Sand may not be running through my veins, but it’s definitely been a significant part of my life for decades. One of my earliest childhood memories involves playing in the backyard sandbox that my dad built. The sandbox wasn’t huge and its wooden construction wasn’t anything fancy, but I spent hours playing in it. Being a kid who loved toy cars, my Tootsie Toy and Matchbox vehicles regularly maneuvered through that miniature sandy landscape and probably spent more than a few nights outdoors. The result is that the painted finish on the cars (I still have a few of them in a memento box in my basement) received serious sandblasting, meaning that, even if I had any vehicular rarities, they’d be just about worthless on eBay. But what was priceless for me were the hours of imaginative play that went on in that sandbox.
Sand also played a prominent role in vacations when I was growing up. Whether it was the shore of one of the Great Lakes or a beach somewhere along the Atlantic coast, one of the great pleasures of those trips involved building sandcastles. I don’t think I ever got super ambitious with my constructions, but bigger was definitely better in sandcastle designs and I soon learned to embellish my structures with shells, stones, and driftwood that would add detail to the walls and towers.
Now sand is back on my mind as it became one of the 2021 inductees to the National Toy Hall of Fame. Every year we receive thousands of nominations from the public for toys and games that people feel deserve a spot of honor in the Hall of Fame. For 2021, we received 55,000 nominations—a new record, when 6,000 is more typical—for 940 different toys. Every year, we can count on receiving nominations for what I think of as “elemental” toys—dirt, rocks, water, mud, snow, and sand. These raw materials for play have been employed by kids (and more than a few adults) for thousands of years.
Although the elemental toys aren’t manufactured, they are nonetheless near and dear to many individuals, even if doting parents don’t typically put them away in the attic to bestow upon the next generation—or sell on eBay—when the kids who used them age out. And toymakers have proven adept at producing gear that helps make sand play even more fun—pails, shovels, molds, and more. But what’s truly engaging about sand is how open-ended play with it can be, limited only by the creativity and imagination that is brought to it.
So here’s to you, sand. Congratulations on your induction to the National Toy Hall of Fame, where you join the cardboard box, the stick, and the blanket as non-traditional toys that have stood the test of time and that continue to inspire new generations of players everywhere.
Article by Chris Bensch, Vice President for Collections at The Strong National Museum of Play.