Sandbox Approach to Empowering Learners’ Aspirations

My little one is in preschool, and just a few days ago she came home and excitedly told me, “Mami, Mami, it’s summer! It’s sandbox time outside.” I don’t know if it was the weather, the idea of playing outside, or the sandbox that made her enthusiastic that day, but her excitement made me think. When was the last time I felt that excited about going to school, coming home, and sharing with someone that I had learned or played with something?

Post by Gwen Nguyenadvisor, Learning + Teaching at BCcampus

What Is a Sandbox?

Have you heard of the term sandbox? Although it seems self-explanatory, it carries multiple meanings depending on the context. According to Merriam-Webster, a sandbox is a box filled with sand usually found in playgrounds where children can play. These spaces allow children to engage in various games and unleash their creativity.

The term has also been adopted in fields such as technology, software development, game design, and education. In technology and software development, it refers to a testing environment that enables developers to experiment with new code or applications without affecting the production environment. It provides an isolated space where developers can test and debug their software before deploying it to a live system.

Expanding on the concept of a safe haven for young children to explore the real world through play, sandbox is also used in the context of teaching and learning. In this context, a sandbox approach is an educational approach where learners are placed in environments or situations that closely resemble real-life scenarios but without any risk. In other words, the sandbox emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning in a safe and controlled environment. It provides learners with the freedom to explore and experiment with concepts or ideas. In such environments, learners can “learn effectively while still experiencing a sense of authenticity and accomplishment” (Gee, 2007, p. 39).

Whether it’s a play area for children, a testing environment for developers, or an experiential learning approach in education, the concept of a sandbox highlights the importance of providing a safe and creative space for exploration and growth.

Sandboxes Everywhere

The sandbox approach has proven effective in providing an environment where teachers can collaboratively work together through successive iterations, collecting and analyzing data and developing a report framework without fear of failure or inadequacy (Mudrinic, De Leo, Nicks, Knobel, & Lankshear, 2023). It has also been applied as a valuable and sustainable method of professional development as well as a platform for content sharing during online teaching (Ervin-Kassab, 2020, 2022). Sandboxes play a crucial role in enhancing the effectiveness of educational technology interventions, reducing costs and generating evidence on the implementation of education technology at scale (Simpson, 2020).

At BCcampus the notion of a sandbox for teaching and learning with technology isn’t new. As early as 2011 we invited scholars from across the province to play in the sandbox. In 2014 we provided a digital sandbox as a test kitchen for technology where educators could play around with ingredients and a recipe (software application) before they made informed decisions about the technology they could use to enhance curricula. We also offer a sandbox pilot process for educators to connect and collaborate with different sectors across the province to test and evaluate new education technologies. These evaluations are both pedagogical and technical and are designed to help B.C. post-secondary institutions make informed decisions about education technology.

This fall BCcampus is launching a new FLO EdTech Sandbox series to offer a safe online environment for educators to explore and experiment with new tools for innovative teaching and learning. We eagerly invite you to collaborate with us.

How Can the Sandbox Approach Empower Student Aspirations?

Friere (1972/1986), in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, asserted that teaching is a process of empowering learners to drive their own learning and develop a profound understanding of their own position within a community through active participation and engagement. Aspirations, as described by Nguyen and Slavic (2017), refer to an individual’s voice and choice and to their natural curiosity, which leads to action in the world. Regardless of whether aspirations are heard or seen, they are active and resilient throughout life. Teaching should be an invitation for learners to engage in an ongoing conversation that helps fulfill their aspirations.

In an education sandbox project, teaching staff at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Arizona Global Campus shared their approach of allowing students to explore software based on their own choices. Every week students were invited to participate in a technology forum where they could present the tool they wanted to test, use, or play with and discuss the challenges they encountered as well as rewarding experiences in academic or personal contexts. Through a playful, unique, creative learning environment, students were encouraged to embrace learning from mistakes, troubleshoot, reflect, and repeat this circle again.

The sandbox approach has the potential to greatly empower learners’ aspirations. Advocating for experimentation and encouraging students to step outside their comfort zones, cultivates a mindset of curiosity and exploration. It also empowers students by granting them the autonomy to choose the content of learning that resonates with their interests and needs, fostering a sense of ownership and engagement in their learning journey. The sandbox approach challenges students to consider real-life situations, bridging the gap between theory and practice and preparing them for the complexities of the world beyond the classroom. Promoting a boundary-free environment for creativity where imagination knows no limits, nurtures innovative thinking and problem-solving skills. As it emphasizes there are no right or wrong answers, it encourages them to take risks and embrace their unique perspectives. This approach not only helps students gain new skills and knowledge but also brings them joy, pride, and a deep sense of fulfillment as they see themselves grow in their learning journey.

Design a Sandbox

Tip 1: Build a Sandbox

In the spirit of a sandbox for learners to freely play, think of ways to create an environment where they can practice, experiment, and improvise without the need to take things too seriously. This sandbox will help your learners explore, get hands-on experience, make mistakes, and have fun while learning. In the age of technology-infused teaching, some key features of a sandbox, as suggested by Nat Eliason, include:

  • Affordable: It should be low-cost or free, so there are no barriers to starting and it encourages learners to make mistakes and build confidence.
  • Low risk: The stakes should be low, so learners feel comfortable showcasing their work without worrying about it being perfect or facing criticism.
  • Public: The sandbox should provide a platform for learners to share their work in some way, ensuring they can make it available to others.

For instance, in a project where I require an academic report from my student teachers about the school culture and their practicum journals, I could consider asking students to experiment with creating a blog on WordPress, Medium, or Squarespace.

Tip 2: Try Everything

I messed up tonight, I lost another fight

Lost to myself, but I’ll just start again

I keep falling down, I keep on hitting the ground

I won’t give up, no, I won’t give in

‘Til I reach the end, and then I’ll start again

No, I won’t leave, I wanna try everything

I wanna try even though I could fail

— Shakira, “Try Everything

In a sandbox, encourage learners to try everything and experiment with methods and approaches. For example, in a WordPress sandbox, if learners haven’t tried communicating through infographics or exploring a topic aesthetically, motivate them to reflect on their learning from new perspectives. It is through this willingness and eagerness to try that all gaps can be bridged and the borders of the learning sandbox can be expanded.

Remind your learners that with the sandbox approach, the outcome or final product is not the primary focus. In the article “Self-Education: Teach Yourself Anything with the Sandbox Method,” Nat Eliason emphasized that how we practice what we’re learning is just as important as what we choose to practice. Eliason suggests purposeful practice within the sandbox, which involves:

  • Continuously assessing learning and identifying areas that need improvement
  • Setting a goal just beyond the current ability
  • Practicing with intense focus
  • Seeking feedback from others and incorporating it into the next cycle

Tip 3: Enjoy Playing with Others and Value Feedback

When I joined my institution as a faculty member, I was provided with a sandbox on a platform called Playspace. It may sound like a personal space, but if you observe any outdoor sandbox, you often see children not only playing with tools but also engaging with others. It’s important to encourage learners to invite others to join the sandbox to maximize active learning through continuous interaction, feedback, and growth through learning experiences.

As stated in the B.C. Post-Secondary Digital Literacy Framework, a digitally literate citizen is expected to approach new technologies with curiosity, confidence, and the ability to troubleshoot when technologies don’t work. I invite you to envision how the sandbox approach can be integrated into your teaching practice, enabling both you and your learners to adapt and thrive in this digital age.

Stay tuned for our FLO EdTech Sandbox Series starting in fall 2023.


Eliason, N. (2017). Self-Education: Teach Yourself Anything with the Sandbox Method – Nat Eliason.

Ervin-Kassab, L. E. (2020) Playing with faculty: Creating a learning management “sandbox.” In R. E. Ferdig, E. Baumgartner, R. Hartshorne, R. Kaplan-Rakowski, & C. Mouza (Eds), Teaching, technology, and teacher education during the COVID-19 pandemic: Stories from the Field (pp. 17–22). Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

Ervin-Kassab, L. (2022). The evolution of a faculty sandbox: Moving beyond technology. In E. Baumgartner, R. Kaplan-Rakowski, R. E. Ferdig, R. Hartshorne, & C. Mouza (Eds.), A retrospective of teaching, technology, and teacher education during the COVID-19 pandemic (pp. 181–185). Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

Freire, P. (1986). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Gee, J. (2007). Good video games + good learning: Collected essays on video games. Peter Lang.

Heick, Terrell. (2017). Should Sandbox Learning Be the Future of Education? Teachthought.

Mudrinic, D., De Leo, T., Nicks, S., Knobel, M., & Lankshear, C. (2023). Learning to become teacher researchers: A sandbox approach. The Australian Journal of Language and Literacy46(1), 53–71.

Nguyen, H. (Gwen) T., & Slavik, S. (2017). (Re)visiting John Dewey and (Re)imagining a Curriculum with the Empty Space of a Haiku. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies15(1), 42–53.

Simpson, L. (2020). Sandboxes: Our approach to systemic experimentation. EdTech Hub.