What is Sandtray Therapy?

Welcome to our “What is?” blog series! In this series, we are introducing some of the main therapy approaches that our therapists use. This series will help you better understand the ways C.H.E.R.I.I.S.H. Counseling can support your growth! And you can always ask more questions about these approaches during your free no-obligation phone consultation with our therapists!

This entry, we’re focusing on Sandtray Therapy.

What is Sandtray?

Margaret Lowenfeld, was the first to incorporate Sandtray into the psychotherapy field in the 1920s (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2011). Lowenfeld was inspired to create a therapeutic aspect of H.G. Wells’ book, Floor Games, that utilized miniature toys in play with children (2011). Dora Kalff, a Swiss Jungian analyst, went on to create Sandplay, a technique expanded from the Sandtray approach (2011). The two variations differ in the client experience and in therapist requirements for specialization.

Sandtray Therapy: A Practical Manual, written by Linda E. Homeyer and Daniel S. Sweeney, define Sandtray as, “An expressive and projective mode of psychotherapy involving unfolding and processing of intra-and interpersonal issues through the use of specific sandtray materials as a nonverbal medium of communication, led by the client(s) and facilitated by a trained therapist. It is a process that seeks to promote safety and control for the client so that emotionally charged issues can be addressed through the medium.”

What to Expect in a Sandtray Session

If you see a therapist who offers Sandtray, you will likely find in their office a rectangular tray made of wood or plastic. This tray will most likely be painted blue on the bottom and sides and filled with sand. You will also find a selection of what are called miniatures. The miniatures are basically small figures, objects, or toys, that represent real life people, things, and nature. In your therapist’s collection, you may find people with varying appearances or vocations, trees, bushes, and other natural items, food and beverages, buildings like schools or hospitals, cars, planes, and other modes for transportation, animals and creatures both real and fictional, and even some barriers like fences, gates, etc., among a number of other items, all tiny in size. In essence, anything that could be a part of your real life, can be found as a small representation that could fit in the sandtray.

Sandtray may be used in conjunction with talk therapy, for occasional work, when a change of pace is needed, or when a client prefers or needs a less verbal style. Although Sandtray can be utilized with all ages, as well as for individuals, couples, families, and groups, young children may respond particularly well due to the developmental stage they are in that is potentially not as verbal as their adult counterparts.

How Sandtray Therapy Works

The basic tenets of Sandtray:

  • Client-directed
  • Minimally verbal or nonverbal
  • Creative and visual
  • Tactile, kinesthetic, and sensory
  • Safe and potentially less threatening
  • Metaphorical and symbolic

Here are some examples of how Sandtray can work. Even the initial choosing of a miniature to represent a client’s self, can open up a lot of information about a person. For example, if a client chooses a mouse to represent themselves, both the client and therapist may have some ideas about why they connect with this particular creature. The therapist should always allow the client to share why they chose such, rather than infer too much of their own interpretation, while allowing generalizations about mice to be recognized.

One session example might be the therapist asking the client to create their “current life” in the sandtray. The client has the freedom to interpret and create their own scene within the sandtray and use the miniatures they desire. They may set up a very chaotic scene, or perhaps various scenes separated by barriers, or perhaps even something peaceful.

Another example would be a therapist having the client create a “family tree” in the sandtray using the miniatures. Due to the symbolic nature, the family members/miniatures chosen, may tell about some of the client’s family history. For instance, if someone chooses Darth Vader as their dad, a deer for their mom, and a dragon for their sibling, this can reveal some information about them and potentially their upbringing.

These tasks may tell a lot about a client and their world without them needing to verbally discuss it. For some clients this can create some level of safety, and even provide distance from some emotionally challenging or difficult discussion topics.

If you are someone who would like some mental health support, but you are not interested in a primarily talk therapy approach, it might benefit you to look into some form of expressive therapy.

At C.H.E.R.I.I.S.H. Counseling, our therapists incorporate Sandtray, Equine-Assisted, and art-based therapy approaches. Contact us today to learn more about how these expressive therapy approaches can support your health, wellness, and growth!


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