September 2020

Building a Better Sandbox Children’s Museum: A beloved island institution turns the page on COVID and readies for its next chapter.

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.KAT Photography


The new Sandbox will include 1,200 square feet of outdoor exhibits including a climbing wall, a musical wall, a water exhibit and a kayak simulator.

If there is any silver lining to be found in the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s this: Parents everywhere have developed a newfound appreciation for their child’s education. Between wrapping up this past school year at home and spending a summer trying to find some kind of enrichment activity beyond video games, most parents have come out the other side of this with a much deeper stake in their child’s development.

Which brings us to a sobering statistic nationwide. Across the country, children’s museums were forced to shut down along with every other non-essential business. And when this is all behind us, one estimate states that 30 percent of them will never reopen.

Thankfully for area parents, the Lowcountry’s own hands-on interactive children museum, The Sandbox Children’s Museum, will not be among the 30 percent. “We’ve been here 16 years and we’ve always had great support from the community,” said executive director Nancy Fish.

That’s not to say the pandemic didn’t present all manner of challenges to The Sandbox. This is, after all, a place where learning is greatly tactile. Here, kids don’t just learn about aeronautics; they get to sit in the cockpit and take to the wild blue yonder of their imagination. They aren’t just told about the history of the island; they get to climb the rigging of Capt. William Hilton’s ship The Adventure and experience the thrill of discovering an island paradise. All of these hands-on experiences enrich learning to a marvelous degree, but they are rather hard to convey over a Zoom chat.

That didn’t stop The Sandbox from trying. “When the pandemic started, we turned from a hands-on museum to providing online activities—things you could do at home,” Fish said. Running the gamut from STEM-based experiments to literacy activities, all of The Sandbox’s programming was made available free of charge through their social media channels.

For parents suddenly finding themselves doubling as schoolteachers, it was a godsend. And even as the world opens up, parents are still reaping the benefits of having a resource like The Sandbox at their disposal. “As people start to go back, play is such an important thing. Not just for the children, but for the adults, too,” Fish said. “It’s a therapeutic way for them to deal with emotions. A lot of parents haven’t had much time to exhale and just connect with their children.”

The Sandbox was able to pivot and innovate when schools first went online-only, and with virtual learning making its return in the fall, they’re offering another indispensable aid for parents. At both the Hilton Head Island and Bluffton Sandbox locations, students can enroll in a K-4 program that lets them learn alongside a small group of students in a pod environment. Running from 8:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., “Museum School” will essentially serve as that structured school day that children have been missing, in a small-group setting that will put a priority on health and safety.

“In between their regular school activities, we’ll supplement with enrichment activities around STEM and art and physical activity,” Fish said. “We have all those materials right here. And during free time, they’ll get to go play in the museum.”

Or at least your kids will think they’re playing. Don’t let on, but even when they’re playing, they’ll be learning. That’s been the secret to The Sandbox’s success for 16 years. It’s how they have thrived and how they have now reached the point of explosive growth.

That growth has taken the form of a fabulous new location at the heart of the Coligny District’s upcoming Celebration Park. Encircled by forested trails, sparkling lagoons and a massive replica of The Adventure, The Sandbox will anchor a brand-new experience for families both local and visiting.

While the Town of Hilton Head Island provided the physical structure for the new museum, what lies ahead is the sizable task of filling that building. And once again, we see The Sandbox coming through with some brilliant ideas. Along with moving over the Pope Ave. location’s exhibits, the new Sandbox will include 1,200 square feet of outdoor exhibits including a climbing wall, a musical wall, a water exhibit and a kayak simulator. Inside, a mammoth sandcastle will anchor a space boasting dedicated spaces for STEM experiments, an arts studio and even spaces to teach children about the Native Islander culture of Hilton Head Island.

If you’re a parent who has taken on the role of teacher over the last few months, it’s an exciting new opportunity. And it’s one you can help make happen. A capital campaign is underway to help get The Sandbox to this next chapter, and your donations can get them there.

“The goal was to raise, realistically, $500,000,” Fish said. “We’re at $200,000 now, and we see a pathway to $300,000.” Beyond individual donations, there are opportunities for local businesses and communities to sponsor individual exhibits. It’s a great way to help a place that has meant so much to area families and to put a smile on a child’s face when it’s needed most.

They are often overlooked when discussing the new normal established over the last few months, but it is the children who have seen the most drastic change to their worlds. For them, the opportunity to engage in play and enrich their minds is an ideal way to cope with those changes. For adults, it’s a great way to set aside the lesson planner and truly reconnect with their children as parents.

To learn how you can help with The Sandbox’s capital campaign, visit thesandbox.org.

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