Sand is one of the most popular sandbox materials because it is inexpensive and easy to find at any hardware store. However, sand has some downsides that may send parents on a journey to find an alternative. For example, sand may get tracked indoors inside shoes, pockets, or stuck to skin. Some sand may contain crystalline silica dust, which can pose health risks with prolonged exposure. Also, sand tends to attract animals that use it as a restroom.
Luckily, there are many sandbox alternatives that parents can use for their children to play in, and we have put together a list of the best ones.
- Pea Gravel
- Crumb Rubber/Rubber Mulch
- Engineered Wood Fiber
- Wood Chips
- Play Pellets
- Uncooked Food
- Packing Peanuts
1) Pea Gravel
Pea gravel is a great alternative to sand for a sandbox because it is cheap and easy to find. You can get pea gravel at the local hardware store for around $5 per 50-pound bag. Or, if your sandbox is large, you can likely find a bulk supplier that will give you an even better discount. Just make sure you’re getting pea gravel that’s rounded and preferably washed to remove excess dust. Some pea gravel for landscaping may have hard edges on some of the pebbles.
It’s also important to consider that pea gravel presents a choking hazard for young children (typically those under 3). Plus, there’s no way to make sandcastles with pea gravel, which is a major draw for actual sand. Still, kids can have a good time playing in pea gravel.
- Inexpensive and easy to find
- Doesn’t contain silica dust
- Good for development of motor skills
- Easier to clean than sand
- Not as likely to get tracked everywhere as sand
- Won’t be used as a restroom by animals
- Can’t make sandcastles
- Could have hard edges
- May contain dust
- Choking hazard for young children
2) Crumb Rubber/Rubber Mulch
Next up on the list is crumb rubber, also called rubber mulch or tire crumbs. This stuff is exactly what it sounds like: shredded rubber, often from recycled tires. Rubber mulch is often used on playgrounds as shock absorption, as it’s better than sand or gravel at protecting kids from falls.
There has been some question as to the health hazards of rubber mulch because it’s clear that shredding tires does nothing to remove the chemicals from them. However, the EPA released a report in 2019, the finding of which said that tire crumbs pose little health risks to humans. The findings were within the safety standards in the US.
Still, some parents may not like the idea of their kids playing in shredded tires, and that’s totally understandable. These little pieces of rubber can pose a choking hazard and some brands can leave your kids with little black crumbs on them. However, this is an environmentally friendly option (it keeps old tires out of landfills) and one that doesn’t attract animals, drains well, and is fairly resistant to mold and bacteria.
- Drains and dries easily
- Environmentally friendly recycled rubber
- Fun, springy texture that kids enjoy
- Easy to clean up
- Doesn’t easily get transferred
- Resistant to mold, bacteria, and microbial organisms
- Poses a choking hazard
- Some brands may leave behind a residue
- Some complain of a chemical smell on hot days
- One of the more expensive options
3) Engineered Wood Fiber
Number three on our list is engineered wood fiber. Engineered wood fiber, or EWF, is made from small bits of wood that are recycled to make a safe, non-toxic surface. EWF differs from wood chips (which we’ll cover next) in that it’s generally made from the inside of a tree, meaning it doesn’t contain bark, twigs, or leaves.
It’s generally soft but with enough texture to make playtime in the sandbox fun for you children. Plus, if you get it from a good supplier, it’s sustainably sourced, making it ideal for environmentally conscious parents. Of course, this is a far cry from sand, and you can’t make sandcastles out of it. But with some toys and a little imagination, your kids can spend hours of fun outdoors.
However, like many other sand alternatives, EWF does pose a choking hazard for young kids. Some manufacturers use chemicals to bind the wood fibers together and protect them from insects and moisture, but there are plenty of options out there that are non-toxic. EWF is not the cheapest option on this list.
- Looks great
- Soft but with varied textures and sizes
- Sustainably sourced (depending on the company)
- Won’t easily get tracked everywhere
- Choking hazard
- Sometimes made with potentially harmful chemicals
- Can hide insects and foreign objects
- Can’t make sandcastles
- More expensive than sand, pea gravel, and wood chips
4) Wood Chips
Wood chips are a little different than engineered wood fiber, but they’re still a decent alternative for your outdoor sandbox. Most of the time, wood chips are used for landscaping or around playground equipment to cushion falls. However, there’s nothing stopping you from using it the sandbox.
Wood chips are one of the larger options on this list. This means that it doesn’t behave like sand or even pea gravel does. Still, it allows children to pick up and inspect the different wood chips, while also making an ideal place to play with toys, shovels, and buckets.
However, wood chips tend to degrade quickly. And since they’re so light (often made with tree bark), they can get kicked around easily or picked up by the wind. As the wood chips break down, they can be quite messy. And if they get wet, they can mold. They may also attract insects and animals.
- Still fun for kids
- Looks natural in the yard
- Choking hazard
- Breaks down quickly
- Can be dirty
- Can mold when wet
- May attract animals and insects
5) Play Pellets
Play pellets are an ideal alternative to sand for several reasons. These pellets, by Children’s Factory, are made from non-toxic, safe polypropylene plastic. They’re available in blue or sand-colored.
These small plastic pellets are essentially the size of small pebbles or large sand particles. Unlike some of the other sand alternatives on this list, these play pellets feel identical to sand. This makes them great for sensory playtime. Kids will enjoy sticking their fingers and toes into these play pellets.
However, this option is also the most expensive on the list. 10-pound bags for these and similar items are usually between $40 and $60. So if you wanted to fill a whole sandbox up with these, you’d be looking at spending several hundred dollars, depending on the size of the sandbox. For this reason, these play pellets are ideal for use in sand or water tables, where kids can still play and have fun, but they won’t be able to sit in the material. You can take a look at these tables here.
The Kidfetti play pellets float in water, so they’re great for use by themselves in water tables or in combination with water. They’re also easy to clean up with a broom and dustpan. They’re reusable and hypoallergenic. And if you do decide to use them in the backyard sandbox, you don’t have to worry about mold or mildew like you would with sand.
- Non-toxic and hypoallergenic
- Texture similar to sand
- Easy to clean
- Resist mold and mildew
- Float in water for extra fun
- Choking hazard
- Can’t make sandcastles with them
6) Uncooked Food
Let’s start this off by saying that the items on this list are better off being used in an indoor sand table or a small sandbox with a cover that can be moved indoors. However, there are plenty of parents who have used the following food items as alternatives to sand in backyard sandboxes.
Uncooked rice makes for fun sensory playtime. The little grains of hard rice are similar to sand in that they can be moved and played with in identical ways. Of course, it’s hard to make sandcastles with rice! When exposed to moisture, rice can begin to mold. It may also attract some animals.
Hard, uncooked corn is sold in large bags, often as feed for deer, raccoons, squirrels, some birds, and other animals. It tends to be a little dusty, but at least it’s dust you don’t have to worry about (unless your child has allergies or breathing asthma). And while it’s not the cheapest option, it is a safe alternative to sand. But like rice, it can mold when exposed to moisture. And, of course, it can attract animals.
Similar to uncooked corn, uncooked beans can make for many fun hours of playtime. Filling an entire sandbox with beans is not the most practical idea, but it’s something to consider for water tables or for small, temporary sandboxes. They may attract animals and mold if left outside!
Most kids turn their nose up at a bowl of mushy oatmeal. But what about dry oatmeal for playtime? You’d be surprised how much entertainment kids can get out of some raw oats. But again, you run the risk of attracting animals. Plus, it’s not the most economical option for large sandboxes.
Uncooked Food Pros
- Easily accessible
- Widely available
- Safe and non-toxic
Uncooked Food Cons
- Not ideal for outdoor sandboxes
- May mold when wet
- May attract animals and insects
- Can present a choking hazard
- Can be expensive depending on how much you need
7) Packing Peanuts
Styrofoam packing peanuts can make for great fun with the kids. A lot of companies are getting away from using these little non-biodegradable peanuts for shipping, but if you have some lying around, they could be an ideal substitute for sand.
However, they do have some major drawbacks, especially if you’re going to use them outside. They are very light and so they can blow all over the yard quite easily. Plus, the whole non-biodegradable thing isn’t great. But, using them inside for sensory playtime can be a great idea.
Just keep in mind that these are definitely a choking hazard. And when they get torn apart, which will inevitably happen, the little bits of styrofoam can be a pain to clean up. Still, using them on a water table is a good idea if you don’t have anything else to use.
- You may already have some
- They won’t mold when exposed to moisture
- Kids love playing with them
- Fairly cheap
- Choking hazard
- Messy when broken apart
- Can blow all over the yard
Keeping Your Sandbox Safe — No Matter What’s In It
It’s worth mentioning before we wrap this article up that having a cover for your sandbox is important no matter what material you go with. Some materials will do better in a sandbox without a cover. You may be surprised to learn that sand isn’t one of those.
If you have a large sandbox that doesn’t have a cover, or you simply don’t want to bother with a cover, stick with the following materials:
- Pea Gravel – This type of gravel provides great drainage and it will dry quickly, preventing mold and mildew from forming. Just make sure you have some sort of barrier between the ground underneath the sandbox and the pea gravel. Landscaping fabric works well for this.
- Rubber Mulch – Like pea gravel, rubber mulch drains well and doesn’t form mold and mildew. Again, you’ll want a barrier between the ground and the material. Rubber mulch won’t be attractive to insects or animals, either, which is another consideration if you don’t have a cover.
For every other material on this list, it’s best to have a cover — sand included. This will make your life so much easier. Just make sure that the sandbox is dry before covering it up!
As you can see, there are plenty of alternatives to sand for your sandbox. There are a lot of reasons people don’t want sand in their backyard. These reasons include crystalline silica, difficult cleanup, and animals that may be attracted to sand.
To be sure, many of the alternatives on this list have their drawbacks. But with a little planning, it’s possible to have a fun and educational sensory experience for your kids without the hassle of having real sand in the sandbox! Our personal favorite is pea gravel, but there’s no wrong answer.
We hope this article helps you determine the best sand alternative for your sandbox!