Sand tray

The approach of integrative psychosynthesis therapy is a holistic one that can engage in the multiple facets of a client’s life: including emotional, psychological, creative, and spiritual. It is a therapeutic approach that seeks to offer a flexible process that can support a client to attend to present, past and future concerns.

Through the use of and integration of humanistic, psychodynamic archetypal and transpersonal lenses and therapeutic techniques, client and therapist work within a creative container that honours the client's wounding and supports the discovery of ways to work with limiting self-beliefs, current challenges and the discovery of new or buried insights and the capacity for self-healing.  

Through my additional training in therapeutic play therapy work with children, I have developed a respect for the multidimensional experiential therapeutic tool that offers clients a process to objectify inner reality within the therapeutic relationship. 

Historically, it was Margaret Lowenfeld, initially a paediatrician working in London in the 1920’s and then as a child psychoanalyst in London, who pioneered sand play in her therapeutic work with children. She created a therapeutic environment, which enabled free expression and safe experimentation. She described her way of working as the “world technique” and kept small objects and models in drawers, which the children could use as they needed, playing with them in trays of sand to which water could be added.

Experimental space and process

As a therapist working with sand tray with both children and adults, I value the process that enables clients to be supported to build images of preferred futures revisit, past experiences, memories and hopes in a creative way. The client may make a series of scenes over a number of sessions or within the same session. In therapy the sand tray lends itself easily to many theoretical styles – Jungian narrative, solution focused and gestalt, I locate the use of sand play within the context of Gestalt experimentation.

The sand tray process is a dynamic and creative one. The client expresses certain preferences, in the choice of figures which are valued over others. It is not random or arbitrary. Objects are placed in this way, rather then that and new, deeper, hidden or lost meanings are often discovered or created.

The figures and sand tray

The box is traditionally wooden with a blue bottom (to represent the sky). The therapist builds a collection of miniatures for clients to work with that includes: fantasy creatures, human, domestic animals, everyday objects, and representations of the elements of fire, air, water and objects that are culturally diverse.  

Sand can take time to dry and now that we have a choice of wet or dry sand in the sun room, it is best to keep the wet tray wet and the dry, dry (if you see what I mean!).

The sand tray process

The therapist can have a purpose intent on inviting the client to use the sand tray for example, pick some figures to represent your family of origin or your hopes or your fears. Or it can naturally be used as the session develops, "Would you like to show me this feeling in the sand tray?" or, "Show me what you might like to say to that person next time you have the opportunity". The therapist may even simply invite the client to demonstrate how they are feeling.

The sand tray can be used following a visualization, or a whole family could recreate the conflict that they had the previous night to use the figures to consider ways forward. In this way that sand tray becomes dynamic and a co-created space with the therapist.

The therapist can simply be the witness to what happens for the client by holding space and being quiet, or ask questions and be a part of the creative process by also building. Clients can be invited to speak from the position of the particular figures in a particular scene, “I am the horse and I am feeling free, I am a feather and I am feeling light, or I am fox and I am feeling hunted."

The process can be immensely powerful and in staying within the scene and the language of the scene, the sand tray becomes a container for the complex range of human emotion, thoughts, metaphor, ideas and feelings. I have worked with clients who recall their sand tray work in amazing detail from months, even years before.

Clients may want to interpret what they have created or keep it in process and not talk about meaning. It can also be used as a dialogue between the client and therapist regarding what the client wants to take from the process into their life.

The therapist’s role is to be sensitive to what is unfolding for the client, but not dominate or take over. As with working in other mediums and with other techniques in art therapy, what happens is what needs to happen for each individual client.

The possibilities for the use of sand play experimentation are endless. At the end, I usually encourage the client to dismantle the scene themselves, though some prefer for me to do this for them.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 6SG
Written by Tanya Nielson, Counsellor/Psychotherapist (Snr Accred) Qualified Supervisor
Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 6SG

I am trained and experienced in a variety of therapeutic models including: solution focused practice, CBT, EMDR, psychodynamic, attachment, narrative, solution focused, systemic theories, sand tray, play therapy, journaling, poetry and art work.I work with adults, children, young people and families and work transculturally.

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