When people hear the word “therapy,” they probably imagine going to a therapist’s office, sitting on the couch, and sharing their feelings while the therapist helps them to process. While this is the most common form of therapy, there are alternative methods. One such method is sand tray therapy, which allows people to articulate their emotions through the use of objects, rather than using traditional talk therapy methods.
What is Sandtray therapy?
Originally developed for use with children, Sandtray therapy is a creative-expressive therapy modality that can be used with both children and adults. In using this approach, the client is asked to make a scene or create a world in a tray of sand, using three-dimensional figures. When this process is carried out in the presence of a trained therapist, creating scenes in the sand can have therapeutic benefits.
Sandtray therapy uses a rectangular tray, often with blue interior walls. The tray is filled with sand and miniature figures that a client has selected to create scenes or worlds. Since the client leads sandtray therapy sessions, they can create whatever scene they like. Some may choose not to create a scene and instead just experience movement in the sand by using their hands or other tools. Sandtray therapists often have rooms filled with large collections of play figures, which can include humans, animals, buildings, vehicles, spiritual symbols, and natural objects like trees or stones.
There are multiple approaches to Sandtray therapy, which can be adapted to a client’s specific needs. Some Sandtray therapists use a directive approach, guiding clients to create specific scenes. Alternatively, some therapists may select an entirely hands-off, non-directive approach to Sandtray therapy. Finally, the modality can be entirely non-verbal, or a therapist may ask the client questions to explore and process the metaphorical world.
Regardless of the specific approach to Sandtray therapy, what is most important to the healing process is the relationship that the client has with the therapist. By creating a safe, trusting environment, the therapist provides an ideal setting for the client to use the Sandtray model to foster their healing process.
How Sandtray Therapy Works
The relationship between a therapist and a client is essential in Sandtray therapy, as it is in any therapeutic process. Beyond this relationship, the Sandtray model itself can confer therapeutic benefits. The underlying theory behind Sandtray therapy is that the process of creating scenes using small figurines can help clients to access material from their subconscious mind. Clients often feel safe when using Sandtray therapy because it can provide distance from traumatic experiences or conflicts, and there is no right or wrong way to arrange figurines in the sand tray.
Once the scene is created in the sand, the client can process and understand some of their emotions related to the scene. In some cases, creating these scenes can allow a client to better express information from their conscious mind when they have been unable to express it verbally. Additionally, throughout the therapeutic process, clients can learn to change their ways of thinking, and alter their emotional responses, as the structure of their sand tray pictures changes over time. This process in and of itself is healing.
Additional healing can occur through the hands-on nature of Sandtray therapy. Playing in the sand and rearranging figurines with the hands is, for many people, a pleasant sensory experience, which can create a sense of safety during the therapeutic process. This means that those who may not feel comfortable opening up and speaking to a therapist in traditional “talk therapy” settings might prefer the Sandtray modality.
Finally, the expressive nature of Sandtray therapy can help clients to regulate their emotions. With repeated Sandtray therapy, improved emotional regulation can allow clients not only to resolve internal conflicts but also to reframe their inner emotional world to bring about healing.
Uses of Sandtray Therapy
The Sandtray method has been found to be effective in bringing about positive changes in both children and adults. Some common uses for children include:
- Treating aggressive behavior
- Treatment of ADHD
- Helping children to cope with trauma
- Addressing emotional and attachment issues arising from family problems like divorce or parental addiction
- Helping children and teens to identify and express difficult emotions
- Improving self-esteem
- Managing symptoms of autism and other disabilities
Furthermore, Sandtray therapy can be beneficial for treating adults with the following conditions:
- Relational conflict
- Stress and trauma associated with being an immigrant or refugee
Based upon what is known about Sandtray therapy from research and professional practice, this modality can be helpful for children and adults coping with a variety of different mental, emotional, and relationship problems.