The Play Therapy method uses a variety of tools to allow children to express themselves; Sandplay is one of these tools.
In this blog, I will explain what is Sandplay, the history and some of Sandplay’s principles and practice, as being used in Play Therapy.
Sand, earth and water are ancient elements of our world and universally part of our experience since childhood.
Sand-play is a form of therapy that gives both child and adult clients the opportunity to portray non-verbal feelings and experiences often inaccessible and/or difficult to express in words. The client (child or adult) uses a blue-bottom tray and a variety of miniatures elements.
Dora Kalff (1904-1990) formulated Sand-play therapy; she based her method on Jungian ideas as well as on Margaret Lowenfeld’s work (1890-1973).
Kalff’s vision was to allow the client a “free and protected space” to create a sand world using miniature figurines and images while creating a trustful therapeutic relationship.
Principles and Practice
By using symbols and objects, the client builds, expresses and explores his or hers inner-world in a symbolic way. Kalff supported the notion that the therapist should be attuned to the client during the creation of the sand tray as part of client’s process and healing.
From a neuroscience perspective, researchers show that touching sand triggers certain brain activities; this sensation travels in the brain and produces a tactile input ( the same feeling that we feel while walking on a beach sand). As the therapist stay attuned to the client during the creation in the sand tray, the client’s inner-world (which is presented in the tray), meets positive feelings, such as empathy and kindness, in a safe space. Such a positive experience fosters carrying-out new inputs into the brain; a new sensation is being released with positive hormones and healing starts.
Moreover, using symbols to act out events and experiences can promote deeply the right-brain usage, which houses feelings and emotions, and brings them to the surface.
In Therapeutic Play (or Play Therapy), the child can choose which mediums he or she wants to play in each session: Art, Music, Clay, Movement, Drama or Sand. For sand-play, usually, there are two options: dry or wet; water can be added to the wet sand tray according to the child’s decision.
There are many figurines and symbols the child can choose from in order to play out and present his world and experiences, for example, cars and animals, stones, shells, sea creatures and insects, magical figures and superheroes to spiritual images and domestic play with houses and furniture.
In the Play Therapy method, the child is given the space to use the miniatures in any way he wants (as long as it is safe), no words are required as a must, and the child will lead the play. This allows any child (or adult) to use Sand-play therapy, no prerequisite is needed, and there are no constraints of language or “art” abilities.
The therapist’s primary goal is to give the child the confidence to express his needs without being directed by an adult, as this can miss-out the point of self-expressing and exploration of the child’s world.
However, the therapist may take an active role in the child’s play according to the child’s needs and his lead. The therapist will be curious about the child’s creation in an unthreatening way and might explore it with him (if appropriate). In any case, the therapist must give the time to the child to re-act the events he needs and will support the child to find his inner strength.
To summarise, sand-play is a rich and versatile tool. The creator can change its shape and structure, as well as use external symbols to express his inner world. Furthermore, playing with sand is a primitive experience; hence it can promote an integrative connection of body and mind.
The next time you and your child is at the beach or playground with sandpit, we can all use sand to express ourselves!