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How To Make A Rock Box – A Sandbox Alternative

Today I’m sharing how to make a rock box, as opposed the a sandbox. Sandboxes are so 1998.

How to make a rock box

When Owen started playing in our landscaping mulch and the dirt in our vegetable garden, I told Brad we needed to make him a designated outdoor play area to load his trucks up with materials.

Why a Rock Box?

We went with pea gravel for a couple reasons. One being that rocks are less messy than sand. If Owen tracks a couple rocks in it’s no big deal– I can grab them and toss them in the trash or back in the rock box. If we went with sand I know I’d have to go through a whole routine of cleaning him off before coming inside, and even then I doubt I could get all the sand off of him.

Another reason is because there are some indoor/outdoor cats in our neighborhood, and I didn’t want a cat mistaking Owen’s sandbox for its litter box. As a kid I remember finding cat turds in the sandbox at my grandma’s house. So gross and forever unclean.

rock box before 1

How to Make a Rock Box

Prep the Area

We began by digging up the grass in the area beside our patio. We came out 3 feet from the house to match the flowerbed we installed last summer on the other side of the patio.

DIY sand box

Frame the Rock Box

To withstand the elements, we chose decking boards. The measurements came out to 36″ x 85″. Brad used three 3-inch screws to connect the boards.

Then, he fashioned some stakes from a couple 1″ x 2″ pieces of wood. He nailed them into the outlining boards with a nail gun.

Because the ground wasn’t level, we had to cut off a corner of the the longer board.

how to build a rock box 1

We used a mallet to drive the spikes into the ground until it was level.

how to build a rock sand box 1

At this point we had a dirt box.

how to make rock sand box 1

Add Landscaping Fabric

In case Owen attempted to dig to China, we put down landscaping fabric so he wouldn’t mix the dirt in with the pea gravel. We secured it with some pins that came with the fabric.

installing a rock sand box 1

Rinse the Pea Gravel

Pea gravel is pretty dirty directly from the bag, so I wanted to rinse it before putting it in the box to cut down on the dirt and sediment.

We drilled holes in the bottom of a bucket to create a large colander of sorts. In hindsight, I would’ve made the holes larger.

build a rock box 1

After trying different methods, I determined the following to be the best. I would fill the bucket with half a bag of pea gravel, add water from our garden hose until the water was an inch or so above the rocks, stir the rocks and water with a leftover piece of 1″ x 2″, tip the bucket to let most of the dirty water pour out, and repeat 1-2 more times. The final time I let the bucket set for a couple minutes so the rest of the water could drain out of the holes we drilled.

making a rock box 1

Add the Pea Gravel to the Box

Once the pea gravel was (mostly) clean, we dumped it onto the landscaping fabric in the rock box.

We ended up using 8 bags of pea gravel.

how to build a rock box 2

Rock Box Toys

And here’s how it looks now– complete with vehicles and measuring cups.

DIY rock box 4

Owen loves his rock box. The morning after we unveiled it to him, I got him out of his crib and he immediately ran to grab his shoes so he could go outside and play in the rock box.

He’s done a pretty good job of keeping the rocks in the box. Although when he attempts to exit the box too quickly some tend to fly across the yard.

o 2

 For perspective, here’s how the rock box looks in relation to our patio.

Part of the reason we chose this location is because it’s well shaded in the afternoon and evening. I wish it was more shaded in the morning when it’s cooler, but since it’s shaded later in the day it means Brad can play with Owen when he gets home from work.

backyard rock box

The toys in the rock box are a mix of old and new. The biggest dump truck was a 5-piece set I picked up from Target. The red truck, yellow dump truck, and green tractor were Brad’s toys when he was a kid. The red measuring cups are from Dollar Tree. And the smaller monster trucks were also a Target find.

rock box 2

Toy Storage

I need to get a plastic container with a lid to store his toys in so they’re protected from the rain. In the meantime, we’ve been shoving them under our grill cover.

DIY rock box 2

Keeping the Rocks Dry

We got a (very fancy and high class) tarp to cover the rock box with when heavy rain is forecasted. Before we invest in the tarp, we were using a plastic painter’s tarp so we’re clearly moving on up. Only the best for our child.

DIY rock box 3

We figure whenever we sell the house, whoever buys it can scoop the rocks out, remove the wood edging, plant whatever they want in the space, throw some mulch on top, and it’ll look just like the flowerbed on the other side of the patio.

DIY rock box 1

Cost Breakdown

In case you’re wondering, here’s a breakdown of the costs:

pea gravel … $2.68 per bag times 8 = $21.44
decking wood … $13.14
1″ x 2″ wood … $7.16
bucket … $3
landscaping fabric … already had

TOTAL: $44.74

We’re looking forward to spending more time outside with these two hooligans this summer.

and jack

Check out my other toddler-related posts!

What do you think of the rock box?

How to build a rock box! Cleaner than a sandbox!

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  1. How awesome! I love this idea. My baby is only 6 months old, but I could see this for next summer. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jeri Lynn says:

    That is such a great idea! I can’t believe how much your little one has grown! He is just too cute!!!

  3. Good idea, great job and great instructions!

  4. I am so glad you posted this. I have been searching for ideas to make one of these for my boys.

  5. What a wonderful idea. How I wish I had something like this when my boys were small.

    1. Thanks, Lorraine! I kinda wish I had one in my yard as a kid, which is why I love re-living childhood with Owen. And I’m sure it’ll be just as much fun with grandkids one day (although that’s hard to imagine at this point). 🙂

  6. This is awesome! And seriously – when did he turn into such a little MAN CHILD?!? Looking so grown up 🙂

  7. Jessica S says:

    I love it, and you make it look so easy! Sending my husband a link to see if he’s up for it. 🙂

    1. Aw, thanks, Jessica! That means a lot to me that you said I made building the rock box look easy. Granted it was time-consuming cleaning all the rocks and disposing of the grass we dug out. But the difficulty level was on the easy side. 🙂

  8. Genius! Love this idea! Did you use anything in particular to dig up the grass?

  9. Oh my gosh! I love this! Wish my “little” guy was still little. He would’ve LOVED this! Excellent idea! Kudos!!

  10. I love this idea and would love to do something like this for my kids.

  11. I love this idea! I might be doing this very soon. I would put it in the same area of our backyard next to the patio where the grass doesn’t grow well. I’m just curious why you cover it and the toys when it rains??

    1. Thanks, Lydia! We cover the toys because some are made of metal, and we don’t want them to rust. We also cover it because say it rains pretty heavy during Owen’s nap but the storms move out by the time he wakes up and can go outside and play. We can remove the tarp and the rocks are dry so Owen isn’t sitting and playing in wet rocks.

  12. suzanprincess says:

    I wish I’d thought of this when my boys were small; they would have loved it, I’m sure. So much better than sand!

  13. Looks like a nice easy project! Do you worry about your little guy trying to eat the pea gravel? Our 16 month old last week tried putting some small landscaping stones in his mouth! 🙂

    1. It is! No, I don’t worry about him eating it. He did put a couple rocks in his mouth a few days after introducing him to the rock box, but he made the grossest face and spit them out. It made me laugh.

  14. I told my husband that I wanted to do this, but he is worried about having gravel in the grass when he uses the lawn mower. Have you had any problems? He says he’d prefer a sand box, but he’s also not the one who would be cleaning up the sand.

    1. Not yet. I get what he’s saying though. We’ve found that if the rocks do fall out they work their way to the ground in stead of sitting on top of the grass. And Brad doesn’t mow that close to the rock box. He usually mows 6 inches out and then comes back through with the weed eater.

  15. I’m so glad I saw this! I wanted to make a sand box for my grand daughter, but the sand part.. yeah, no.
    This is so perfect!!
    Does the water drain thru the fabric when it rains??
    Inspire Me Monday

    1. Glad you saw it! Yes, water will drain through the landscaping fabric but we cover the rock box with a tarp when the forecast calls for heavy rain just so we know the rocks will be dry when the rain moves out and Owen wants to play.

  16. The almost-2 year old I take care of would have a blast in one of these! (And not as messy as a sand box!)

  17. What a fun idea, and it looks like he’s totally enjoying it. Thanks for sharing at Merry Monday. 🙂

  18. You really are a genius! I love this idea, and want to make it for my daughter. I love that it’s a frugal way to add in fun into our backyard! Thanks for linking up to #HomeMattersParty

  19. What a great idea. I have a little boy who loves trucks and rocks so this would be perfect. I think I’ll put it in our existing flower beds around our back patio. Just remove the mulch and add rocks, maybe some larger rocks on the edges to separate it from the mulched part of the flower bed. Thanks so much for the idea. Your little boy looks so happy playing in there.

  20. Great idea! A friend of ours did the same thing – made a box for pea gravel instead of sand! She loves it and her boys do too. I have pea gravel and put it in a sturdy underbed storage container so I put the lid on it when it is dry and it is big enough to store his trucks. I like the idea of the pea gravel bed so he can actually sit in it. My 3 year old just leans over or crouches down to play with the pea gravel in the storage container.

    I do have a question though – do cats or can cats use the pea gravel also as a litter box? Or is it only sand they would use? I heard another neighborhood cats getting into uncovered sandboxes and using them as litter boxes, and assumed pea gravel would have the same effect for cats?

  21. Such a wonderful idea.. My son loves being outside all the time.. he plays a lot in dirt much n all.. I think this might be interesting for him to play with.. love it..

  22. Kristen M says:

    Hello! Just curious where you got your stones from? I have been wanting to make one of these for my boys, but all of the bags of stones I see at the hardware store come with cancer warnings ☹️. Thanks!

    1. We got the stones from Lowe’s. I think the warnings are due the dust that comes off the pea gravel. If you rinse them like we did, it shouldn’t be much of an issue.

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