Sand tray therapy was developed by Dora Kalff in Switzerland in the 1950s, and is based on the psychological principles of Carl Jung and the work of Margaret Lowenfeld (Pearson & Wilson, 2001). Sand tray therapy is a fundamentally creative process, which involves the client creating scenes in a tray of sand, using symbols and realistic miniature figurines from the therapist’s collection.

Introduction to Sand Tray Therapy

Example of Sand Tray Therapy

About Sandtray Therapy with counsellor Jill Olver

Using sand and miniatures gives clients a symbolic way of expressing their feelings and their view of the world, and thus can be used with a wide range of people with varying verbal and cognitive abilities. The sand tray provides a non-threatening approach to exploring the unconscious, and a safe space in which to explore feelings and life situations that may feel overwhelming.

Pearson and Wilson (2001, p. 2) note:

Sand play is a hands-on, expressive counselling and psychotherapy modality that has been in use for well over fifty years. It has been used with children, adolescents and adults in schools, hospitals, welfare agencies and private counselling practices. It forms a bridge between verbal therapy and the expressive therapies, combining elements of both. Sandplay allows the deeper aspects of the psyche to be worked with naturally and in safety, and is highly effective in reducing the emotional causes of difficult behaviours.... Sandplay and symbol work help create congruence between our inner world and outer worlds. Strengthening this connection is therapeutic.

Before you start

It is very important to explain, explore and discuss the process of sand tray therapy with the client before starting with the sand tray itself. Not all people will want to use the sand tray, so it is important to make sure that the client is comfortable with the idea of working with the sand and is not just agreeing with your suggestion to avoid having to say ‘no’.

Getting started: Introducing the sand tray

Begin the process by asking the client to sit beside the sand tray and feel the sand. This ‘centres’ the client in the sand tray space. The client then begins doing the basic landscaping of the sand, to set the scene for their story. The basic landscape might include mountains, valleys, rivers or plateaus, all created in the sand.

Choosing symbols

Ask the client to choose symbols for the sand tray session – taking as much time as they need. Symbols are the objects that they will put in the sand, which represent the ‘who’ and ‘what’ of their story. It is often best to begin by choosing symbols to represent the client themselves and their immediate family members and/or any other significant people in their lives. Others can be added later if necessary.

People with intellectual disability do not usually have difficulty in choosing a symbol or figurine to represent themselves in sand tray work. Many people can easily identify themselves with symbolic figures, such as a prince/princess, fairy, favourite animal, or a figure of a person who looks like them. Difficulty can arise, however, when the client attempts to choose figures or symbols to represent family members or significant others. Because of their tendency to think in concrete terms, clients with intellectual disability will often look for a concrete or literal representation of their family member. The client may need assistance to associate the person with more abstract qualities, which will help them to (a) choose a fitting object or symbol for the person, and (b) think of the person’s qualities and character in addition to the concrete facts (such as the way the person looks).

For example, a client might say: ‘There’s nothing/no one here that looks like my niece. I don’t know what to pick.’ The counsellor could respond with: ‘You have told me a lot about your niece, and how she makes you feel happy and gives you lovely warm cuddles. What can you see here that might give nice warm happy cuddles like your niece?’ The client might then (for example) choose a teddy bear or a cuddly animal to represent her niece.

Through asking questions, the counsellor does not choose the object or ascribe their own associations to what they know of the family member. Instead, they support the client to understand the person and their relationship with the person, in more abstract, qualitative terms. Pearson and Wilson (2001, p. 1) note: ‘When the sandplay figurines become symbols they begin to express the language of our unconscious. Connection to what is unconscious in us supports emotional healing and personal development.’

Creating the sand tray

It is helpful for counsellors to offer a starting subject for the sand story. For example, most clients will start by using the sand tray to build the stories they have begun to tell in previous counselling conversations. With some clients, it can be helpful to start by putting family members in the sand. Then, in following sessions, add friends and other significant people. As the process becomes familiar, clients can create their own stories without input or suggestion. At the beginning, though, the technique may develop slowly, with added steps involving discussion with the counsellor.

Once the client has chosen their symbols or miniatures and has begun to feel comfortable in creating their sand tray, the session can continue without discussion. The counsellor’s role is to sit at the side and observe the client making their scene. It is helpful to have a note pad handy to draw sketches of the story as it changes, and to take notes about how the story develops and the client’s approach to creating it.

The experience of sand tray work can generate a great sense of achievement for the client. In many cases, feelings and thoughts that they struggle to express can be depicted symbolically in the sand.

Recording the work

Recording the client’s sand tray sessions photographically is a useful way of preserving the sequence of the developing narrative. Be sure to date or number each photograph. Using the photographs, counsellors and clients can collaboratively review the story over time. It is also useful to record any spoken commentary alongside the sketches.

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