Sand play therapy

What is Sandplay Therapy?

Sandplay therapy is a type of expressive therapy, developed in the 1950s by Dora Kalff, a psychologist, that uses sand, miniatures, and sometimes water to create scenes in a contained tray. It is a non-verbal therapy, which means that it does not rely on talk therapy. Instead, clients use the sand and miniatures to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences without using words. And as noted by PsychologyToday it is often used for those who have experienced trauma.

I first came across this way of working with clients while undertaking my professional psychology training at the University of Surrey in Guildford. During one of my placemats, I saw the materials used for sand therapy in one of the therapist’s offices and asked about it. I appreciated the symbolism of it and how it could profoundly affect you ( or me in this case) without using words as such.

How does it work?

The therapist provides a safe and supportive environment where clients can create scenes in the sand tray. The therapist observes the client’s choices and arrangements of objects, which can reveal unconscious thoughts and feelings. The therapist may also ask the client questions about their creation, but the focus is on the client’s experience of the process rather than on interpreting the scene’s meaning.

What are the benefits of sand play therapy?

Sandplay therapy can be helpful for people of all ages, from children to adults. It can be used to address a variety of issues, including:

  • Trauma
  • Anxiety
  • Grief and loss
  • Depression
  • Relationship problems
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Creativity blocks

Sandplay therapy can help clients to:

  • Gain insight into their unconscious thoughts and feelings
  • Process difficult emotions
  • Develop coping mechanisms
  • Improve communication skills
  • Increase self-awareness
  • Boost creativity

Who is a good candidate for sand play therapy?

Sandplay therapy can benefit anyone interested in exploring their inner world and promoting healing. It is beneficial for people who have difficulty expressing themselves verbally or who have experienced trauma.

Sarah, a 42-year-old architect, turned to sand play therapy when her growing anxiety and creative roadblocks jeopardized her career. Despite her professional success, she felt like an empty shell, haunted by a childhood memory of a devastating fire that had wiped out her family’s home. Discussing the fire triggered severe panic attacks, making conventional therapy ineffective.

In her initial session, Sarah approached the sand tray with hesitation. Her hands hesitated briefly over the sand before diving in, sculpting hills and valleys. She carefully selected a miniature house and placed it precariously atop a peak, surrounded by flames—a poignant replica of her childhood residence. Tears welled up as she added miniature figures representing her family, frozen in terror.

Over the subsequent weeks, Sarah’s sand creations transformed into battlegrounds. Swirling smoke-coloured sand engulfed miniature structures and people. Volcanoes erupted, threatening to devour everything in their path. Through these creations, she found a way to express the rage and fear she had buried for decades.

Sarah’s therapist, skilled in non-directive sand play, provided a minimal explanation, allowing Sarah to steer the process. Nonetheless, Sarah began to delve into her suppressed emotions through gentle inquiries and a secure environment. She introduced a tranquil lake beside the fiery house, symbolizing her yearning for peace. Tiny boats emerged, hinting at hope amid the devastation.

Gradually, Sarah’s sand worlds evolved. The flames receded, giving way to lush forests and serene villages. She introduced miniature firefighters battling the blaze while safeguarding the survivors. These creations mirrored her internal resilience and budding coping mechanisms.

As Sarah ventured more deeply into her sand representations, she started drawing connections. The fire not only symbolized the actual traumatic event but also reflected the emotional exhaustion she had endured in her demanding career. By confronting the fire in the sand tray, she began to confront it in her life.

After six months of sand play therapy, Sarah witnessed concrete changes. Panic attacks dwindled, replaced by newfound courage to express her emotions, both within therapy and in her personal life. She incorporated elements from her sand creations into her architectural designs, infusing them with depth and vulnerability that resonated with clients.

While the memory of the fire persisted, it no longer dictated Sarah’s life. In the sand tray, she confronted the trauma, unearthed her hidden strength, and paved the way toward healing, creativity, and a more authentic and fulfilling life.

This case study illustrates the potent impact of sand play therapy for adults contending with past trauma and emotional obstacles. Although it doesn’t substitute for other forms of therapy, it offers a secure and non-verbal space for exploration, leading to self-discovery, healing, and personal growth.