Playing in the sand: It’s not just for children.

Using sand in therapy?

Most of us can remember our experience of playing in the sand as a small child, whether on the shore of an often visited lake in the summer, on the playground at school or in the sand box in our own backyard, but what most people probably don’t know is that “playing” in the sand is a very useful, and often powerful, counseling technique for people of all ages. This technique is called Sand Tray Therapy.

What is Sand Tray therapy?

Sand tray’s roots can be traced back to H.G. Wells who noticed that his sons worked through their problems as they played on the floor with their miniature toy figures. Sand Tray therapy as an adjunct to counseling is used to facilitate healing, personal growth and expand creative thought in people of all ages. The process allows individuals to express their feelings when words alone are not enough. Sand Tray therapy involves the use of a specially proportioned sand tray with a blue interior that is filled with clean, soft white or colored sand as well as a large collection of miniatures, including human figures, fantasy and folklore figures, animals, buildings, objects from nature, vehicles, and others. The miniatures represent all of the elements of life – the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the beautiful and the ugly. The therapist, who has been specially trained in the use of the sand tray, provides a safe and accepting environment in which the client is invited to create a world in the tray using the sand and the miniatures. 

Some of the figures used in Sand Tray Therapy.


Some of the objects used in Sand Tray Therapy.

How does Sand Tray Therapy work?

People think not only in words but in images. The use of the sand and miniatures allows the client to express images, emotions, perceptions, and conflicts which can then be processed. The meaning of the individual’s creation in the sand tray emerges as the client shares their world with the therapist. An increased capacity for self-expression, self-awareness and communication can be developed through the use of sand tray. A growing body of research also suggests that Sand Tray therapy is a beneficial neuropsychological process that involves the individual’s interaction with the sand and miniatures. In anxious people, it can calm and quiet the amygdala where anxiety is produced (fight or flight response). Sand Tray therapy can also help individuals who’ve experienced trauma and grief. The use of the sand, the miniatures and the symbolic metaphors used in Sand Tray therapy provides a safe distance, control and the physical boundaries that are needed to process emotional pain. Sand Tray therapy provides an intervention that allows traumatic memories to be encoded in the brain and successfully integrated reducing the effects of trauma such as PTSD. (van der Kolk, 2006, p. 279).

Sand Tray Therapy heals the whole brain (used with permission from the Southern SandTray Institute).

Who can benefit from Sand Tray Therapy?

In my clinical practice, I have found that anyone of any age can benefit from Sand Tray Therapy. Of course, children take more readily to the process, but adults benefit just as much, especially if therapy seems to be stalled out or a client feels “stuck.” Working in the sand tray allows clients to move to a deeper level more quickly than they might when relying on words alone. This process helps people heal from many life situations, work through family conflict and the pain of trauma – facilitating forgiveness to occur. It really is true that a picture is worth a thousand words.  There is power in seeing your situation in a concrete, three-dimensional representation.  

What if I would like to try Sand Tray Therapy?

 Specially trained therapists at Lighthouse Counseling LTD use sand tray therapy and have witnessed clients gaining an awareness and understanding that translates to real changes in their lives. If you’d like to experience the healing benefits of Sand Tray Therapy you can contact Lighthouse Counseling LTD and ask for a therapist who is trained in facilitating Sand Tray Therapy. 

Sand Tray created by the therapist