Sand-Tray Therapy

By Toni Hoy|Updated June 27, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Guilbeault, LMHC


Have you ever noticed that when you feel self-conscious, you struggle to find something to do with your hands? Maybe you wave your hands more noticeably when you're talking, and you feel nervous. Or you may shove your hands into your pockets. We often depend on our hands to help us express things that we can't explain clearly with words only. For instance, we may gesture or try to show the shape of an object we're explaining. We may hold our hands apart to display the length of an item we are talking about.

Sand tray therapy takes this idea of expressing with the hands and turns it into a hands-on therapy technique. Just as finding something to do with our hands can alleviate nervousness in other situations, it can make us feel more at ease in a counseling setting.

Sand tray therapy can be an excellent way for any member of your family to open up about their issues.

What Is Sand Tray Therapy?

Sand tray therapy is a type of expressive mental health therapy that allows individuals in need of counseling to use a visual form of expression, also, to talking therapy. For some, talking and opening up can be difficult. Sand tray therapy utilizes a box of sand and miniature figures to allow a person to find easier ways to express themselves.

While playing in the sand, the individual may find it easier to talk about things because they are slightly distracted by the sandplay and because they aren't required to make eye contact with the counselor. Instead, they can look at their figures and the world they are building.

There are two primary types of sand tray therapy, directive, and non-directive sandplay. In directive sandplay, the therapist will provide questions and prompts for the person engaging in therapy. In non-directive sandplay, the therapist allows the individual to express themselves without being directed by specific questions from the counselor.

Sand tray therapy is also called the World Technique because it involves building a world inside the sand tray, or sandbox. This world may be similar to the person's real-world, allowing them to express feelings that are difficult about real-life situations. Or they may build a world with fantasy characters or creatures, which may still allow them to access ideas they need help accessing or talking to others about.

The person receiving therapy builds scenes in the sand tray, and the counselor acts as an observer.

Who Can Benefit From Sand Tray Therapy?

Many different types of people can benefit from sand tray therapy. Playing in the sand is a fairly common form of play amongst children. But even adults are known to build sandcastles or dig around in the sand at the beach. Children, adolescents, and adults can all benefit from sandplay, and this kind of therapy works both in groups and as individual therapy.

Additionally, sand tray therapy has been used especially in situations where neglect, trauma, or abuse has occurred. These situations create strong emotions that may be difficult to deal with, and just as difficult to talk about with someone else. Sometimes, the results of highly traumatic situations are difficult to admit even to oneself, which is why sand tray therapy is used to bring forward subconscious feelings.

How Sandplay Therapy Benefits Children

Creativity has long been recognized as an outlet for trauma, abuse, or other difficult experiences. Children will often play-act or make drawings about the things going on inside their heads, even if they can't or won't speak to another person about the things they express creatively. That's why sand tray therapy can be so beneficial to children.

Although many kids tend to blurt things out that an adult would withhold, when it comes to serious emotional issues, they quite often don't have the mental maturity or strength to talk about exactly what the problem is. They may not even understand what a past or current situation is wrong.

Sand tray therapy allows them to be heard when they can't put their feelings into communicable words. Additionally, building a world or scene in the sand gives children a sense of power over the situation. They can create whatever situation they want inside their sand world.

Benefits Of Sand Tray Therapy With Autism

Many individuals on the autism spectrum have difficulties with verbal communication, or they may communicate differently in their speech patterns. Because sand tray therapy utilizes visual communication through tactile and kinesthetic play, it can be an easier medium for therapists to communicate with autistic children and even adults.

That being said, sand tray therapy is not a one-size-fits-all solution for autistic individuals. In some cases, it can help promote discussion, but it may not in others.

Sandplay Therapy For Adults

Sand tray therapy can also be beneficial for adults. Just like children, adults can use creativity as an emotional outlet. For some, however, traditional sandplay therapy can be off-putting. Whereas children tend to play mostly uninhibited, adults may feel self-conscious about being creative or "playing" in the sand. They may feel like they lack the creativity or artistic skills to engage in sandplay.

In that case, Zen garden sandplay may be a better approach. Instead of creating an imaginary world, the sand can be manipulated and set into designs without necessarily using figures to communicate. In this case, rather than using the sand world as the form of communication, the sand is simply used as a soothing element in the course of counseling. Stroking or playing with the hands can make a client feel more comfortable and open to talking.

When adults use figures in their sand tray, it can be important to recognize that you don't have to understand why you are selecting particular figures. The world you build doesn't have to make logical sense.

Sand Tray Counseling For Couples

Sandplay is not only helpful for individual adults, either. Couples may find the sandbox a good way to let out feelings. When couples enter therapy together, it is often precisely because they are having difficulty communicating with one another. They may have feelings that they feel are not appropriate to share with their partner, or they may feel like they don't have the support from their partner to be safe expressing their feelings.

Sand Tray Therapy For Families

Families that play together build connections and the individuals become closer to one another. That is one reason why counseling that involves play can help families reconcile issues or difficulties they are having. Sand tray therapy offers a unique way to combine individual and group play.

Each family member can have their sand tray to build in. Ideally, each person will have some private space, so they don't feel influenced, watched, or held back by other family members. They should be free to create their landscape within the sandbox.

After each person has had the opportunity to set up a sandbox, they can then begin sharing what they've created. At this point, a counselor-led discussion can occur between family members.

Another approach and one that can be utilized in conjunction with the individual sand trays approach is to have family members build a sandbox together. Of course, building together increases the potential for conflict during the counseling session, so the counselor will determine whether this approach would work well between particular family members.

With either approach, the ideal is for the family to learn to communicate better with each other. Sandplay can be helpful whether family members have grievances against one another that they need to resolve or when the whole family has experienced trauma or grief and need help coming back together. It's important for family members to understand that the individuals within the family may each handle trauma or grief in different ways. The sandboxes can allow them to understand better what each other is going through and how they are processing the issue at hand.

Goals Of Sand Tray Therapy

Primarily, sand tray therapy aids in communication. Because communication is a cornerstone of relationships, any therapy that can help people understand each other more clearly is beneficial to couples and other family relationships.

It is not a goal of a sand tray therapy for the counselor to interpret the images you put into the sand. The counselor should not be leading you to assumed conclusions, though they may ask you questions to promote your thought process. Again, this form of therapy is a communication aid.

Sandplay helps individuals in counseling to feel more at ease with the counselor. And it can help individuals in a couple or family to become more at ease with one another. When trust is lost for some reason, it can be especially difficult to open up to those you were once close to. Talk to a mental health professional to find out about sand tray therapy and how it may help you and your relationships.

Below are some commonly asked questions on this topic:

What is the purpose of sand tray therapy?
What kind of therapy is sand tray?
Is sand tray therapy evidence based?
How do you do a sand tray therapy?
What are the benefits of sand play?
How effective is sandplay therapy?
How does playing with sand help a child's development?
What is the difference between sand tray and sandplay therapy?
Why is sand tray blue?
Can sandplay therapy change the brain as it reduces anxiety?

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