How To Build A Sandbox: Part 3 (The Rock Box Remix)

Yes, just when you thought the sandbox-citement was over – it continues. We chatted all about how we built the base of the box here and how we made the lid with a locking system that secures it to the fence here – but it still wasn’t done. That’s the funny thing about DIY in general – you might expect a kitchen reno to run across 35+ posts and to last four months, but you never think that something like a simple sandbox will be a three part process. On the other hand, sometimes projects that we think will be really complicated end up being no sweat and we wonder why we put them off so long – so I guess it all balances out in the end. Anyway, when we last left our heroine, she was enjoying her freshly completed box – cover and all.

But the next day, as we disposed of all of the empty play sand bags and put two extra ones in the car to return them, Sherry noticed this warning on the back of the bags.

To anyone having trouble reading it, it says: This product contains small amounts of crystalline silica, a common mineral found in natural sands and stones. Excessive inhalation of respirable silica dust may cause cancer and lung disease. Avoid breathing dust. Wear approved respirator in dusty area.

Cancer and lung disease? Wear approved respirators? Isn’t this labeled “play sand” and meant for sand boxes with children who sit in that dusty mess and pour it everywhere? With red flag officially raised, we turned to the Internet to see why the heck a bag of something meant for children would have a warning that it can “cause cancer and lung disease.” Soon enough, Sherry came across a string of articles (like this one and this one and this one) indicating that the type of play sand that we bought may not be the ideal option to have our daughter romping around in (not to mention that Clara left her first play session with clothes and hands covered in a white chalky dust which retroactively freaked us out).

Although we all may have played in sand as children and we’re perfectly healthy (or are we? I guess there’s still time to find out, haha) the way sand is manufactured and where it’s found can change. So if you grew up playing in river or beach sand, which may have been more common than manufactured “silica or tremolite” sand, that would explain why the newer sand containing that potentially dangerous stuff is an issue today. Here’s a screen grab from WebMD with a particularly helpful summary that we found:

So we decided to make a sandbox switcheroo – just so we wouldn’t have to think twice about letting Clara play in there for hours on end for years to come. And frankly, our alternative rocks.

I’ll pause to record a point in my “rock pun” column.

I don’t know why I didn’t think about this before – my sister actually had a rock box for her kids a while back (they’re now tweens/teens and are way too cool for it) but they loved it back in the day. Obviously it’s NOT a good solution for kiddos who still put things in their mouth. Clara did that until about a year old, but now routinely plays with rocks and pea gravel wherever she can find it without ever trying to suck it down (true story: at Home Depot there’s an outdoor planting bed with pea gravel and she loves it more than the playground). Clara’s also less likely to leave covered in rocks and track them all over the house than she was with sand. So I started the not-so-fun task of digging out all of the sand (and hauling it in the wheelbarrow to be dumped in the woods far behind our house – the very back of our almost-an-acre property).

I wouldn’t put it on the top of my “most awesome DIY tasks ever” list, but it wasn’t that bad. Although it was kinda sad to see it all empty and barren when I was through. Pardon the tree’s muddled shadow in this pic (it looks like some sand is still lurking but we swept that baby dry).

Then we turned that frown upside down by dumping in what I will now call my inaugural bag of pebbles. Things were looking up!

But upon closer examination, things were also looking kinda dirty.

Now, I realize it seems kinda prissy to be surprised that rocks are dirty (“Gasp! And water’s wet?! The horror!”). And if we didn’t mind Clara getting a bit dirty, well, we wouldn’t be making a outdoor play box now would we? But the pebbles were all covered in a sort of gritty dust that just kinda bothered me. I felt lazy just dumping them in so dirty when I could easily remedy the problem, so I decided to give the rocks a quick bath in my wheelbarrow.

I felt kinda silly doing this at first, but when I drained my first batch and saw how much dirty water was coming out it didn’t feel like my efforts were worthless at all.

But enough rock washing. Let’s get rockin’ and rollin’ onto the finished product.

Remember the lid is secured to the fence with metal hardware to keep things safe (more on that here).

I used around 20 bags to fill the whole box to the point where it was pretty much level with the ground around it – meaning Clara didn’t have a big step on either side, and she’d have a few inches of depth to really dig into. Oh and the bags of rocks were actually cheaper than the bags of sand at Home Depot. They were around $2.50 a pop, so it was just under $50 to fill our 25 square foot box up. Not free but worth the peace of mind for us. If only we had seen the warning on the sand before opening it, we could have actually saved money filling things up with rocks from the start. Oh well, live and learn.

We also took this opportunity to mulch around the sandbox, er, rock box (excuse me) so everything would look a bit cleaner when we presented it to Clara (she was with her grandparents the afternoon we made the change).

So how did Clara react to the change? See for yourself.

Honestly we expected a bigger “Where the sand go?!” reaction, but I guess it’s probably best that rocks instantly erased any memory or care for the old stuff.

All she cared about is that she could get her dig on.

Which actually was reassuring to see, since I worried the chunkier rocks might be harder to dig and scoop, but she’s had no problem – even with the flimsy dollar store shovel we got her. Plus she can scoop rocks with a shovel but also pick them up with her hands (not true with sand) so she seems to have a lot of fun with that. For example, she likes filling the front part of her truck with one rock carefully shoved through the window at a time. It’s the little things, right?

And luckily the rocks have proved to be less messy than the sand. Yeah, we may occasionally need a bath afterward – but the sand involved a rigorous pre-going-back-into-the-house-dust-off that the rocks have yet to require. Upgrade!

But in the end, as long as Clara is having fun – who cares how messy she gets? Oh and see those white things around the sandbox that sort of look like rocks? It sort of looks like there was lot of rock fling-age going on, but they’re just white petals dropped by our dogwood. We may be jinking ourselves, but so far Clara has been happy to keep the rocks in her rock box since we explained that’s their home and it’s where they need to stay for her to play with them.

Rock on, Beansie. Rock on.

So that’s the long circuitous story – told Hunger Games style, as a trilogy – about…

Have you guys ever done something and then decided to tweak or redo it in the final hour? Do some projects that you think will take forever end up being easier than you thought and then later you tackle some project that you assume will be super simple and that’s the one that randomly ends up being a bit more involved? Ah DIY, you’re a fickle creature, but we can’t help loving you.

Psst- Speaking of things you don’t always get right on the first try, we’re over here chatting about picking paint colors.

Pssssst- To read The Sandbox Chronicles from the beginning, here’s Part 1 (about building the base of the box) and Part 2 (about building the lid which secures to the fence for safety reasons).


  1. Kim says

    Better safe than sorry. The warnings on those bags of “play sand” should be bigger, bolder, and printed front and back! And they shouldn’t say play sand-they should say “NOT FOR CHILDREN”!

  2. says

    Dangerous Play Sand…who knew? She seems happy either way so I’m glad you guys noticed the warning and changed it. I completely understand about the DIY challenges. We have encountered easy projects that are more work and harder projects that didn’t end up being so bad.

    Our gardening work this weekend took 8 hours (between weeding, mulching, and edging) but it was worth it to see a great result.

  3. Stephanie says

    So did you try to find sand that didn’t contain silica? Thanks for the head’s up. I will need a fresh bag soon, so I’ll keep a look out for that warning. Jeesh, I swear, the stuff we gotta think about these days… :)

    • says

      We learned that safe sand is available, but usually about 3X as expensive, so since John’s niece and nephew had a rock box and loved it, and Clara loves the rock garden at Home Depot so much, it was something we thought could be fun!


  4. Julia says

    Just wanted to let you know that your video seems to be private!
    Oh, and I really like the rock box! But now Clara can’t build a sandcastle or anything like that…

  5. says

    What a great idea! Rocks are so much cleaner. I love sand, but dang, cleaning it off kids is not fun. And it makes its way into EVERYTHING.
    Pretty freaky about teh sand though. Seriously. Labeling it play sand should not be allowed.

  6. Jane says

    Love the sand to rock saga. Don’t blame you for your concern. The sandbox is truly a nice addition to your backyard and Clara will get a lot of playtime there. The only thing missing was Clara’s friend Burger. I thought for sure he would want to help as well. Did you mean for your video to be private?
    Looking forward to the next project redo…you always amaze me with your creativity and eagle eye.

    • says

      Aw Burger was sleeping! That lazy dog. Haha. He has since had some patio time with us while Clara enjoys the rock box though. And thanks for the video tip- it should be public now!


  7. Jackie E. says

    The dino dig places at Disney World are rocking (get it?) with tiny pea gravel and all the kids have a great time looking for bones and a whole lot of nothing there. I know my kids could (and did) spend hours and hours of fun there back in the day.

    I like your rock box!!!

  8. says

    I am amazed at how awesome this looks! John, you did such a fantastic job – and I LOVED your writing! I can’t believe I was excited every day to read the “chronicles” even though our kids are well beyond their rock box days! :-)

  9. Emma says

    I’m still flummoxed that a product marked “play sand” would contain known carcinogens. Maybe that was just an example of “over-warning-ing”? Too bad the sand had to go but at least the rock box is a bit easier to deal with. Sand definitely gets everywhere. Nicely done!

  10. Nicole Dube says

    Sandbox looks awesome! I’m always so impressed with your ingenuity! I was wondering how many hours this project took to complete? And was the money you saved by DIYing it worth all the effort in the end? Do you guys ever do a cost-benefit comparison before DIYing something versus just buying it?

    Either way, I LOVE following along!
    – Nic

    • says

      Oh yes, if you check out the post before this one we did a cost breakdown and when compared to a wood sandbox without a lid ours was cheaper (and has a full wooden lid). It definitely took time though- maybe 6-8 hours total with the building of the base, the lid, and the switching of the sand to rocks? I think in the end John loves building things for Clara (sort of like how I love sewing things for her, even though I have a love/hate relationship with my sewing machine) so it’s that rewarding feeling of “we made this for you and we hope you get joy from it for a nice long time.”


  11. says

    Wow! who would have thought?

    You guys “rock” for replacing that potential problem.

    Gosh I think your bad puns are rubbing off on me.
    Only kidding keep the bad puns coming!

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