You might be shocked to find out that the sand you put in your child's sandbox or around play equipment might not be safe to play in. Contractor-grade sand can contain particles of silica and other materials that could irritate the lungs or cause lung damage with long-term exposure. Many parents seek out safer alternative sources of material to fill the sandbox or cushion the ground. Pea gravel can fit the bill, as long as your child has passed the page of putting things in his mouth.
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Choosing Pea Gravel
Pea gravel has some benefits over play sand produced specifically for use in children's sandboxes. For one, it's cheaper; you can buy it at your local garden store. Choose washed, sterilized, dust-free pea gravel, child educator Dr. Susan Hudson recommends on the Early Childhood News website. Neighborhood cats might not find it as tempting as sand, but you should still keep the sandbox covered at night.
Pea Gravel Drawbacks
The difference between sand and pea gravel in the sandbox is the difference between a beach with very fine sand and coarser sand. It doesn't have the same feel or function as sand. You can't form pea gravel into sand castles, since it's not fine enough. It can also be somewhat dirty to handle, unless you buy washed and sterilized pea gravel.
Pea Gravel Risks
Kids under a certain age -- which can vary quite a bit from child to child -- put everything in their mouths. Since pea gravel is larger than sand, it can present a choking hazard for infants and toddlers. For preschoolers, pea gravel is safe, unless you have a preschooler who still can't resist filling his mouth with everything he handles.
Pea Gravel as a Surface
Some playgrounds use pea gravel as a cushioning surface rather than using shredded tires, grass or, heaven forbid, concrete or asphalt. Pea gravel provides a more flexible, safer base in case of falls from playground equipment, as long as your child is older than toddler age and won't try to eat it. Place a base at least 12 inches deep to protect your child from the inevitable tumble off the monkey bars. Don't pack the pea gravel down, since packing it reduces its cushioning effect, the Kids Health website cautions.