Construction Site Small World – Busy Toddler

A child in a blue shirt moves construction trucks around a sensory bin full of dirt and yard trimmings.


Skip the sand this summer and switch to a dirt box: it’ll change everything. This construction site small world is an amazing example of why dirt in your sand table is the way to go. Check out this easy outdoor activity that only needs dirt and trucks

A child in a blue shirt moves construction trucks around a sensory bin full of dirt and yard trimmings.

What is a construction site small world?

A “small world” is a fancy play term for creating a tiny replica of the real world for kids. Sometimes small worlds are fairy gardens or simple farms or an animal rescue.

It sounds fancy but really it’s very adjacent to the dioramas that my fellow 1980s and 1990s kids made from shoe boxes and coffee grinds. This is the version to make for your kids – trust me, you’ll love creating this activity.

(Also, please tell me I’m not projecting: I wasn’t the only one who loved a good diorama project in school, right? I’m linking to diorama if any of you don’t remember what I’m talking about.)

RELATED: In a jam this summer and looking for more awesome summer activities for kids? This post has them all!

Overhead photo of child in a blue shirt moving small construction trucks around a sensory bin full of dirt and yard trimmings.

Why I choose dirt over sand

I love sand at a beach, but that is where I draw the line.

I hate having it in my back yard – my sand table has been sand free for a decade now. and I am proud of it.

I don’t know how sand goes at your home but I can tell you how it went at mine when I tried it back in Ye Olde 2015.

Sand in eyes.

Sand in hair.

Sand on my deck.

Sand tracked into my house.

I couldn’t take it anymore. After 6 months of dealing with (and suffering through) sand because I thought it’s what you did and had to have for kids… I decided to go opposite – or rather, to any direction other than sand.

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Shout out to my sand table: Here’s why this sand/water table is the best. It’s an open surface. Love the fancy water tables with bumps and tracks and wheels, but simple is often better and this is the most used table at my house.

It’s so well used, we even made a “big kid water table” in 2021 when our kids got too tall for this sand/water table.

RELATED: What are the best outdoor supplies for kids? Check out this list of my favorite outdoor toys.

A smiling child in a blue shirt moves small construction trucks around a sensory bin full of dirt and yard trimmings.

The set-up

This wasn’t complicated: I grabbed my shovel and starting getting some dirt. The same dirt that my kids play with in our backyard went right into the “sand table.”

I wanted this to feel like a real construction site, so I added some rocks, leaves, and even weeds I’d pulled up from the yard.

We keep it real simple over here.

The best part was the mini construction trucks – our favorites.

Option – If you don’t want dirt in your water table

If filling your table with dirt isn’t going to work for you: I get it.

Instead, try using an “under the bed storage container” as your make-shift play space outside. These can hold a lot and are my personal favorite for sensory activities, like this construction site small world.

A smiling child in a blue shirt moves small construction trucks around a sensory bin full of dirt and yard trimmings.

Who liked the construction site small world?

This is the easiest, simplest, and best way to play outside.

My three year old loved this.

My five year old added animal to it.

I found my seven year old playing with it before dinner.

It spans the ages. It’s just plain fun. Good activities are like that: they’re inviting and they’re multi-age. You get a long of value for scooping a few shovel fulls of dirt into a bin.

A child in a blue shirt is making a "vrooming noise" as they move small construction trucks around a sensory bin full of dirt and yard trimmings.

What learning happens in this dirt sensory bin?

Did you read that headline: a dirt sensory bin, That’s exactly what this is. It’s a sensory bin with dirt as the base.

We don’t often think of or remember that dirt is a sensory base. It gets forgotten the way water does, but these are very real sensory options for kids.

In this activity, here is what a child may be learning:

  • Tactile learning: experiencing the world through touch
  • Fine motor development: using their hands for play
  • Imaginary play: creating a play set-up from nothing
  • Social emotional skills: sensory bins are a chance for children to act out social scenes they may have witnessed in the real world

Reminder: we don’t need to justify activities by what kids can learn from them but it is always fun to be able to see the learning that play provides.

Frequently Asked Question

What age is this activity best for?

That depends on the child. Think about their stage in life not their age. Do they like construction trucks? Are they safe playing with dirt? Answering these questions will help you determine if the activity is right for the child. Age doesn’t tell us anything about a child’s interests.

How do you clean up a construction site small world?

I tipped the “sand” table back into the dirt area. I put this activity right back where I found it. It was one of the easiest clean ups for a sensory bin ever.

Did you use special dirt?

Nope. I live in the Seattle area and backyards have dirt here so I used what I have. If you need to buy special dirt, awesome. Look for something without any fertilizers for safety.

Susie Allison, M. Ed

Owner, Creator

Susie Allison is the creator of Busy Toddler and has more than 2 million followers on Instagram. A former teacher and early childhood education advocate, Susie’s parenting book “Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting” is available on Amazon.


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