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. Donna Jean says

    The rock box is pretty cool – and easier clean up is always a plus!
    Now, to go completely off topic, I was wondering how the grandparents handle the cloth diapers? I noticed her blue fluff sticking out of her pants in the video and you had mentioned that she had been with her grandparents for the afternoon. We use cloth, too, and absolutely love it (we use fitteds, not all in ones) but find that there is definitely a learning curve, especially for those who don’t have to change them all the time.

    • says

      We did have to show them how to work with them, but since we have all in ones with snaps, there aren’t clothespins or liners to fuss with so it’s pretty simple. We just give them a wet bag and have them snap off dirty ones and toss them in. I hear it’s what they do in daycare too (they don’t clean them, but will put them on and take them off and toss them in the wet bag). Since you have fitteds, maybe pre-stuff them so they’re all ready to go and it’ll hopefully be ok?


    • says

      Most daycares around me (SE Michigan) require that your child use disposable diapers, which is extremely disappointing.

      So happy that Clara loves the rock box! I think it’s funny that you buried it so she wouldn’t have to step up/down but she still squats and bends down to get in. So cute!

  2. Erin says

    I don’t even have kids but I’m a little outraged by that whole sand situation. I admire the way you two always look for toxins in the things you expose Clara to… I hope I’m such a responsible parent someday! I’m wondering what the cost difference was between the sand and pea gravel? I’m thinking about building this at my parents place for my nieces n nephews!

    • says

      The sand was actually more than the pea gravel! So at $2.50 a bag for the pea gravel we were able to fill the whole 25 square foot box up for under $50! Not free, but not too bad since we thought rocks would be more than sand!


  3. Anne Marie Laney says

    my father in law builds houses in florida (pensacola and destin area) he dug up a ton of beach sand at a house that he was working on and brought it for us to use in our sandbox! it’s illegal of course but the sand was going to get tossed anyway as it was at a work site and taking up space for them! i just don’t see how a rock box is that fun.. lol.. i mean for awhile it would be but you can’t build anything with it. my son is 3 years old and constantly builds stuff in his sandbox.

  4. says

    In addition to being safer, I think it looks more beautiful as well, with the sunlight bouncing off the natural colors of the rocks. Well done you guys!

  5. Annie says

    Clara’s reaction, or lack there of, made me laugh. My little guy just turned 2 and there are times you expect a big reaction and get nothing, but then you make a teeny tiny change to something and it is either the most amazing thing ever or creates the biggest temper tantrum ever. We just keep quoting Forest Gump, “you never know what you’re going to get”.

  6. mribaro says

    I was going to comment how much fun I had as a kid playing with sand in my kindergarten. Our favorite game was building houses and bridges with dark, damp sand and then “icing” them with the dry, white sand. Then I read you switched it for the pebbles. Although one can’t build much with pebbles, I kind of like it how clean the kid is afterwards (no sand sticking everywhere), and as long as Clara is happy all is good :) My daughter’s (5 yrs) favorite toys are still sand, rocks, sticks, water, flowers, grass, leaves… hours and hours of meditative, self-contented play :) Also wanted to add – you don’t have to build any kind of bench, you can always pull up one of your garden chairs if Clara wants your nearness.

    • says

      Amen to natural things like sticks, water, flowers, leaves and rocks being their favorite! It’s amazing how they seem to prefer “discovering” things outside- even over all their toys strewn out everywhere!


  7. Brenda says

    I had no idea the drama that goes into a sand/rockbox! Glad it all worked out in the end. :) You may not be able to build sandcastles with rocks, but I forgot how great rocks are for digging.

  8. says

    Wow. I had no idea! I have been pinning sand boxes to tackle next summer…my little one is only 8 months now. So glad you wrote of this so I don’t use bad play sand in my sandbox!!!!!

    THanks :)

  9. says

    So sorry the sand didn’t work out, that is HORRIBLE!!! I’ve personally never thought about a rock box before! What a great idea!! Love seeing you build stuff for your baby :)

  10. Dinka says


    I think I’ll do something like this…and then keep it as a zen garden for myself when they get older! :-)

  11. Fred Ggoff says

    You really should consider something to secure the lids in the open position. Just leaning against the fence doesn’t appear secure enough. Just imagine the damage that could occur if one or both came crashing down when the box was occupied.

    Other than that, a really excellent job and great call on the danger sand.

  12. Elaine says

    Just an FYI, we had pea pebbles instead of mulch when i was younger and my 3 year old brother stuffed a bunch up his nose and we had to take him to the Dr. to get them out… so just watch out for that! :)

    • says

      Haha speaking of getting things stuck up your nose — when I was little I got one of the Lego lights for cars stuck up my nose (the flat transparent pieces of Lego) and mom had to take me to the ER. I still remember her trying to get it out with tweezers but couldn’t! Ohh the joys of parent-hood I can imagine. Haha

    • Wendy says

      Apparently it can happen to adults, too, when completing ultramarathons.

      Not sure exactly HOW it happened, but we had a runner “sneeze out” an S-cap at the 20th Bull Run Run (50 mile race) last Saturday.

      His sinuses were bothering him, and boom- out it came, shocking him.

      Not sure if it says anything about the sanity of ultrarunners and toddlers, but… hey… :-)

  13. Rachel says

    Thanks so much for sharing about the play sand! I’ve chickened out on a sand box thus far for our 3 year old. We just moved again (Army) & we should be here a few years so a sand box was on the to-do list. We already need to buy some pea gravel to re-stock a path & our son LOVES rocks much more than sand so, A Rock Box it is!

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