Symbol & Sand Tray Work

Playfully and intuitively choosing objects only or to place, arrange and re-arrange in a tray of sand, can allow your subconscious to show you what it already knows. The answers you find can really take you by surprise!

Playing in the Sand: What Is Sand Tray Work and How Can It Help?

by Michelle R. Klee, Ph.D.

Whether on a stretch of beach along a lake front or in the sand box in our back yard, most of us as children have the experience of playing in the sand. Many people probably don’t know that “playing” in the sand can also be used as a counseling technique for people of all ages.

Introduction

Sand tray work is a technique which can be used to facilitate healing in adults, adolescents, and children, allowing them to express their thoughts and feelings when words alone are not enough. In addition to its therapeutic use, sand tray can be a tool for personal growth and the development of creativity.

A sand tray therapist’s office is equipped with a specially proportioned sand tray with a blue interior, water and a large collection of miniatures, including human figures, fantasy and folklore figures, animals, buildings, objects from nature, vehicles, and others. The miniatures represent all of the elements of life-the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the comforting, the frightening, the happy and the sad. The therapist, who has been specially trained in the use of the sand tray, provides an accepting environment in which the client is invited to create a world in the tray using the sand and miniatures.

Though some of the people with whom I have worked express concerns that they are not creative enough to use the sand tray technique, creativity is not a requirement. There is no right or wrong way to build a world in the sand. Some people use only sand or sand and water, though most include miniature objects in creating their worlds. After the client has finished building, she or he tells the therapist about the world, sometimes making up a story about it. Together the client and therapist then discuss the ways in which what has been experienced in the sand relates to the client’s life.

How Does It Work?

People think not only in words but in images. The use of the sand and miniatures activates this nonverbal manner of thinking, allowing the client to express images, emotions, perceptions, and conflicts about which they may not be able to talk. New solutions to emotional struggles can be experimented with through the “play.”

The meaning of the work in the sand tray emerges as the client shares the world with the therapist. Through the use of the sand tray, emotional struggles which previously were not conscious or could not be talked about are brought into awareness so that they can be understood and resolved. An increased capacity for self-expression, self-awareness and communication can be developed through the use of sand tray.

Who Can Benefit from Sand Tray Work?

The use of sand tray is very effective with children who are not yet mature enough to express complex thoughts and feelings. Most children take to the use of the sand tray very readily.

However, sand tray work is also a powerful therapeutic tool for adolescents and adults, with whom it can be used along with verbal therapy. Working in the sand tray allows clients to move to a deep level more quickly than they might when relying on words alone. One might compare the world created in the sand tray to a waking dream.

In my clinical work, I have found sand tray work particularly helpful with adults and teenagers when they are “stuck” in verbal therapy. Using the sand and the miniatures can open the way to feelings which we have been unable to reach by talk alone. For people who tend to rely too much on their intellect to the exclusion of their emotion, struggle with perfectionism, have a history of trauma or loss, or have unresolved family issues, the use of the sand tray can be especially effective. Sand tray work can also be employed in counselling families or couples.