I’ve been dreaming about gardening with Archer for a long time (read: since before he was born). I’ve got Sharon Lovejoy’s book Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots and plan on collecting the rest of her titles. Now that Archer is 18-months old, he’s mobile, focused and interested. He enjoys watering “the babies” and he loves grabbing fistfuls of worm castings and scattering them in the veggie beds. There’s only so much watering and scattering for a toddler to do though, and so for a long time I’d been planning to turn one of our seven raised beds into a sandbox for him. I imagined Archer playing happily each afternoon while I pruned and harvested nearby.
A few months ago we emptied the soil out of one of the beds, sanded it smooth and painted it to match our front door.* Soon after, my friend Foster came over with her daughter, Archer’s buddy Emma. After excitedly telling Foster about my plan to turn the empty bed into a sandbox, she mentioned something about using safe sand. Wait, what? There is such a thing as UNsafe sand? Foster met my incredulity with the calm explanation that the bags of play sand you can pick up at Home Depot are adorned with a Prop 65 warning. You know, the same warning you see in parking garages and, um, Starbucks.
“There are chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm in sand?” I asked Foster incredulously.
That night, after Archer was in bed, I learned that the warning label on play sand refers to the presence of crystalline silica and, in some cases, asbestos tremolite. While river and beach sand also contain silica (crystalline silica is a natural constituent of the earth’s crust and is a basic component of sand and granite), play sand is actually a man-made material, produced by crushing mined quartz. Inhaling silica dust can cause lung damage and a group of diseases collectively known as silicosis. That said, problematic levels of crystalline silica dust in play sand is rare, and the documented cases prompting the labeling are in industrial settings, where the sand is ground or hammered, resulting in lots of breathable dust over extended periods. There are not conclusive studies on children’s exposure.
In other words, despite the Prop 65 cancer warning, play sand is probably really pretty safe. Probably. Really! And so, resolved in my findings, I planned to hit Lowes and pick up a whole lot of play sand.
And then I saw this great post from Young House Love, about turning their sandbox into a rock box. Inspired, I dug deeper (har) and discovered The Boneyard at Walt Disney World, an open-air play space designed to look like a dinosaur dig site where kids apparently dig happily for hours on end – in a giant rock box (or as Disney puts it a sandbox full of “non-stick pebbles”)! I was sold. I made a trip to our local building supply and picked up six big bags of pea gravel. I splurged for smooth pebbles in a pretty color – it is in our front yard, after all.
The way I see it, there’s a lot to recommend a rox box. It’s much easier to clean up after playing in the rox box than after getting covered in sand. It’s safe – no concerns about inhaling dust. We don’t need to cover it – the neighborhood critters are decidedly uninterested in utilizing it as a litter box.
Best of all, Archer and his friends love the rox box. It’s become quite the destination for the local toddler set. Most afternoons we hang out in the front yarden, sorting and digging, pruning and weeding. He’s got his safe space to play (and entertain his growing circle of friends), and I’ve got time to cultivate the garden. It’s a win-win! (Now I just need to find a place to store all of the toys that have accumulated in the box.)
*(None of our veggie beds had ever been sealed and they had all gotten pretty rough and splintery; after Archer got a few splinters we did some research and settled on a non-toxic, soy-based wood sealer for the rest of the beds. More on that here.)