Whatever Happened to the Sandbox? A book review

By Barb Arland-Fye

Whatever Happened to the Sandbox, by Sister Mary Jane Wallace, OSB

Books are $14 each including tax or $18 shipped. To order, call (309) 283-2100 or email benedictines@smmsisters.org.

Sister Mary Jane Wallace’s new book “Whatever Happened to the Sandbox?” delivers a delightful and persuasive message about the value of child’s play gleaned from her 60-year teaching career.

The 91-year-old Bene­dictine sister tells stories from the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms where she taught on average 40 to 45 children each school year.
Sister Mary Jane’s love of children permeates the pages of this 93-page book published by her religious community, the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict, Rock Island, Illinois. The stories reflect her conviction that children need more time in the sandbox. A photo taken in 1943 of two children playing in a sandbox illustrates her point.

Beverly (Dhamers) Sobaski, a member of St. Anthony Parish in Davenport, cherished the photograph that a newspaper photographer snapped of Beverly and her brother Bill. Years later, when she met Sister Mary Jane and learned about her proposed book, Beverly suggested the photo as a perfect fit for the cover. Sister agreed.

“I believe the life of a young child should be unstructured. Children need to be able to use their imagination and have a free spirit in play,” Sister Mary Jane writes in the first chapter. Children “can draw upon this experience at any age in the ‘Sandbox of Life.’”

The storytelling begins with her childhood experiences playing happily in her “evergreen mansion” of evergreen trees on the family farm in Creston, Iowa. “One day Grandma got some new linoleum for the kitchen, and the old linoleum was put out in my playhouse of trees. I had a very vivid imagination, and I created many cozy rooms where I spent hours playing,” she writes.

When Sister Mary Jane was a toddler, her mother died after giving birth to a boy, who also died. The future nun overcame that tragic loss because “The love and support I received from all my relatives prepared me for the wonderful life I share with you now.”

Each of the short 26 chapters concludes with a question for readers to reflect on, such as “Name some of the changes in education you have experienced in your lifetime. What is the wisdom you have learned from children?”

Her book responds to that question in each chapter. From little Bobby, who could not sing on pitch, Sister Mary Jane learned how to focus on the positive and not the negative and try not to take down a person’s self-esteem. From Janie, she learned to appreciate a child bold enough to express her true feelings.

From Betsy, she learned that a teacher’s suggestion might be interpreted as a command. Betsy thought that Sister Mary Jane instructed her students to have their mothers bake a cake for the Virgin Mary’s birthday. Betsy’s mother, who had a household of young children including a newborn, complied, but with exasperation. Sister Mary Jane learned that she needed to choose her words more wisely. From Mikey, a student with no arms whose classmates accepted him unconditionally, she learned not to “worry so often about not knowing the perfect thing to do. God speaks within us, and if we follow our heart, we find everything works out just as it should.”

In the final chapter, Sister Mary Jane thanks the parents of her students for sharing them with her. “All of the students I have encountered have enriched my life.”

The enrichment continues, no matter the age of the student. Jan Gull, director of communications for the Sisters of St. Benedict, is one of Sister Mary Jane’s piano students. When the coronavirus prevented in-person lessons, Jan asked Sister Mary Jane if she would consider teaching on Zoom (a video conferencing application). “Her first word was ‘yes,’ and then she said, ‘You have to tell me what Zoom is,’” Jan recalled. “For the past two months, she’s been teaching me piano lessons on Zoom!”

“I would never trade the experiences I’ve had with my students — or the person I am now because of them,” Sister Mary Jane says. “It’s all about keeping an open mind and having a playful spirit at any age.”

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