My love of playing with sand really began when I was a child. Every summer we would buy a family train ticket, and journey each day down to Weymouth's sandy expanse. Here we would mix water and sand in a bucket, plop it out on the beach, where it would magically transform into a mighty castle.
I was introduced to sand tray therapy as a counselling student, and I vividly recall myself and a colleague creating this complex narrative out of nothing more than a pile of sand, and a collection of objects. What I really like is the extra dimension it brings to therapy, not only for children, but also adults.
Sand tray therapy is not a new creation. Margaret Lowenfield is credited with developing it as a way of working with children in the early 1930's. Margaret herself credits HG Wells, and his 1911 book floor games, as the inspiration for her unique approach to therapy.
Confusingly, there is also some rather specific language you may come across. Sometimes this approach might be referred to as sand play, which is based upon Jung's theories, whereas sand tray therapy is typically used to refer to it's use in other counselling approaches. I for instance offer humanistic sand tray therapy, rather than sand play. This means I will often take a much more active role while the person I am with is using the sand tray, and spend less time afterwards 'interpreting' what happened.
The equipment needed for sand tray therapy is fairly simple. A box, which traditionally has a blue bottom; some play sand; varied small objects such as toys, shells, pebbles; and jugs or bottles of water. The real question though, is why use a sand tray?
Telling the story is often an important part of counselling. Usually, people will use a spoken narrative, describing a series of events. Language is a linear process, events follow one after another, and it's often difficult to include more than one element at a time in a narrative. Also there is a tendency that once something is narrated it becomes fixed - this is how this happened.
Using a sand tray provides an opportunity for a much more immersive, and fluid story-telling experience. The use of sand adds a 3-dimensional element to the story; a few sweeps of the hand creates hills and valleys, while a jug of water can create a river, beach or pond. Small objects can be used to represent various figures in the story, and because all the elements are in the field of view, the narrator can also get a sense of the overall story. From a therapeutic perspective, I like the way sand is such a fluid medium, which invites the re-imagination of our stories, allowing the exploration of new possibilities.
A second and important benefit, is the way sand tray therapy lends itself easily to the use of metaphor. Sometimes the story that needs to be told is too painful, and too close to home to be told as is. Turning it into a metaphorical 'fairy tale' can help to create distance, and make telling it safer. Children will often do this to help them work through upsetting material.
The one question I would like to finish with is whether we need to make sense of the story, for it to be therapeutic. I think it is important to stress particularly when working with children, and material that could be potentially harmful, it is vital that I don't interpret the story for the child. My experience is that people seem able to work through distressing material even though it always remains a story of dragons, space ships, princesses, treasure chests, and sea monsters.
Title image by rykooda. Main article images by Mark Redwood.