand on this outdoor STEM activity, parents can encourage children to build a sandcastle city with various shaped and sized buildings, roads, tunnels, bridges, and maybe ever rivers!  Get adventurous and add sticks, leaves, rocks, and other natural elements to creations.  This will encourage creativity and self expression.  Older children can try to draw a city plan before they build, then follow their “blueprints” to create their structures. Use lots of engineering vocabulary as you play and learn together, such as excavate, foundation, stable, blueprints, and more.

Click here to find more STEM activities and other projects to do with your children!

About The Author

Sarah PSarah Proctor has worked with young children for over 25 years as a teacher, childcare director, nanny, and mom of two girls. She has her Bachelors Degree in Early Childhood Education and Administration from UMass Amherst. In addition, Sarah has her Director 2 certification from the Department of Early Education and Care. 

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