Sand tray therapy uses sand, water, and a variety of miniatures to create stories that represent a person’s inner world. These help the person become aware of unknown past or current challenges in life.
A safe, protected space can help a person move toward healing and the exploration of memories and experiences that may be too uncomfortable or difficult to express or talk about.
Sand tray therapy offers one such protected space. It can complement talk therapy and engage the mind-body connection to help a person face distress and trauma in a nonverbal manner.
This article explores sand tray therapy, its uses, and techniques. It also discusses its benefits and effectiveness, as well as how people can get started with it.
Sand tray therapy is a hands-on and expressive approach that uses miniature figurines and sometimes water to build scenes and stories within a sand-filled tray.
Dora Kalff and Margaret Lowenfeld developed the approach by building on Carl Jung’s psychological framework. It can incorporate a vast range of techniques from various therapeutic approaches. It can be directive (when the therapist leads the therapy) or nondirective (when the client leads the therapy), as well as verbal or nonverbal.
Sand tray therapy is a creative counseling technique where a person expresses their understanding of themselves, their world, and aspects of their reality through figurines or miniatures. The scenes created in a sand tray reflect the person’s past and present inner thoughts, feelings, and hardships.
Therapists commonly use sand tray therapy in clinical settings. While couples, families, and groups may all use this approach, a person typically engages in sand tray therapy one-on-one with a therapist. People of all ages may participate in sand tray therapy.
Materials include a sand tray, typically with a blue interior, along with water and miniature objects. These figures often include:
- fantasy figures like wizards
- trees, vegetation, and other objects in nature
- household items
- spiritual objects
People who have experienced significant physical and emotional distress from different forms of trauma, abuse, neglect, or danger may benefit from sand tray therapy.
It is well suited for children who cannot verbalize their emotional states. People who have experienced sexual abuse and opt to remain silent for fear of harm can also find a safe space in sand tray therapy.
Sand tray therapy can help people cope with grief and loss. It can also be useful for those who have challenges with:
- anger management
- social interaction
- school or work
- low self-esteem
It is commonly used by individuals with:
While therapists often use sand tray therapy with children, adults and teens can participate in this approach as well.
Sand tray therapy provides a multidimensional form of treatment that allows people to communicate internal frustrations. It aims to provide emotional release, self-reflection, and realization.
Adults who find it difficult to express themselves or those who have experienced significant trauma and have shown limited response to other forms of therapy may benefit from this approach.
Sand tray therapy can also be a powerful way to resolve family communication barriers, according to a 2015 review of this therapy. It is also used to support adoptive families with their adjustments, 2013 research suggests.
Generally, sand tray therapy relies on a combination of play therapy and art therapy. It uses miniature objects and toys to help people create and reflect on their world and express things they might not otherwise be able to through words.
Counselors also use the humanistic approach during sand tray therapy. The counselor relies on the person to use the sand as a tool for their healing and empowers them to find solutions to their problems.
This approach helps a person discover themselves, explore their feelings, and find meaning or attribute new meanings to their experiences.
The free, nonstructured, and protective space of sand therapy offers a way for people to heal through the therapeutic process.
It creates a safe environment that allows people to release their feelings, conflicts, and emotions and bring unconscious fears, thoughts, and memories into their conscious awareness.
A counselor monitors and observes the stories to gain insight into people’s inner lives and access their challenging and traumatic experiences. This way, the therapist can help them heal and move forward.
Through sand tray therapy, a person can return to past experiences in a safe and contained environment and become an active agent in the experience.
Numerous studies support the effectiveness of sand tray therapy in treating various challenges and health conditions.
A similar 2021 study found it effective in reducing physical anxiety, sensitivity, and apprehension in children with ADHD. This study supports that sand therapy may be important for those who have challenges in understanding and expressing emotionally charged experiences.
Sand tray therapy is also effective as a tool in group therapy. It improved various aspects of a child’s self-esteem in a 2018 study.
A 2020 study suggests that adding sand tray therapy to talk therapy can benefit people with substance use disorders, due to a person’s developmental and neurological changes caused by trauma and substance misuse.
Sand tray therapy can be an effective way to explore the lived experience of people with cancer, cancer survivors, and their families. In a 2021 study, it also allowed them to explore their resilience and empowered them to understand themselves better.
A 2017 study about the effects of a sand play therapy program in a child center found that it effectively reduced aggression and negative peer interactions among children.
Researchers suggested that sand tray therapy helped the children integrate their emotions and thoughts associated with the traumatic experience as well as understand and give meaning to them. Sand tray therapy encourages them to approach the topic through symbols and offers them emotional release.
Sand tray therapy and sand play therapy both use sand and miniature objects to help achieve a fuller and deeper picture of a person’s world. Both offer a safe space and provide a healing process. Both stress the importance of being in tune with a person and allowing them to express themselves freely.
Sand play therapy follows a Jungian approach and also has influences from Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. A therapist delays interpretation of the sand play and instead focuses on the person’s unconscious and nonverbal understanding of the images they create. Therapists can delay the interpretation for months to years.
Sand tray therapy is open to adding in different theoretical orientations but mainly uses a humanistic approach. It focuses on the here and now and the experience of the moment.
Sand tray therapists give directives while the person uses the sand tray. These are specific statements urging the person to think, feel, or act in a particular way when confronted with an issue or a problem in the tray. Sand play therapists, on the other hand, do not give directives.
As mentioned, sand play therapists do not provide interpretation of the scenes in the tray, whereas a sand tray therapist can offer some processing and interpretation of what’s happening in the tray.
A person who thinks that they or someone they know would benefit from a sand tray therapy can speak with their doctor, who may be able to refer them to a therapist or a counselor.
While a mental health professional is not required to have any specific certification to conduct sand tray therapy, some regulating bodies certify and train sand tray therapists. The International Association for Sand Tray Therapy has a clinician directory that a person may visit.
Once an individual has been in touch with a therapist or counselor, it may be good to ask about:
- session lengths
- whether insurance will cover the sessions
- what happens in sessions
Typically, sand tray therapy happens when a person uses an extensive collection of miniature figurines in a tray filled with sand to create scenes from their world.
A therapist will observe the figure choices and their arrangement. They may give directives during the session and discuss the person’s figurine choices, arrangements, and symbolic meanings after the sand play.
Sand tray therapy is a type of play therapy that encourages people to express their inner world in a nonverbal way.
Therapy may last from one session to sessions that happen over several years. Studies have shown it can help people talk about their previous trauma and ongoing challenges.
The treatment can equip people with the skills to confront and solve their problems.