Sand Tray Therapy: Play Therapy or Just Play?

Often, when those of us outside of the therapy world think of play therapy, we think of children, toys, brightly colored rooms and observant therapists. It’s rare that we picture ourselves as adults using “play time” to work through our problems. It’s even harder to picture ourselves in front of a sand box, “playing” with miniatures, tracing patterns and shapes into sand. Sandboxes are just for children, right?

Perhaps not.

Zen Gardens and Sandboxes

Early in the history of Japan, small gardens of miniature rocks, trees, sand and pebbles were designed to imitate the essence of nature. Often placed before zen temples, these zen gardens were designed to encourage meditation, quiet concentration and awareness of self.

Those who take care of these gardens today, or own their own zen gardens, find a sense of relaxation and mindfulness in raking the sand into patterns, careful placement of rocks and care for vegetation. The act of caring for or simply observing these gardens requires a quiet concentration, that allows a person to form connections and emotions about the objects in the garden and themselves.

Now think of a sandbox. While it may not seem very “zen,” even sandboxes found in playgrounds and backyards sometimes have a meditative effect on those playing in it. Children can often be found with a look of concentration on their faces as they build sand castles, tall hills or deep ditches. With an easily manipulated material before them, they can create their own worlds easily, playing out scenarios both made up and mimicked from their own experiences.

The Power of Sand Play/Sand Tray Therapy

Attributed to H.G. Wells, Margaret Lowenfeld, Dora Kalff and others, sand tray therapy, also known as sand play therapy, was recognized as a way to communicate between the sandbox “player” and the observer.

First used with children, Lowenfeld used her sandtray to gain insight into a child’s inner world. As the child became more comfortable with the sandtray, they began to create scenarios in the sand that reflected their inner turmoil, allowing Lowenfeld to gain insight into what the child may not have been able to communicate verbally before.

For example, a child who had lost two friends in a car accident and who had been severely injured himself, used a sand tray to reconstruct and process the traumatic accident. Over time, the child gradually worked through his trauma and feelings of guilt by choosing figurines to represent his lost friends, replaying the accident in the sand tray, and taking the time to document his sand tray scenes. The counselor involved acted as safe confidant, allowing the child to express his grief freely and work through his conflicting emotions.

Sand Tray Therapy: Not Just for Kids

This tactile, non-verbal therapy has since been recognized as valuable therapy for all ages, especially for those who deal with grief or past traumas. Sand tray therapy provides a safe, therapeutic environment for all individuals to develop an awareness of their inner conflicts and slowly come to understand their issues.

While sand tray therapy is a type of play therapy, it should never be brushed off as simply “childish” therapy. Sand tray therapy is an invaluable tool for those who cannot find words for their trauma, who need a sense of control over their situation or who cannot communicate verbally. There is something to be learned from zen gardens and sandboxes; time spent in the sand can be healing.

If you feel sand tray therapy could help you or your loved ones, please don’t hesitate to contact our team here at Olive Branch Therapy Group. We are here to extend the olive branch and help you live your best life.

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