Sandplay therapy is a nonverbal, therapeutic intervention that makes use of a sandbox, toy figures, and sometimes water, to create scenes of miniature worlds that reflect a person’s inner thoughts, struggles, and concerns. This is a form of play therapy; other methods include imaginary play with toys and puppets or bibliotherapy that uses literature to help a patient interpret stories or fiction and how such writings may relate to the patient’s own difficulties.
Sandplay is practiced along with talk therapy, using the sandbox and figures as communication tools. Sandplay therapy was developed in the late 1950s by psychologist Dora Kalff, who combined several techniques and philosophies to come up with her own therapeutic approach. Kalff learned what became known as the World Technique from British pediatrician and child psychologist Margaret Lowenfeld, who developed the original sand-tray intervention. Kalff incorporated the use of sand trays into her own form of therapy, which was based on her Jungian training and Eastern philosophical beliefs.
Sandplay therapy is a hands-on therapy, often used with those who have suffered some form of trauma, neglect, or abuse. Although sandplay is especially well suited for working with young children, who often cannot express their feelings in words, it is also a technique that is helpful for some teens and adults who are having trouble expressing themselves and who may have suffered some form of severe emotional wounds. This method may also be used for anger, mood and anxiety, relationship problems such as divorce, or learning disabilities.
Sandplay therapy takes place in box-like containers referred to as sand trays. The trays are filled with sand that clients use, along with miniature toys, to create a play world that reflects some aspect of real people and real experiences in their own lives. The client chooses from a large collection of toys and builds a small “world” in the tray that reflects what is going on in their lives. The therapist observes the choice and arrangement of toys without interruption, allowing the person to find answers within themselves.
After sandplay is completed, the client and therapist analyze and discuss the client’s toy choices, their arrangement pattern in the sand, and their symbolic or metaphoric meanings. Upon discussion, the client often chooses to make changes to the world they have created in sand. Sandplay therapy may consist of a few sessions or last as long as several years.
With the help of sand trays, clients, guided by a therapist, begin to understand the connection between the world they created in sand and their own inner world. By making changes in their make-believe world, clients are often empowered to make similar changes in their real world. Today, some therapists and counselors choose to modify Kalff’s parameters for sandplay and incorporate a similar technique into their own therapeutic process.
Research that appeared in the journal Nursing Open found evidence of benefits; that sandplay can help young children with chronic diseases by reducing anxiety, withdrawal, and behavioral problems. In addition, caregivers also experienced relief in anxiety and depression. Other research on sandplay has found that children and adults who benefited greatly were those with disabilities, language difficulties, or are hard to treat through conventional psychotherapy. A key point is that the therapist provides a safe environment for the client to realize the root of their difficulties.
For the most part, in sand tray therapy, the therapist may be more involved in the client’s therapeutic process. In sandplay therapy, the therapist does not intervene when the patient is forming his play world.
Art therapy may use drawing, painting, sculpting, doodling, among other techniques. Like sandplay, therapy through art can help a patient express himself, as well as dig deeper into his feelings and emotions.
Using symbols in therapy is a form of communication; they can also represent the patient's unconscious. A bird may convey an internal desire for freedom, for example.
It’s a good idea to screen your potential therapist either in person or over video or phone. During this initial introduction, ask the therapist:
- How they may help with your particular concerns
- Have they dealt with this type of problem before
- What is their process
- What is the treatment timeline
Any skilled therapist can use sandplay techniques, and there is certification available. Certification can entail about 120 hours of coursework that include sandplay clinical practice, Jungian theory, group and individual consultation, and case reports, among other assignments.
Mental health professionals experienced in sandplay include therapists, counselors, and social workers, among others. Not all types of therapy are covered by insurance, so call your carrier for information. In addition to finding someone with the appropriate educational background, experience, and sandplay setup, look for a therapist or counselor with whom you or your child feel comfortable working.