Sandtray Therapy, more commonly called Sandplay Therapy, is a form of therapy that was first developed by Dr. Margaret Lowenfield, a child psychiatrist in London who was looking for a way to help children express the “inexpressible”. She recalled reading the writings of H. G. Wells, in which he described his observations of his two sons playing with miniature figures on the floor and had realized that they were using the toys to work out their problems with each other and other members in the family. She obtained several miniatures and put them on shelves in her office. The first child to see them, took several of the miniatures, brought them to the sandbox and began playing with them in the sand. She realized that using the figures in the sand was helpful to the child and she made this her standard practice in working with children. This became known as the World Technique.
Later, Dora Kalff, a Jungian Analyst in Zurich who had trained under Carl Jung, heard about the work of Dr. Lowenfield. She was very interested in learning about the World Technique and went to study under her. She soon recognized that the use of the World Technique helped children work out their feelings of anger, sadness and fears. In addition, she saw that it helped children resolve developmental issues, and provided for the process of individuation and transcendence, which are classic goals of depth psychology and Jungian therapy. She became the first therapist to use the technique with children in her practice, which later became known as Sandplay.
Sandplay is now used by therapists around the world in their work with children, adolescents, adults of all ages, families and couples. Some therapists even use sandplay in group therapy! The process of sandplay therapy is to use sand and miniatures to make a world of your own in the sand. I like to compare it to art therapy, where you make pictures or craft projects to express your feelings or represent aspects of your personal experiences and world beliefs. In sandtray therapy, you do the same thing, except there seems to be something more transcendent about this process. This is my opinion of course!
When you first do a sandtray, I ask you to chose figures and place them in the sand. You are allowed to add water to the sand to make it wet if you like, so that the sand is moldable. I encourage you to “allow the figures pick you,” and not to set out to make a specific picture, “just let what your psyche guide you.” It is a strange instruction I know, but when people get into the process, they quickly figure out what this instruction means. They find themselves drawn to certain figures, repelled by others and some they just don’t seem to see at all. As they arrange the figures in the sand, the magic begins to take place. A picture is formed; one that only the “sandplayer” truly knows about. Often a sandplayer doesn’t even have an idea of what he is making, he just lets his subconscious guide him and the end result is a very meaningful representation of what is happening just underneath the surface. The figures take on meaning that is highly specific to each individual sandplayer. A person typically knows when he is done with the tray. It is an instinctual. As you peer into the tray, the meanings of the tray become more clear. Sometimes people have no idea what meaning is contained in the tray. This is okay too. Your psyche knows and will use the process to heal itself. This is the beauty of sandtray – just the very act of creating a sandtray with an experienced therapist who witnesses your sandplay is, in itself, the therapy. At the end of the process, your creation can be discussed in therapy, Sometimes you may find that you do not want to share anything about the tray, but just allow the material to set in your mind awhile. This is also fine. There are no rules to the technique. The only rules are what you make. At the end, I give you a picture of your tray to keep.
Some people prefer not to use the figures, but instead use the sand itself to make the picture. This is fine too of course. Each sandtray is highly personal to each sandplayer. Everyone develops their own style and preference as they use the technique. The trays typically have tremendous significance for the person making the tray and the process helps one resolve many underlying psychic conflicts. Through therapy, the use of sandplay is an excellent use of projection that allows you to express things non-verbally. My experience has told me that while talking in therapy is very valuable, sometimes there are things that cannot be expressed through verbalization. Another outlet is required for these things. This is where sandplay is so helpful. It allows you to get to express the things you have trouble speaking, or do not even know need to be said.
There is no mystery to the process, although it may feel this way. All people learn early in life to use the earth, water and toys to work through conflicts and resolve developmental issues. As we grow older, we set aside the use of projection on toys and learn to speak about our concerns. Hopefully we learn to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others and to verbally resolve our differences. But there can be something lost in the process, which is rediscovered in sandplay.
Many adolescents and adults initially feel silly using the sandtray in therapy, because they fear they are being asked to “play in the sand.” This is a normal initial concern. But, in my experience, when they engage in the process, they realize that they are not being asked to “play like a child,” but rather to use a powerful therapeutic technique that puts them totally in control of their own healing process. They learn to use this as a tool of self-expression, one which they have been denied by the growing up process, but that their spirit actively seeks out. Many of my clients have reported that they felt the sandtray was able to reach the areas in their psyche that needed healing and expression but were never able to be reached through traditional means of talk therapy. This was my own experience of talk therapy as well. When I learned the technique and had to use it for myself, I discovered doing sandtray work helped me do what talk therapy couldn’t, which is why I love it so much! Even I seek out sandplay therapists when I see a therapist, because I have personally found it so helpful in my own life! I don’t ask my clients to do anything that I wouldn’t, and haven’t, also used myself.
by Cynthia A Henrie, MFT