Playbook / Commercial spaces / Case Study

SandZone! • Berkeley, CA

The importance of play is particularly evident in the Lorin District of California, which borders one of the poorest areas of Berkley. Area playgrounds are minimal, with most chained up by 3:00 p.m. every day due to a high crime rate.

The project site, a city-owned parking lot, is located in a busy intersection with multiple bus stops and a Bart station two blocks away. Habitot Children's Museum turned this 3,600 square foot parking lot into a giant sand box, complete with tools for digging, excavating and shaping, as well as free-play pieces like Imagination Playground.

Project details
Habitot Children's Museum
Project type
Commercial spaces
Project status
Playbook - Case Studies - Sand Zone 01

Why sand? "Sand is like water and art," said Gina Moreland, founder of Habitot Children's Museum. "It activates creativity. As kids shape and mold it, they pretend to dig for treasure or dinosaur bones, and manipulate cranes and diggers just like workers on a construction site," Moreland continued. To create this mystical allure to kids and families, Moreland and her team needed a lot of sand—56 cubic yards to be exact.

In addition to its incredible potential to inspire innovation, design and imagination, kids these days, especially kids in urban areas, rarely see sand dunes.

Mobilizing action

The SandZone! team had to find a way to cover the area from potential rain without losing the open concept feeling critical to the project. With the help of REI, panels of white parachute fabric were roped to the top of the building and hung down at an angle. At times, a breeze with just enough strength would lift the parachute, providing another mystical element to the playspace.

While the museum already had robust partnerships with community organizations through programs like the Family Inclusion Program, they were still battling the perception that because they charge admission, they are not accessible. "SandZone! was a wonderful chance for the community to interact with us, and break down some of those barriers," said Moreland.

Not enough people are advocating for play because of the unclear "measurable outcomes." We are always looking for ways that can prove that it matters.

Community impact

Visitors in the SandZone! were treated to a unique play experience with themed activities and projects that were led by "Playworkers." Important to Habitot, these Playworkers also helped message to passersby that "entrance" to the zone was free. While SandZone! helped bring play to nearly 3,500 Bay Area kids and adults, it also brought awareness to local businesses in the area and inspired an uptick in sales and customer traffic.

Sand proved to be the perfect kid-friendly vehicle to inspire the spontaneous level of play Moreland and her team anticipated. Children were building sand castles, digging holes and creating elaborate games with toys. More than 80% of survey respondents said their family played in the SandZone! for at least 45 minutes, and many visitors came back as part of their daily commute.

A mother and her 7-year-old kids came across SandZone! on the way to the nearby laundromat. The kids stopped and watched the kids playing in the sand, looking expectantly at their mother. When the family made their way back from the laundromat, this time, the kids jumped straight into the sand. They played until they had to change out their laundry, and came back during the dry cycle. The mother said their boring chore of laundry was turned into something fun and exciting for her kids.


REI, City of Berkeley