Intro to Sand Tray Therapy

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By Paul Hubbard, MA, AMFT

While psychotherapy can be daunting for many prospective clients, sand tray can make psychotherapy more accessible for child, adolescent, and adult clients, and for “individuals, couples and families” (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2011).

Sand tray therapy (also referred to as sandplay therapy) assists one in constructing her own microcosm with colored sand and small toys. The scenes created act as a mirror of her own life and give her a chance at resolving conflicts, removing obstacles, and gaining self-acceptance. Through creative self-expression, someone in therapy can manifest in the sand things they might otherwise be unable to articulate or acknowledge in traditional talk therapy (Good Therapy).

There are different types of sand tray therapy, including the “traditional Lowenfeld approach and Jungian sandplay to Gestalt methods and cognitive-behavioral approaches” (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2011, p. 7).

In working with child clients, either individually or within a family, it’s important to realize that they don’t communicate in the same ways adults do. Children don’t “have the cognitive or verbal maturity to communicate in counseling” in the same ways that adults do (p.1). Children don’t have the intellectual or developmental sophistication to engage in adult, talk-based therapies. Many children and adolescents cannot verbalize their emotional states, especially if they have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect (Good Therapy).

There are numerous benefits to doing sand tray therapy, including:

  1. How it offers “expression to nonverbalized emotional issues” (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2011, p.8). Sand tray offers an easy way of expression for someone unable or unwilling to express themselves verbally.
  2. How the “very tactile experience of touching” and playing with the sand is therapeutic itself (p.8).
  3. In allowing a client to direct the process, it creates a needed therapeutic distance for them by assisting them in being more detached from their trauma without being numb.
  4. In family therapy, sand tray therapy is inclusive.
  5. It creates appropriate boundaries in a therapeutic relationship, which assists a client in feeling safer and avoiding becoming re-traumatized.
  6. Sand tray therapy can be very effective in overcoming a client’s resistance. Children don’t generally self-refer. Because of sand tray therapy’s nonthreatening and engaging characteristics and because “play is the natural medium of communication for children,” even if a child client has been compelled to attend therapy by an adult, they are still generally open to treatment because of being allowed to express themselves through play.
  7. Sand tray therapy offers a helpful communication medium for clients of all ages who have poor verbal skills, including those with “English as a second language” (p.10). “Sandtray allows for expression of deep and personal issues in a common, symbolic language” (p.10). When individuals in relationships are unable to express their needs, sand tray offers a way to express those needs without being dependent on words.
  8. Sand tray is an effective way to assist a client in having more of an “internal locus of control” (p. 11).
  9. Sand tray is a way to access unconscious material in the client.
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