Sand Dunes of the Southwest

Sand Dune Activities

Arizona Science Center

Aeolian Landscape: Sculpt With Wind

Aeolian Landscape: Sculpt With Wind

There is an Aeolian Landscape "Sculpt With Wind" exhibit in the Forces of Nature gallery at the Arizona Science Center in downtown Phoenix. It is a large, glass-topped cylindrical chamber filled with sand and a fan, which mimics the effects of wind in a sandy desert environment. Visitors can turn on the fan to blow the sand in different directions, to see how wind forms sand into dunes, observing how the dunes move and shift with changes in the wind. Kids of all ages can have fun sculpting the sand into an ever-changing landscape. A similar display is in place at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Visit their online exhibit at which has an auditory tour, photos and video of the process in action.

Make Your Own Aeolian Landscape

You will need:

  • large shallow pan
  • sand
  • few small pebbles
  • flexible straw


Fill the pan with a layer of sand about one inch thick. (It does not have to be flat or even.) Place a few small pebbles on top of the sand. Blow gently on the sand through the straw to see how it moves and creates dunes. Optional: If you have a small handheld battery-operated fan, you can use that instead of a straw.

What happens to the sand and pebbles? Imagine yourself about an inch tall and standing in the middle of this miniature environment. What does it look and feel like?

Sand Ripple Marks in a Washbowl

Click here for an activity demonstrating how ripple marks form in sand.

Sand Diorama

Click here for instructions on how to make a diorama of a sand scene. You can either use real sand or construction paper.

The Science of Sand

Click here for a colorful elementary sand lab booklet to take on a trip to the beach or a dune. (It focuses on beach sand but many of the activities can also be applied to dunes.)

The Nitty-Gritty

Click here to download a project for grades 4-6 in which students separate soil into its three major components: sand, silt, and clay. It also provides a great illustration of the difference between the size and shape of these particles. (If a grain of sand were the size of a beach ball, then silt would be roughly the size and shape of a Frisbee, and clay would be roughly the size and shape of a dime.)

Sand Dune Word Search

Click here for a sand dune word search for ages 6 and up, from the BLM.

Sand Dune Crossword Puzzle

Click here for a crossword puzzle for ages 10 and up. It was created by the BLM to accompany a study of, or field trip to, the Algodones Dunes in California.

Sand Lab

Click here for a high school or college-level lab exercise dealing with sediments, particularly sand. It covers transport mechanisms, composition, particle size, texture and sorting, with useful charts to help with identification. You probably won't have the sand samples mentioned, but this lab can be adapted to use with any sand samples that you find. Even if you don't do the lab, the charts themselves are worth printing out for reference.

Field Trip

Go on a field trip to a sand dune. Look for the dune on Google Earth or locate it on a map before your trip. In what direction is the dune oriented? How large is the dune field? Observe the geography of the area. Where do you think the sand came from? Explore the dune. Does it look like an active dune? What kinds of dune features do you recognize? Can you tell what shape the dune is? What color is the sand? Are the sand grains coarse or fine-textured? Look for animal tracks and wind patterns in the sand. What types of vegetation do you see in the area? Can you find any sign of water sources? Dig down into the sand. Does the sand feel damp or dry? Warm or cool? What direction is the wind coming from? Is the wind blowing hard enough to move any sand particles? What does it feel like when the blowing sand grains hit your legs? If it's allowed, collect a sample of sand to bring back and look at under a microscope. Draw a sketch of the sand dune. Click here for a Sand Dune Assessment Checklist that you can print out and take with you. Click here to see a sample that's already been filled out.

Write an Essay

Some people think that sand dunes on public lands should be open to everyone for all uses, including off-road recreation. Others believe that sand dunes are unique habitats that need to be preserved and closed to all vehicles. Many previously open dune areas have been turned into wilderness areas. Off-roaders complain that this is too much; environmentalists say it's still not enough. What do you think? Write a persuasive essay giving your opinion on this issue. To get you started, here is some food for thought:

"The Amargosa River population of Mojave fringe-toed lizards occupies three dune ecosystems in and adjacent to Death Valley National Park, the largest of which is the Dumont Dunes, which host a recreation area attracting more than 130,000 off-road riders annually. The number of off-road vehicles trampling this sensitive area continues to climb, presenting a substantial threat to the Mojave fringe-toed lizard and its habitat. In an effort to prevent continued habitat destruction from rampant and uncontrolled use of off-road vehicles, the Center petitioned to protect the Mojave fringe-toed lizard's Amargosa River population as endangered in 2006." ~The Center for Biological Diversity

"The thought that off-road vehicles are causing such irreparable harm to the environment is simply ridiculous." ~Crowley Offroad LLC - Off-Road Vehicles, from the Center for Biological Diversity. - Saving the Mojave Fringe-Toed Lizard, by the Center for Biological Diversity. - ORVs: No Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing, by George Wuerthner. - A list of once-open dune areas that are now closed. - "The Myth of the Fragile Desert," by Don Fife.

Website design and content (c)2010 by Peter Olsen. This educational unit study was my PVCC honors project for GPH 211 Landform Processes.