Looking to add a splash of creativity to your end-of-summer bucket list? Then grab your bucket -- literally -- along with a shovel and sculpting tools, and head to the shore for a sand castle contest.

Prizes and the adulation of fellow beachgoers await competitors in sand-sculpting contests this month and next in Huntington, Amagansett and Montauk and on Fire Island. Sign up, and you'll turn a lazy beach day into an artistic endeavor, using free materials like sand, driftwood and seashells to make something that will last -- well, not forever, but at least until the wind or waves sweep it away. Hundreds of outdoor auteurs, both amateur and professional, are expected to sculpt gravity-defying castles, mermaids (their modesty protected by seashells) and even a Sphinx or two for the delight of passersby.

"Some of the sculptures are pretty amazing. You get some very clever people down there on the beach," says Rossetti Perchik, founder and director of the Clamshell Foundation in East Hampton, which sponsors its annual contest Aug. 1 in Amagansett. Perchik says good weather will draw 250 to 300 contestants, and admiring spectators who stroll the open-air gallery. Prizes are awarded to the best, but even if you don't win, it's a memorable beach day for kids, he says.

The Town of Huntington holds its annual contest on July 30. Penny Rickman of East Northport plans to be there with her children, Maya, 11, and Noah, 8. She says they hope to repeat the fun they had last year "making a basic castle, and finding rocks and shells to decorate it with."

"Sand sculpture is a lot of fun, you get to be creative and the sand is free," says Andrew Gertler of Sea Cliff, a star of the Travel Channel's "Sand Masters" and the professional sculptor-owner of Sand Castle University in his hometown.

TIPS FOR BETTER CASTLES

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Advice for creating prize-winning sand sculptures from Gertler and Frank Russo of Fort Salonga, a multi-winner at the Coney Island sand castle contest:

PRACTICE

Either in a sandbox at home or at the beach. Sand quality varies across Long Island, so for a home-field advantage, do your dry runs on the beach where the contest will be held.

PITFALL

Your worst mistake is not wetting the sand enough. To begin, make a volcano of sand (a plastic pail with the bottom cut off and turned upside down makes a good mold). Scoop out a divot on top of your volcano and pour seawater into it; it will percolate down. You can't add too much water.

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TOOLS

Professionals use sculpting tools, but you can use plastic spoons, butter knives, spatulas, cups and containers from the kitchen, along with your bucket and plastic shovel. A plastic fork with the middle tines snapped off can be used to sculpt columns. A flat piece of wood the size of a ruler moves sand around and can create a lot of shapes.

PLAN AHEAD

Draw your sand creation on paper. Start sculpting from the top of your sand pile and work your way down. Mythical creatures and other fanciful creations can be fun and challenging to make, but classic themes tend to please judges. Says Gertler: "For kids, a good sand castle will win a contest."

UPCOMING CONTESTS

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Annual East Hampton Sand Castle Contest

WHEN | WHERE 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 1 at Atlantic Avenue Beach, Amagansett

INFO 631-324-6250, clamshellfoundation.org

ADMISSION $10 for a group of up to six people

Competition in five categories: Sand Fleas (children up to age 8 with an adult); Sand Hoppers (ages 9-15); plus families, adults and sand castle professionals.

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Town of Huntington Sand Castle Contest

WHEN | WHERE 4 p.m. (judging at 7:30 p.m.) July 30 at Crab Meadow Beach, Northport. Rain cancels. Open to Town of Huntington residents only, in two age categories: 16 and younger and 17 and older.

INFO 631-351-3112, huntingtonny.gov/sandcastlecontest

ADMISSION Free

New York State Parks Sand Castle Contest

WHEN | WHERE July 23 and 30, Aug. 6, 13, 20 and 27 at Hither Hills State Park, Montauk, main entrance, Old Montauk Highway (Route 27A). Register 9:30-10:30 a.m. day of contest at Hither Hills State Park's bathhouse. Open to ages 6 to 21.

INFO 631-668-2554, parks.ny.gov/events/event

ADMISSION $10 vehicle use fee

Annual Labor Day Sand Creation Contest

WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sept. 6 at Watch Hill and Sailors Haven, Fire Island National Seashore. Judging starts at 2 p.m.

INFO 631-687-4780, nps.gov/fiis

ADMISSION Free