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Stupendous Sandcastles

An Imagination Station Activity

Materials needed:

  • Sand
  • Water
  • Patience
  • Pail or bucket
  • Shovel or spade (optional)
  • Plastic knife, and spoon (optional)
Few things make a longer lasting impression than great sandcastles. Memories of individual summers may fade, but the recollections of the castles of summer will stay with us to the end of our days.

A Family Project

Sandcastle building is the ultimate family activity. As a rule, I've found that adults and elementary school-aged kids seem to get the most enjoyment out of the experience. Toddlers are too interested in eating the beach to be much help and older kids are too interested in the opposite sex to spend the day playing in the sand.

There is no wrong way to build a sandcastle. However, if you want to build a truly memorable sand structure, there are a few tricks of the trade that are worth knowing.

Water

Next to fine sand and imagination, the essential ingredient of every good sandcastle is water. And lots of it. Dry sand is impossible to work with. Water acts as a glue to bind together individual grains and allow sculpted and molded sand to hold its shape.

Getting Started

Scout the shore for a level sandy area not too far from the water. But not so close that the incoming tide wipes away your work before it's finished.

Prepare your location by dousing it with several buckets of water. Next, over the wet spot, create a sand pile a few feet high and soak it with several buckets of water. Pack firmly. You've now created the platform for your castle.

The King's Tower

Once the base has been established, most folks work on constructing a central tower -- the higher the better. I like to call this the king's tower. Forget about using sand molds. They don't work. For a high tower to be strong enough to support its weight -- the sand needs to be very wet.

I like to use the "pile of pancakes" method of tower building. Using my hands, I create a patty of very wet sand, several inches thick. After the patty has been gently leveled and patted into shape, I make a new, slightly smaller patty on top of the one I just finished. Repeat the process until you've reached the desired height. The idea is to create a tall tapering tower with a wide base and narrow top.

Basic Shapes

Just about every sandcastle ever built is a combination or modification of two basic structures: towers and walls.

Towers can be clustered around the central tower in random or geometric patterns, such as a star design. Towers become the anchor points for your walls.

Walls are used to connect towers and they provide your castle with its classic appearance. I like to build my walls one handful of wet sand at a time. The method is simple: using both hands, scoop up as much wet sand as you can hold, gently press your hands together to squeeze out excess water and place the resulting sand clump where it's needed to create your wall. Walls grow higher as you stack one sand clump atop another. High walls need to be thick at the base and should narrow as they rise higher.

Arches are modified walls with large openings tunneled through them. After your wall is built, gently tunnel your way through at the base. Then enlarge and shape the opening into the form of an arch by shaving off thin layers of excess sand. Plastic knives, butter knives, or putty knives all make ideal shaping tools.

Ramps are also modified walls. Steep ramps can be shaped into staircases and gently sloping ramps become walkways. Steps are easily "carved" into a ramp's surface by using a straight edge tool to remove excess sand.

Tips Dribble towers are created by using very wet, almost liquid, sand and dribbling it out between your fingers.

Shaping tools for sandcastles are our hands for rough shapes and anything with a hard edge for finish work. Sandcastles are delicate! Remember that a gentle shaving method works better than gouging out huge chunks of sand. Also, a plastic knife and spoon are ideal tools to give texture and detail to your finished castle.

Sunblock is a must when building a sand structure (for you and the kids -- not the castle.) It's easy to spend hours playing in the sand and it's also easy to ignore the effects of the sun. I've gotten some of my worst sunburns building sandcastles.

Spray bottles can be employed to gently mist the castle walls and fine details. A few timely squirts with a spray bottle can keep your work from drying out and crumbling to dust in the hot sun.

Sandcastle Philosophy

Sandcastles are natural people magnets.  The more complex and interesting your structure, the more folks will be attracted to your spot on the beach. Inevitably, the kids and I are asked the question, "Why spend so much time building something that's just going to be washed away by the tide?"

I answer by saying that sandcastles are very much like life. The joy comes from the process of living and building and not in the act of completion.

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