Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Sand Tables

Sand Tables

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 29, 2009

Archaeologists and museum curators and private collectors all know that the most difficult items to acquire for their collections are often the smallest and simplest, must mundane artifacts of day-to-day life. Everyone recognizes the value of and knows to carefully preserve the heavy silver, the fine weapons, the material objects that gave status to their owners when those objects were new. It’s the low-cost, disposable household items and workshop tools that are treated carelessly and discarded thoughtlessly when new technology or fashion replaces them, that are sometimes the rarest items after time has passed.

I have long heard about “sand tables” as a standard fixture of LDS Primary and Sunday School classrooms. These were described to me as long, narrow tables, at a convenient height  for children either to sit or to stand, with tops framed as boxes to hold several inches of sand. My mother, talking about several years either side of 1940, said that she would stand her flannelboard figures upright in the sand and allow children to move the figures like dolls as she narrated a story, giving them a more three-dimensional experience than the typical flat flannelboard use.

From old instructional materials, I also learned that teachers would assist children in creating landscapes on the sand table – a mockup of Palestine, for instance, would help children visualize the relationship of the River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, and the positions of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Trailing their fingers in the sand during a story or tracing out the unfamiliar names of ancient prophets was also supposed to add a tactile experience to the visual and aural ones, in what seems to me a sophisticated recognition of the various ways children learn which has been supported by modern studies.

I had two questions, though: How did church janitors feel about what must have been an endless chore of sweeping the Primary and Sunday School classrooms? And, What did the darn things look like?

These sand tables were so common that old lesson guides refer casually to doing such-and-such on the sand table, the same way they direct teachers to write such-and-such on the chalkboard. But for the several years I have been watching, I couldn’t find a photograph or a sketch of a sand table, or directions for building one, or even a detailed description of how to use a sand table to illustrate any particular point in a published lesson.

Until this past April, when I found a small photograph of a group of Primary teachers and children of Manti, Utah, in a 1916 issue of The Children’s Friend. The printed photo is small and dark and gives rather poor reproduction quality here, but there it is: A sand table in use. In a nice touch for a Mormon history blog, the children are using the table to learn about pioneers and western settlement: You can see rough mountains and prairies, some covered wagons and log cabins, even the teepees of an Indian camp.

So there you have it – that rare surviving trace of what used to be common equipment in Mormon classrooms.



  1. Thanks Ardis-It appears our foremothers knew a child learns by doing. Good lesson for us today.

    Comment by JA Benson — May 29, 2009 @ 9:27 am

  2. Ardis, this post is a delight, as it was to meet you at Amy’s house when you were out here visiting this month. Cheers!

    Comment by Rob — May 29, 2009 @ 9:51 am

  3. Holy smokes! I am green with envy. I would have loved to have had something like this when I was in Primary. (Then again, I probably would have gotten carried away with it, and started “racing” the covered wagons or something.)

    I love finding out about ideas and practices that were homegrown in Utah/Mormondom. So, what I want to know is if these sand tables were unique to the Mormon experience? Does anyone know of Methodist or Episcopalian or Baptist, etc., sand tables?

    Comment by Hunter — May 29, 2009 @ 10:44 am

  4. My two oldest children went to University Houses Nursery School in Madison, Wisconsin, a number of years ago and among other amazing programs and toy collections, they had a sand table. If I remember correctly, it could be covered, so it was not always accessible to the children. They had lots of fun using it, and I don’t recall that it ever resulted in much of a mess. But I’m sure the mess factor is what has made the sand table less common. What a shame: just sit the children down in front of the television, and their childhoods will pass peacefully and spotlessly away. (Except for the candy bar and potato chip wrappers stuffed under the couch cushions.)

    By the way, who’s this “Amy” that Rob mentions? And when are you coming back, Ardis? We’ll make sure that you see the Mint next time. :)

    Comment by Researcher — May 29, 2009 @ 11:00 am

  5. Thanks, JA — our ancestors often recognized what worked, even without the fancy pedagogical studies, didn’t they?

    Enjoyed meeting you, too, Rob, and others in your ward. That was one funnnnnn trip!

    Hunter, I don’t know about other religious groups in particular, but if you google “sand tables” you’ll find that they are still available for sale today (something I didn’t know until I was writing this post). Evidently they are used in children’s psychotherapy in some way, as well as for educational uses like the Primary goal.

    These tables intrigued me when Mom mentioned them, but seeing one in use helps me appreciate them for their possibilities. I think I’m a teacher who wouldn’t care if a little boy in my class raced his wagon, or drove it over a cliff, as he wasn’t throwing sand or deliberately knocking it onto the floor. Or a little girl, for that matter. This would be one more tool to keep their attention and engage them in a lesson.

    I do feel sorry for the old time janitors, though.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 29, 2009 @ 11:04 am

  6. Overlapping comments, Researcher. You’ve forgotten Amy? She’s the one who knew the best places to visit around Philadelphia — places where George Washington slept and Joseph Smith preached (not simultaneously!), the homes of people like Pearl Buck and Daniel Boone and John James Audubon, places like that. Plus, she makes a great mushroom and pepper pizza.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 29, 2009 @ 11:09 am

  7. I am quite certain that my wife, who has taught kindergarten and pre-school for the last ten years, has mentioned having sand tables in her classrooms. I vaguely recall something involving water, too–“water table” sounds like something altogether different, so I’ll have to ask her. (Now, what are the chances that a bunch of kids could have fun with that?)

    And, I could post photos of her class digging in the dirt or watching the painting snails (I kid you not).

    Besides lack of equipment, one problem with the primary is that all the kids are dressed in their Sunday best. Maybe it’s time for regular “casual Sundays” for the children.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 29, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

  8. This is so cool! We had a sandbox in our backyard 40 years ago. My brothers and I still fondly remember the fun we had in the sandbox. A sandtable would be a blast in primary. It would certainly be more fun than the play dough my wife uses in her Sunbeam class.

    Mark B: A water table? Sounds interesting. However, in a kindergarten class one might need a water board.:-)

    Comment by Steve C. — May 29, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  9. That sand table is awesome (and huge!) I could have entertained myself for HOURS at church with one of those.

    Comment by Clark — May 29, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

  10. Actually, I checked the source. They use the same table–for sand, water, dirt (for mixing potting soil), beans and rice–not all at the same time obviously.

    Sounds like fun.

    The only fun I remember from kindergarten was chasing Sheila during recess.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 29, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

  11. RE: #6

    I dunno Ardis, I could just see the headline in the Philadelphia Enquirer, “Former President G. Washington Bored to Slumber as Mormon Prophet Jos. Smith Preaches!”

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — May 29, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

  12. I have never heard of a sand table and the picture looks way intrigueing. I wonder if this could be approved for Primary activity days for the girls or for cub scouts for the boys.

    Comment by Maurine — May 29, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

  13. It shouldn’t be hard to build, or expensive, either, if you have a local source of clean sand. If cleanup is part of the deal, why wouldn’t it be as acceptable as some of the gloppy, goopy activities that already take place in the cultural hall? Go for it! (And report back here.)

    I’m lovin’ the way so many of us are captivated by something as simple and low tech as this is. Maybe we need to teach kids how to play again.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 29, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

  14. Church buildings I frequent seem to frown on anything that can’t be moved. Our classrooms seem to be like Shaker halls where everything must be easy to put asideto be able to clear the floor. When you are done, everything has to go into a closet, chairs stacked to get them out of the way. Sometimes it seems so sterile.

    My kindergarten classroom had a fiberglass water table with a few precast basins and canyons that we floated toys on. We also used sand tables in the Army to plan operations.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — May 30, 2009 @ 7:22 am

  15. Is that the Nauvoo Temple in the distance?

    Comment by Left Field — May 30, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

  16. I think it is, Left (“Eagle Eye”) Field. There was a series of cut-outs in the Children’s Friend early on that included buildings for a model Nauvoo.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 30, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

  17. I came across the following bit in the September 1938 Improvement Era:


    IT WAS one of the little girl’s first visits to a Sunday School. She was very much impressed by a sand table picturing the settling of the Saints in the valley. Log Cabin Syrup cans were used for houses for the pioneers. When she returned home she said:

    “Mother, do you know what?”

    The mother asked what she meant and she replied:

    “The pioneers lived in tin cans.”

    —Submitted by Mrs. F. P. Greenhalgh, Nephi, Utah.

    Comment by Justin — May 30, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

  18. I don’t know whether this belongs on THIS post, Justin, or one of the Funny Bones!

    This is wonderful, Justin. It suggests that the sand table tableau of pioneers and settling the west was a recurring teaching technique (maybe like making a tableau of Palestine by using small milk cartons covered with salt clay was in vogue during the ’50s and ’60s — did that continue long enough for anybody else to remember it?).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 30, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

  19. I guess the advent of carpeted halls and classrooms might have had something to do with the demise of the sand table.
    Where I grew up in Wyoming and Idaho, most churches only had carpet in the chapel and the R.S. room. Since I entered Primary at 3 in 1967, I missed out! Maybe my little ADD mind would have paid more attention back then!

    Actually it might have been the rise of the overhead, mimeograph and later photocopier and finally VHS and now DVD. In the days before cheap technology and more readily available and affordable materials (even in faraway Atlanta at our local LDS bookstore), they had to use their ingenuity. I do think we have lost some student participation and “kinetic” as well as “visual” instruction (2 of the 3 modes taught in learning) in the process.

    Comment by Acegrace — May 30, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

  20. Off topic, but wanted to second that observation about carpeting, this memory from the mid 1960s-70s… My grandparent’s branch was all (linoleum? vinyl? asbestos?) tile floor in green. The Stop 11 Road Stake Center in south Indianapolis had carpet in the foyer, relief society room, and the aisles only of the chapel. Under the pews was white (linoleum? vinyl? asbestos?) tile, perfect for diving under the pews on my dress’s skirt and coming up again two or three rows away at the nearest elderly couple known to have candy in their pockets and interesting pins on suit lapels (masonic!) to play with. The unpadded pews made a lovely hollow drum sound when a tot in patent leather shoes marched across them during meeting.

    I don’t remember a sand table, but I do remember making paper-mache puppets and paper-pasted dodecahedrons in Targeteers. Do you remember the little vinyl records in the lesson manual? The Targeteer theme seemed to involve the astronaut program somehow–we were blasting off to learn something. But enough of that: back to your regularly scheduled coolness of Keepa.

    Comment by Coffinberry — May 31, 2009 @ 7:46 am

  21. Coffinberry, I too remember the days when the only carpet in the entire building was the foyer, RS room, and the aisles/front of the chapel. No doubt the practice of carpeting everything (sometimes including the gym … er, cultural hall) would make it questionable whether a sand table could be used today even for a special event. I’d hope a good vacuum and a promise to use it well would clear the way, though, if someone really wanted to try it for a one-time activity.

    Acegrace, do you think that all the high tech teaching aids could create a certain charm to the low tech ones, used once in a while? A teacher might have to be prepared to deal with some ultra cool ringleader who would turn up her nose, but presented in the right way kids just might have the same reaction as some readers here.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 31, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  22. I don’t know whether this belongs on THIS post, Justin, or one of the Funny Bones!

    I wasn’t sure whether it was funny or not, so I added it here. BTW, since my familiarity with Log Cabin Syrup doesn’t date back to 1938, I looked up an ad from the period to get an idea of the container’s appearance.

    Comment by Justin — May 31, 2009 @ 11:43 am

  23. I’m impressed at how long the sand table is. What fun.

    Comment by Sarah in Georgia — August 3, 2015 @ 6:22 pm

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