Planning our beach vacation was easy; finding activities to entertain all four of our kids, ranging from a toddler to a preteen, was not. So when I stumbled across a listing for sand-sculpting lessons on Texas's South Padre Island, I was intrigued. Despite my worry that the older kids would roll their eyes in boredom and the destructo-toddler would ruin the fun for everyone, I booked all six of us for a private session with SandCastleLessons.com, hoping that getting our hands dirty together would be just the family bonding we needed.
David, our instructor, met us on a section of beach dedicated to classes. My husband, Gary, and I had imagined ourselves on the sidelines, encouraging the kids as they learned the ropes. But before we knew it, we were right in there with them, eagerly trying out David's tips. To begin with, he said, we could forget much of what we thought we knew about constructing sand castles. Most important: rather than adding sand as we worked, we would each begin by building one big, dense pile, then gradually whittle it away.
First we created a broad, flat-topped platform by scooping wet sand into a pile and packing it tightly. With our own imagined design in mind, we packed more wet sand into buckets and upended them on top of the platform wherever we planned to add height, being careful to maintain an overall pyramid shape (wider at the bottom). Finally, we added shovelfuls of sand to a five-gallon bucket of water to create a sloppy "soup." This we scooped out with our hands and piled in a pancakelike stack on the very top. As the excess water seeped out, David explained, the sand would meld to form a solid structure. He warned us not to pat it, as that can weaken it and cause cracks.
If you go
Private sand castle lessons on South Padre Island are available year-round, starting at $50 for individuals or $80 per hour for families and groups of up to ten people (sandcastlelessons.com; 956-433-9948). To find sand-carving classes near you, visit sandcastlecentral.com and click on "lessons and workshops."
The construction process let our "I'm too cool" preteen, Ryan, put his budding architecture skills to work -- and let him show off his muscles with some heavy lifting, which gave him an immediate sense of ownership.
With our medium solidly in place, we were ready to sculpt. We were surprised to learn that most of the tools of the trade were simple household items. Each of us was given a metal icing spatula for general carving and a mechanical pencil for details. A feather duster and a drinking straw, for brushing and blowing away sand, completed the kit. Working with familiar objects made the process less daunting and gave us confidence in our work.
As we unleashed our inner artists, a quiet concentration came over the group. Following David's instructions, we carved slowly, removing just a small bit of sand at a time and working from the top down. We used the spatulas to slice away sand and refine the basic shape and to carve windows and doors (after first marking the outline with a pencil). David taught us to make stairs with a series of small perpendicular, then parallel, cuts, lifting away the excess with the blade. Turrets required sawing gently at an angle. These skills were simple enough that even our 6-year-old, Aidan, could master them just like the "big kids."
10 Tips for a Great Sand Castle
Use plenty of wet sand.
Pack the foundation firmly.
Keep an overall pyramid shape.
Don't pat (it might crack).
Carve from the top down.
Be gentle and work slowly.
Go for interesting architecture.
Work mistakes into the design.
Sign your creation!
Our 9-year-old, Evan, was impressively adept at the finishing details, adroitly carving bricks and stonework with the tip of a pencil, then blowing gently through a straw or brushing with the duster to remove the loose sand.
Of course, we had plenty of "oops" moments along the way, as when some overzealous door carving crumbled a wall. But David assured us that even professionals make mistakes; they just cleverly incorporate them into the design. We solved this one by declaring the crumbled wall a battle remnant.
As we added our finishing touches, I stepped back and took a look around at my family. Here we were, elbow deep in an activity together, and all six of us were happily engaged. Even our littlest one, Morgan, was calmly playing with his own bucket (though he may have eaten more sand than I care to admit). As a final act, we signed our masterpieces, adding a personal mark and encouraging passersby to treat them with respect.
About a year later, at a beach house in Florida, the kitchen was suddenly filled with four boys in search of spatulas and drinking straws. I knew exactly what they had in mind. As they raced outside to begin construction, I mentally did a little happy dance. Not only had they actually learned something from our sand-carving lesson, they also were using the experience to create new family memories. And the best part was that every single one -- from the tallest to the smallest -- was out there on the beach playing together.
You can watch sand-carving pros and amateurs at work at festivals and competitions around the country. For dates and locations, go to sandcastlecentral.com and click on the contests link.
Jessica Bowers and her family live in Corinth, Texas. She blogs about their adventures at suitcasesandsippycups.com. Clockwise from left: Jessica, Morgan, Gary, Ryan, Evan, and Aidan.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of FamilyFun