“Often it is necessary to clarify a vague content by giving it visible form... Often the hands know how to solve a riddle with which the intellect has wrestled in vain.” Carl Jung
A child comes in for therapy, terrified and hiding behind her parent’s legs. She has been through a trauma and has been unable to talk about it. An adolescent is compelled to come in for counseling because of his oppositional behavior. He is angry and refuses to talk. A couple on the brink of divorce seeks counseling as a last result. They can’t communicate with each other, much less a therapist. A family walks into your office in crisis with parents who feel helpless and children who are acting out. The family system is crumbling. When people are not comfortable, or not able, to process their experiences and feelings through talking alone, then using an experiential therapy, a kind of therapy that doesn’t depend on talking as the main mode of communication, is a wonderful option for creating a healing, safe and therapeutic environment. (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2017)
Sandtray therapy is an expressive and projective mode of psychotherapy. It involves the processing of feelings and experiences, both conscious and unconscious, through the use of specific sand tray materials; the tray, the sand, and miniature figures from the real world and the fantasy realm.
In Sandtray therapy, the client creates scenes in the sand with the miniatures, figures that include people, animals, trees, buildings, fences, and fantasy creatures, while the therapist quietly observes and then, if the client wishes to, they process it together in a safe, non-judgmental setting. This kind of therapy is a medium of communication led by the clients and facilitated by a trained therapist. It is a powerful therapeutic technique that facilitates the psyche's natural capacity for healing. In the safe space created by the therapist, a client uses miniature objects to create scenes from their life or their imagination to process feelings about themselves, others, and the world.
While Sandtray therapy can always be helpful, when is sand tray therapy an especially beneficial approach?
When talking is not the best way or the only way to help. Many clients are not comfortable talking about painful experiences and are not able to articulate their feelings and the messages they have internalized in life.
Children naturally communicate through play and it is natural for them to use symbols for their feelings and their life. They often do not have the language to express their feelings, particularly when there has been trauma.
Teenagers may have developed defenses that prevent vulnerable feelings being accessed when they are talking, while sand tray therapy allows them to lower their defenses and express feelings from the distancing and the safety of the tray.
Adults can easily intellectualize to the point they are cut off from their feelings and when they are open to working in the tray, they can tap into their unconscious and connect to feelings that have been exiled from their adult world.
Sand Tray Therapy gives expression to nonverbalized emotional issues. Since play is the language of childhood, as well as a language for a client of any age who is unable or unwilling to verbalize, the sandtray provides a safe medium for expression. If play is the language, then the miniatures are the words. (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2017)
What is it about the combination of the tray, the sand and the miniatures that works so well?
Sandtray therapy has a unique kinesthetic quality. Most of us have played with sand in our lives, whether in a sand box or at a lake or ocean beach, and the feel of the sand can open up memories from childhood while relaxing defenses. The miniatures speak to us in unique ways and open up our imagination to create our world.
When we are talking, we are mostly using the left part of our brain, but when we are also having a tactile experience and involving our senses, we light up the right side of our brain as well which houses our unconscious, our memories, and any trauma we have experienced. We are then connecting our whole brain and are more able to access our feelings and experience them in our body. The sensory quality of sand and play, and the need for sensory experiences for all of us, makes this therapy a natural fit and a safe space for many clients. (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2017)
- Barbara Howard, LCPC, Ext. 408