I work a lot with kids and teens in both private practice and at my full-time site. One of the biggest tools out there in the kids therapy world is the use of what is essentially a sandbox that therapists call a sand tray. What is so magical about sand trays and why are they in so many therapy offices for children and teens, you might wonder? Is this therapist actually doing therapy or are they just playing in sand while I cough up a heavy bill for a glorified babysitter? Let me tell you.
Sand trays are designed to be a representational view of the client’s world. In fact, in a full-on regulation sand tray the sand tray must be blue on the inside to be more representational of the sky on the sides and water on the bottom. According to Dora Kalff, the founder of sandplay therapy, individuals work in the sand to create places and worlds, which express inner conflict and tensions. Using a therapeutic sand tray to express these conflicts can also help bring perspective to light.
Use of a therapeutic sand tray is accompanied by multiple miniatures that the individual chooses before engaging in setting up their own sand tray. Depending on the therapist, there can be up to several hundred miniatures to choose from and range from people to items with themes in nature, spirituality, finance, medical, mystical/magical, animals, barriers, buildings, fighting figures, food, monsters, vehicles, or pretty much anything you can think of. The therapist gives the individual time to pick out and choose the miniatures that speak to them and encourage choosing items that spook, disgust, excite, calm, or pretty much bring any sort of emotion or physical sensation to rise. The point of this should not be internalized too deeply when choosing the figures as most of this will play itself out in the sand tray later.
Once the individual has chosen their miniatures, the therapist will sit directly across from the client and serve as a supportive witness to them as they put together their sand tray. Sand trays can be both non-directive or directive depending on the individual, the therapist and what the individual’s presenting concern might be. For a therapist who might not be a 100% sandplay-by-the-rules-or-bust, using a non-directive sand tray might be useful for assessment or gaining rapport in early appointments. Once the assessment phase has been completed and specific targets have shown what the individual is wanting to work on, the therapist might use a prompt to set up the sand tray. Some such prompts might include:
Putting together your sand tray in therapy can oftentimes evoke underlying, unprocessed emotions on the matter which is perfectly normal. All of the conflicts we go through in life can get swept under the rug in order for us to move on with our busy daily lives. The sand tray encourages us to shine light on those conflicts and process the old emotions that are stuck with the memories which is helpful for our brain to move on (and not stay stuck) and be healthy. Some of the emotions that might come up in sand tray might feel scary or overwhelming if the individual is not used to processing emotions or if the issue is traumatic in some way. It is highly encouraged that individuals please see a trained therapist and not try to conduct sessions on their own as doing so could retrigger old wounds and lead the individual feeling worse than before. Sand tray therapy is a very effective form of therapy and a trained therapist will be able to guide the individual towards prompts when they feel they are ready and can sense when a client might start to feel overwhelmed and needing to quit the session early to focus on more grounding. Overall, sand tray in therapy is a fantastic resource for children, adults, couples or families entering therapy who might be drawn to the idea and can help process lingering emotions, conflicts and memories.
**This post is a general overview of what to expect when using a sand tray in therapy and is not an instructional for self-use, training of any sort, nor is it an overview of sand play therapy which is a different type of therapy altogether. For more information on sand play therapy, visit https://www.sandplay.org/.