Sandplay Therapy

The following article is an extract from: "Sandplay Therapy - a step by step manual for psychotherapists of diverse orientation" by Barbara Labovitz Boik and E. Anna Goodwin

In sandplay therapy the therapist pro­ vides a sand tray, water, and a multitude of objects and materials with which to imaginatively create scenes in the circumscribed space of the sand tray. Sandplay can be used effectively with children, adults, cou­ples, families, and groups. As Ruth Ammann analogized, the sand tray is like "a soul garden", a kind of container for the display of the client's psychic life. The sand tray is an "in-between-space," where the client's inner and outer life can develop and reveal itself. The tray is that free and empty space where the client has the opportunity to create her/ his own world and transform her/his existing world with fresh insight. The therapist provides a safe and accepting environment in which the client can allow her/his inner voice to speak. To continue Ammann's metaphor, this "in-between-space," in which the conscious and uncon­ scious material can unfold, come together, and be made concrete, is also the space between the client and the therapist. This is the space where the unconscious and conscious of the therapist and the client meet and interact (Ammann, 1994).

Sandplay provides the client access to her/his innermost feeling core or psyche. In sandplay therapy the client represents in images what is happening in her/his inner and outer world. By making concrete what the inner voice is expressing, the client brings into external reality her/ his own relationship with her/himself and allows unconscious material to be revealed. This concrete, observable manifestation of subliminal material brings into greater consciousness that which has heretofore been repressed or unknown.

In the course of people's lives they create personas to interface with the external world. They often repress feelings and thoughts and lose touch with their Selves, the center of their psyches. The constant activ­ ity and demands of individuals' everyday lives, the dissociation from traumatic and painful experiences, the messages people receive to shut off their feelings, to be rational or think linearly, to conform and to subdue their imaginations, all serve to block them from their Selves. The more people are blocked, the more disparate the persona is from the Self. "The deeper the emotions and feelings are covered up, the more distanced from consciousness memories and a part of our person­ alities have become, the less likely it is that we can find the words to express them" (Ammann, 1993). As they become more aware of their unconscious processes by allowing the unknown to be seen through the creation of the sand world, individuals can gain energies and insights which were denied to them. In describing Jungian theory, David Hart, in an interview with Adelaide Bry, stated that "the cooper­ ation of conscious and unconscious life leads to a greater unity and greater strength within the individual" (in Centerpoint I, 1995, p. 19). Sandplay can provide the framework for this cooperation.

Sandplay takes many forms. The connection with the sand in and of itself helps to ground, center, and/or regress the client to a place that needs healing. One of the reasons that this occurs is because as chil­ dren most people played in the sand and in the dirt. Sandplay often takes a person back to some childhood memory. Some clients use no objects at all; they touch, move, and make formations in the sand. Some use few objects; some use many. Some use the sand dry; some wet the sand with water. Some build their scene quickly; some work slowly. Some create a static world; some create an ongoing, moving story. Some report the experience as very centering and tranquil. Some enjoy the playfulness of sandplay. Some experience very deep emo­ tions, re-experiencing past pain. There is no right way or right out­ come. It is important to trust that each client will do what s/he needs to do at that moment in time. It is also important for the therapist to be as aware as possible of her/his biases, values, and unresolved issues. This awareness allows the therapist to be open to receiving what the client is experiencing, with minimal judgment.

"Sandplay therapy is a prime facilitator for the individuation pro­ cess" (Weinrib, 1983). We concur with the Jungian precept that the psyche naturally moves toward healing and wholeness. This aspiration for wholeness toward which the client may have been striv­ in g unconsciously becomes increasingly realized as the unconscious be­ comes conscious. The client reconciles her/himself to, and becomes more aware of, different aspects of her/his personality and the blocks and wounds that have interfered with healing and wholeness. Sandplay is like a dream experience, in that it brings to consciousness what the client doesn't see in reality. This helps compensate for her/his lack of awareness.

We see Sandplay as an adjunct to therapy. Therefore therapists will continue to use the techniques that have served them well in their professional careers. It is important for therapists to honor their own style and theoretical orientations. Sandplay complements many differ­ ent therapeutic approaches. Gestalt techniques, visualization and imag­ ery, psychodrama, body work and movement, cognitive restructuring, art therapy, and hypnosis are some of the therapeutic strategies that interface with and augment the sandplay process.

Summary - What is Sandplay?

  • Imaginative activity in the sand
  • Natural mirror for the individuation process
  • Access to innermost feeling core
  • Observable manifestation of subliminal material
  • Symbolic language for communication
  • Safe and accepting environment
  • Within a circumscribed space
  • With or without water
  • With or without objects
  • Static or moving world
  • Adjunct to therapy
  • Used with children, adults, couples, families, groups

Benefits of Sandplay

  • Facilitates the individuation process
  • Frees creativity, inner feelings, perceptions and memories, bringing them into outer reality and providing concrete testimony
  • Utilizes most of the senses, providing an expanded experience
  • Regresses the client to past experiences, allowing healing and integration
  • Creates bridges from the unconscious to the conscious, the inner to the outer world, mental and spiritual to physical, nonverbal to verbal, thus revealing hidden material
  • Invites spontaneous play; no right or wrong way
  • Allows defenses to diminish because it is non-threatening
  • Functions as a natural language for children and a common lan­ guage for use with diverse cultures and developmental stages
  • Empowers the client by allowing movement from the position of victim to creator and by impacting her/his own course of therapy
  • Serves as an adjunct to therapy, making sandplay available for use by therapists of various orientations
  • Provides therapist the opportunity to do personal work