Encouraging Play with a Digital Sandbox

“Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.”~ Abraham Maslow

Play is one of the most effective ways we learn. Let’s imagine children playing in a sandbox. What happens? They are surrounded by various tools. A child will choose a tool to experiment with like a pail. The child might use that pail to hold sand, turn the pail upside down to shape mounds for a castle, or wear the pail as a helmet. We can take the idea of a sandbox to encourage play, experimentation, and creativity with some of our favorite web tools by creating a “digital sandbox.”

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What is a Digital Sandbox?

A digital sandbox is basically a web page full of links to apps or digital tools that you would like your learners to use for various projects you give them throughout the course. I first learned about this concept when creating my Digital Storytelling SMOOC (Small Open Online Course). We host our digital sandbox on a Wiki. The initial design wasn’t very exciting but this year I’ve incorporated Symbaloo, a free bookmarking tool. I give more details below. We categorize tools into comic creators, video storytelling, storybook tools, etc. Under each  category we listed the tool, provided a link, and wrote a brief description.

The Digital Sandbox and Tech Tasks

I use the digital sandbox idea when getting my students to do tasks with various tools. When designing a technology project, here are a few tips:

  1. provide an area with links to tools that students can easily access (the Digital Sandbox). Categorize the tools and create Symbaloos of each category. This will save you a lot of time in the long run. I explain more below.
  2. have a blog, Padlet, Edmodo or other online space where students can easily embed their creations and receive feedback from peers. It is important that the platform you use shows the students’ creations instead of only providing a link.   This is their digital portfolio.
  3. create an area with various video tutorials on using the tools and how to embed/post the creations to the collaborative class site or their blogs.
  4. create a widget to display all the new creations in one area to encourage peers to click and comment. I recommend the free RSS Widget which gives you many customizable options. See the example below.

Each week our participants were given an assignment in which they could choose a web tool from their digital sandbox. For example, they had to create a comic which expressed their feelings taking the course. We could have given them one comic creator to choose from but there are many free, great comic creators. Instead, we directed them to the digital sandbox where they could see recommended tools, read a short description, and choose which comic creator they wanted to experiment with to complete their tasks.  Another way we used the digital sandbox was to encourage exploration outside the course. Each week, the students were told to play with a sandbox tool and upload it to the class blog for feedback. Choice is powerful. Many of our participants played in the sandbox each week even though these projects were not graded.

A Better Designed Digital Sandbox?

I’m always looking for ways to make my technology tasks more accessible, user-friendly, and interactive. This year my digital sandbox has evolved to allow for a more interactive experience thanks to Symbaloo, Tumblr, Padlet, and the free RSS Widget. Symbaloo, is a free bookmarking service that displays your bookmarks as clickable icons. It’s basically a grid of clickable icons. You can embed this in a Wiki, blog, or website. Tumblr is a blogging service that has a submit form. NOTE: I would not recommend Tumblr for children or adolescents since it has questionable material on other blogs. Kidblog is a good option where kids can embed their creations in their own blogs.

Seeing It in Action

This may seem like a lot of work but creating a digital sandbox saves me a lot of time because I can use the same tool sandbox for various future tasks and with various classes. It doesn’t take that much time to create Symbaloos if you find one in the gallery with many of the tools you want in yours. I can also reuse these each year with a few edits.

Below is a basic example. Feel free to copy this example, tweak it to meet your needs, and use it with your learners. Feel free to build your Symbaloo using one of mine. To do this create a new Symbaloo and name it. Open my Symbaloo or another you like in the gallery. Right click the icons in my Symbaloo you would like to add to your new Symbaloo and choose copy/move. A drop down menu will appear with your Symbaloos. Just choose where to copy it.

Task- Create a create a comic summarizing your feelings after two weeks of taking this course. Use any of the tools in the digital sandbox below to complete this task. Then post your comic to the class Tumblr using the submission form. Comment on a few of your peers’ comics.

Welcome to the Digital Sandbox for Comics! Please grab a tool/app and play.

Comic Creation Tools

Click on any of the icons to be lead to that comic creator. Scroll down to see written descriptions of each tool.

Additional Resources


Create a digital sandbox to encourage play and experimentation with your learners this year.

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Shelly Terrell

Shelly Sanchez Terrell (@ShellTerrell) is an award winning digital innovator, an international speaker/consultant, and the author of Hacking Digital Learning with EdTech Missions, The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers, and Learning to Go. She has trained teachers and taught English language learners in over 20 countries as an invited guest expert by organizations, like the US Embassy, UNESCO Bangkok, Cultura Inglesa of Brazil, the British Council in Tel Aviv, IATEFL Slovenia, HUPE Croatia, ISTEK Turkey, and Venezuela TESOL. She has been recognized by several organizations and publications as a leader in the movement of teacher driven professional development as the founder and organizer of various online conferences, Twitter chats, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Two of the projects she co-organized were shortlisted for ELTons, #ELTChat and the Virtual Round Table Language and Technology online conference. She was named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women, awarded a Bammy Award as a founder of #Edchat, and named as one of the 10 Most Influential People in EdTech by Tech & Learning. Her greatest joy is being the mother of baby Savannah and Rosco the pug. Shelly has an Honors BA in English with a Minor in Communication and a specialization in Electronic Media from UTSA, a Masters in Curriculum Instruction ESL from the University of Phoenix, and a CELTA from CELT Athens. She regularly shares her tips for effective technology integration via Twitter (@ShellTerrell), Facebook.com/ShellyTerrell, and on her blog, TeacherRebootCamp.com, which has won several awards and recognitions as one of the top ESL, Edtech and Elearning blogs. Find over 400 of her slide presentations at https://www.slideshare.net/ShellTerrell/presentations

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