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. says

    I also read that if you do have play sand in your sand box, that you just try to keep it damp, so that it is not inhaled. This can be challenging in warm summer months, especially if you live where it is dry like we do in colorado. We try to make sure and spray our play sand down often in the summer so that it is not inhalable… the label freaked us out too. Maybe we will get a bag o rocks to toss in with our sand this year since we aleady have a box full of play sand.

  2. Courtney says

    Perfect! Sorry that it took you such trial and error, but I definitely think the rocks are better, not to mention cleaner. Great idea.

  3. says

    Yikes! Why is the WORLD is sand marketed for PLAY boxes? Insane! I am glad she likes the rocks though! I remember loving them as a kid too!

  4. Shanna says

    Oh No! I never read the bags of my kids playsand!My kids have outgrown the sandbox but I feel like a bad mommy that my son with Asthma was breathing that stuff! For years! I like the rocks much better – can’t express enough how frustrating it was to sweep sand 3X per day out of my house – for YEARS.

  5. says

    Wow, what a drag having to clear all that sand out, but safety first eh! While I was reading/enjoying your sandbox posts yesterday I was contemplating one for my 2 year old, but then realized/decided to forgo that as she is happy playing in the pea gravel patio (that I made last year). Pea gravel will be lots of fun for your daughter … so long as they can dig and run their fingers through something!

  6. Morgan says

    Was Clara wearing big girl panties?? She couldn’t even remember that there used to be sand…great switch!~!

  7. Rebekka says

    I had never heard about the dangers of play sand! Thanks for this informative post! (I don’t have children yet, but it’s good to always be aware.) What if Clara now thinks this is a magical box that presents her with a different play medium every few days? What’s next?

    • says

      Haha- seriously! The funny thing is that she calls it her rock box so I think she’s very attached to the rocks already. Her neighbor offered her a cupcake (Clara is obsessed with them) and Clara wouldn’t get out of her rock box for it. Seriously, she’s in love. We couldn’t believe we couldn’t taunt her out of there with iced baked goods! Haha.


  8. says

    Eep! Good for you for staying calm about the toxic play sand and looking for alternatives. I never would have thought of a rock box. What a fun idea! Clara barely batted an eye at the switch, it seems. Haha.

  9. says

    Wow, I totally never knew that something specifically designed for kids to play in could be a health risk – thanks for pointing that out! I work in a pre school and spend what seems to be all day sweeping sand up from every crevice so a ‘rock box’ is infinitely more appealing to me than sand! Looks like Clara loves it too.

  10. Lisa says

    Love it! Our whole entire play area under the big swingset/fort we bought is pea gravel and I couldn’t be happier! The kids love it and it is SO much cleaner than mulch or sand or any other alternative. So, when you do a swingset, I highly recommend it! There are sites online that tell you the depth to use for safety with swingsets, etc.

    One note of caution though with her shoes…tennis shoes or closed toe make all the difference! We used to send the kids out with sandals or open toed shoes and they were constantly getting the gravel in their shoes and coming to me to get it out. So, now we just use tennis shoes and they are good to go! Even the crocs or shoes with holes on the sides caused us issues. So, we keep play shoes in our outside cabinet to grab. :)

    Have fun and good job! Oh, and with the playset…order the pea gravel in bulk…cheaper and better quality! :)

  11. Serena says


    I love this concept, but -and don’t take this the wrong way-I’m so glad to have learned this sandbox lesson through your blog versus my own backyard. Thanks for sharing because I never would have thought of sand possibly being a endangerment… it just wouldn’t have occurrd to me to check!

    (And don’t worry, my heart ached a tiny bit too when I saw the emptied box…)

    Anyway, looks good!

    **FYI: the video you posted of Clara playing in it is flagged as “Private”**

  12. Zoë says

    Well shoot, now I’m rethinking my previously mentioned plan to replace our gravel in our sandbox with actual sand. But the kids just aren’t into the gravel, and don’t play in it at all, but go crazy in sandboxes at local play areas, especially when “digging for fossils”. Thanks for the heads-up!

    • says

      :( That’s too bad about the sand! I’m surprised they can even market it as “play sand”! Rocks are super fun though… the playground at our local park growing up had pea gravel. I remember spending hours going through the rocks with my Mamaw picking out the prettiest ones to take home.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *