Sandplay Therapy: An Effective Treatment for Children and Adults

Sandplay Therapy has emerged as a treatment of choice for its gentleness and its capacity to heal. As an example of the many benefits of Sandplay Therapy, allow me to share a brief story (certain details have been changed or omitted to protect my client’s privacy).

A mother called me recently seeking help for her eight-year-old son. She described his anger management issues, and explained how his life was affected by the trauma and loss associated with her recent divorce. She also described her numerous attempts to deal with and resolve his outbursts of crying, his sulking, his verbal and physical attacks… but nothing seemed to work. Her patience was wearing thin. She didn’t know what to do, and she asked how I could help.

I explained to her that we all have psychological defenses – regardless of whether we’re eight years old or eighty – and the older we are the stronger these defenses become. This is not to imply that these defenses are bad. Psychological defenses are important – they protect us from harm (both perceived and real). However, they can become restrictive and self-limiting.

I then described the successes I’ve had with both children and adults using Sandplay Therapy. The non-verbal language of Sandplay Therapy offers a way to bypass our psychological defenses – to get to the material that needs attention and healing in the present in a manner that is both direct and non-threatening.

What Is Sandplay Therapy?

In Sandplay Therapy, the client manipulates miniature figures within a tray of sand – using symbolic images to tell stories in a manner that is similar to an active state of dreaming. This allows spontaneous expression on pre-verbal and non-verbal levels.

Although Sandplay Therapy has long been valued as a treatment for both children and adults, it is particularly accessible to children. Walk into any sandplay room and you’ll see why.

Sandplay rooms are filled with miniatures that symbolically represent the world at large. Typically you will find animals (wild and domestic), people (varying ages and cultures), homes, vehicles, dinosaurs, soldiers, trees, rocks, mythical and spiritual figures, bridges, fences, lighthouses, etc. With little prompting, children seem to instinctively take the miniatures off the shelf and play with them in trays filled with actual sand (dry or wet). They tell stories; they create images; the sand, the tray, and the miniatures combine to engage the active imagination, launching a healing journey in what Dora Kalff referred to as a “free and protected space.”

Why Use Sandplay Therapy?

Sandplay Therapy has an uncanny ability to target whatever issues need attention in the moment. And if a therapy can accurately target obstacles to our present growth and development, treatment can be successful.

One of the many beauties of Sandplay Therapy is that it can also be used in conjunction with verbal psychotherapy. This can accelerate the therapeutic process, often leading to faster and longer-lasting results.

Because Sandplay Therapy works on the symbolic level, it allows children and adults to gently access unconscious material quickly. It captures the essential elements of our inner landscape (or psyche), bringing to the surface that which needs attention and/or healing in the present.

Why sand? Dora Kalff discovered something most parents already know intuitively – children love to play in the sand. Indeed sand is used ritually as a healing and grounding medium throughout the world. In Jungian terms, since sand mediates between the land and the water, it is seen as a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind.

The Benefits of Sandplay for Your Child and You

So, was Sandplay Therapy effective for the boy I mentioned at the beginning of this article? His mother became interested in the possibilities Sandplay Therapy offered and she decided to schedule an appointment with me for her son. After an initial assessment, it was obvious her son couldn’t talk about his feelings because they were too chaotic and painful.

It is not uncommon for children to have difficulties articulating what is making them anxious. There may be an underlying anxiety that is not yet “known” or there may be pre-verbal anxiety. In these situations, talk therapy is unlikely to get to the source of the anxiety, which is one of the reasons why a non-verbal therapy like sandplay can be so effective.

I began working with her son once a week using Sandplay Therapy. At the start of our work together, his sand trays depicted many battles with no victors. The pain and chaos he felt were expressed through his use of an overwhelming number of figures on the tray during these many battle scenes.

Initially, I helped him simply by being a non-judgmental witness to his inner experiences as played out in the sand tray. As his chaos and pain were expressed and acknowledged, they became less frightening to him and a shift became possible.

As time passed, his trays began to differentiate. There was less flooding, more separation, less chaos, and a clearer sense of self began to emerge. Over the course of several months, he became more communicative, better able to manage social situations in an appropriate manner, and less angry with his mom.

In fact, he learned (once again) to lean on his mom and trust her ability to help him manage the challenges in his life. As with so many other children, Sandplay Therapy allowed this boy to make important strides during a particular period of his life. Were all his issues resolved? Possibly. Possibly not. What is clear, however, is that the work he did freed him up to attend to his developmental tasks allowing him to move forward at a time when he was stuck.

The effectiveness of Sandplay Therapy for helping children and teens identify, process, and contain their fears, grief, and anxieties through symbolic expression has been evidenced time and time again.

It has been found useful for a wide range of issues from trauma to learning disabilities, from language delays to normal developmental stress. And, when combined with talk therapy, it has been found very effective with adults as well as children.

As a result, Sandplay Therapy has emerged as a treatment of choice for its gentleness and its capacity to heal.

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For more information contact:

Haleh Rambod, MFT – Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
(209) 850-9023

2930 Geer Road, #115-D, Turlock, CA 95382

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