Sand Tray Therapy

Medically reviewed by Jerry Crimmins, PsyD, LP
Updated January 20, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Sand tray therapy is a therapeutic approach that may make it easier for people to discuss difficult topics. Particularly for individuals with anxiety, experiences of trauma, or difficulty verbalizing feelings, the introduction of a sand tray into therapy sessions can provide several benefits. During sand tray therapy sessions, you don’t need to make direct eye contact with your counselor, and the act of playing in the sand itself can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and fear. A therapist can help you determine if this form of therapy may be productive for your situation and needs.

Feeling Closed Off During Therapy Sessions?

What Is Sand Tray Therapy?

When you’re engaging directly with the environment, you may be practicing mindfulness and body awareness, which can reduce symptoms of anxiety, fear, and anger. Sand tray therapy builds upon this concept, providing a comforting setting to communicate both verbally and non-verbally. It can be a particularly effective modality for children and people who have experienced trauma, but many people can benefit from this form of therapy. 

During sessions, your therapist may encourage you to freely engage in sand play, or they may direct you to use toys in a sandbox and design a scene that represents safety. Either way, the goal of sand tray therapy is to help you overcome obstacles to self-expression. 

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

The most common sand tray therapy is directive and uses the “world technique.” This technique was designed by Dr. Margaret Lowenfeld, born from her frustration with traditional therapy, which she found too constrictive and time-consuming for children. When using the world technique, your therapist may provide you with a sandbox and figures and ask you to build your inner “safe world.” Typically, therapists act as quiet observers during this time, allowing the client to lead. 

Who Can Benefit From Sand Tray Therapy?

Many people can benefit from sand tray therapy, especially children or adults who have experiences with: 

  • Anxiety

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Autism spectrum disorder

  • Depression

  • Grief

  • Learning differences

  • Physical disabilities 

Additionally, sand tray therapy can be a helpful strategy for people who have experienced neglect, trauma, or abuse. These situations create strong emotions that may be challenging to discuss, and children may not have the knowledge necessary to describe or recognize the trauma they have experienced. Further, they may not have the words to verbalize it.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, reach out right away to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance. 

Sand Tray Therapy For Children

Engagement in creative processes is shown to improve moods, emotional states, and physiological health in children. Additionally, creativity may aid children who have experienced trauma or abuse in processing negative life events. 

Sand tray therapy can allow children a space to express themselves when feelings are difficult to communicate directly. Additionally, building a world or scene can give children a sense of power and agency over their life experiences. A 2007 study found that sand tray therapy provided to preschool-aged children helped them explore their emotions and experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder after surviving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Children On The Autism Spectrum

Some studies suggest that sand tray therapy can increase the level of language expression and engagement in social situations for children with autism spectrum disorder. Utilization of the world technique can help some children process or express experiences of trauma, even if they do not utilize verbal communication. 

Sand Tray Therapy For Adults

Studies show that sand tray therapy can be therapeutic for adults with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Some adults, however, may find that the process of engaging in play during therapy can cause discomfort, such as heightened self-consciousness stemming from a belief that they lack creativity. For these adults, other mindfulness-based interventions may provide greater benefits for inducing relaxation. 

Sand Tray Counseling For Couples And Families

Within the context of couples therapy, sandplay can be an effective tool to improve skills in nonverbal communication and cooperation. Families, too, may find that sand tray therapy can aid in building stronger connections, and it can be a useful tool for therapists to gain insight into how families collaborate throughout the process. 

Feeling Closed Off During Therapy Sessions?

Benefits Of Sand Tray Therapy

Sand tray therapy can help some people:

  • Reduce symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress

  • Discuss challenges without the use of verbal communication

  • Improve self-confidence and creativity

  • Introduce concepts of mindfulness

  • Process grief and trauma

Sand tray therapy can be a helpful tool for people of various ages with experiences of trauma, grief, mental illness, physical challenges, or other disorders. If you are unsure how to talk about an experience in your life, or if you’re thinking about incorporating sand tray therapy into your routine, you can reach out to a licensed therapist. 

If you’ve experienced trauma in your life, you may benefit from a specific type of therapy called trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT). TF-CBT can be given in a family-based setting for children, where it is shown to improve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. 

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

If you’re navigating issues in your life that you believe could be improved through therapy, you may consider using a platform like BetterHelp. BetterHelp is an online counseling medium that you can use to connect with a trauma-informed therapist. The online format of sessions enables you to seek therapy from the comfort of your own home, and you may find that it’s easier to discuss challenging topics when you are physically distant from your therapist. 

The Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

Just like sand therapy can improve someone’s degree of openness and self-exposure, online therapy can have the same effect. For adults, studies support that online CBT is just as effective as in-person CBT for individuals with symptoms of depression, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress. Online-based treatments such as these can help individuals process their trauma in a safe environment

Takeaway

Sand tray therapy is a hands-on therapy technique that can be delivered with minimal structure. It can provide benefits for a variety of people with mental health challenges, autism spectrum disorder, physical differences, speech difficulties, or traumatic experiences. Sand therapy can help some people practice mindfulness and reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety while discussing difficult topics. An online therapist can provide you with cognitive behavioral therapy sessions to address symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and you can inquire with your therapist whether they think sand tray therapy may be a helpful technique for you.  

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