STEAM Lessons: Sandpaper


Young children can discover so much from exploring the sounds and texture of sandpaper, it’s really a gold mine of learning. Well, not a GOLD mine… more like bauxite mine. More on that later.

As a music teacher working with young children, I often use sand blocks, those small (but heavy, if you’re carrying around a bag of 60 of them) wooden blocks covered in sandpaper on one side, with little handles on the other side. Children love the rough, scratchy sound of scraping sand blocks together almost as much as most teachers dislike it. (One teacher said it made her skin crawl like hearing nails on a chalkboard.) You can scrape them back and forth to the beat of a song, and also tap the sides, make them “jump” on the floor, twirl them by the handles to develop your small-motor skills… and all while making music, expressing yourself and improvising. Aside from their aforementioned weightiness, I love sand blocks.

Now, here’s where a great STEAM opportunity comes in. Children invariably want to know what the stuff on the sand blocks is. Because they know the instruments are called “sand blocks,” most of them assume it’s sand, even though it doesn’t look like the sand at the beach. I tell them that’s a good guess – they’re guessing based on the name of the instrument.

Then I tell them it’s something kind of like sand. It’s called aluminum oxide, (actually a crystalline form of it called corundum), which is made from a mineral called bauxite, found under the ground, usually in hot places like Australia and Africa.

Do young children need to know this? No. Do they want to know about it? Surprisingly often! And after being caught off guard a few times with their scientific questions, I traced the origins of sandpaper all the way back to the bauxite mine.


Here are some more cool sandpaper explorations!

  1. Bring in some small sheets of sandpaper (Sheets of about 5″ by 5″ are available at Walmart and home supply stores). Let students feel them and explain that sandpaper is usually used to rub on rough pieces of wood to make them smoother. You know where this is going.. bring in some wood and let the children sand it! Getting a rough wooden edge nice and smooth is very satisfying and interesting for children.
  2. I like to glue small pieces of sandpaper on the sides of recycled coffee cans and oatmeal boxes, or around a recycled water bottle. Children can scratch it with mallet or pencil, also wrapped in sandpaper, to make a guiro-type sound. This kind of instrument is fun to play with salsa or Caribbean type music.
  3. And guess what! Children can draw on sandpaper with crayons! The smoothness of the wax and the roughness of the sandpaper make a great experience in sensory contrast.
  4.  Another object with the corundum sound? Emery boards! They’re fun to scrape against each other. Ask children how the sound is like the sandpaper sound, and how it’s different. Improvise a musical piece using both sandpaper and emery boards.
  5. (Insert the usual caution here about being careful with sandpaper. It’s scratchy and children should keep it away from their faces or bare skin, etc. and you should always supervise them while they use it.)
  6. Just fun to know: Sapphires and rubies are variations of aluminum oxide! They contain small amounts of titanium and iron (sapphires) or chromium (rubies).Young children are fascinated by the look, texture and sound of sandpaper – a simple material that can promote scientific discovery, motor skills, sensitive listening skills, and creative musicality.

    Many more STEAM activities can be found in my new book, “Exploring the Science of Sounds: 100 Musical Activities for Young Children” (Gryphon House, 2017).


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