How Sand Tray Therapy Works (2023)

What Is Sand Tray Therapy?

Sand tray therapy, or sandplay therapy, is a therapeutic approach used for people who have experienced a traumatic event such as abuse or a catastrophic incident.Although this type of therapy is used most often with children, sandplay therapy also can be helpful for teens and adults.

When utilizing this therapy, psychotherapists use sand trays to assess, diagnose, or treat a variety of mental illnesses. Researchshows that sand tray therapy can help increase emotional expression while reducing the psychological distress that may come from discussing traumatic events or experiences.

Sand tray therapy was developed by Dora Kalff, who was inspired by working with Margaret Lowenfeld, a British child psychiatrist and developer of World Technique. Kalff's Jungian-based theory also was influenced by Buddhist contemplative practices.

Sand tray therapy is based on the notion that if a therapist provides the client with a safe space, the client will use the sand tray to create solutions to their problems on their own.

Types of Play Therapy

Sand tray therapy is a type of play therapy. Other common types of play therapy include:

  • Bibliotherapy, which uses literature to explore specific concepts or skills
  • Cognitive behavioral play therapy, which uses play to help a child learn how to think and behave differently (such as asking the child to give their doll or stuffed animal advice on how to handle a stressful situation)
  • Filial therapy, which aims to teach parents how to interact with the child through play
  • Imaginary play, which uses toys, such as dress-up clothing, puppets, or action figures, to spark a child's imagination

Techniques

Sand tray therapy is a combination of play therapy and art therapy. The therapist provides the client with a tray or box filled with sand as well as a variety of miniature toys to create a play world. Toys may include anything from farm animals and dinosaurs to people and cars. Trees, fences, gates, doors, and buildings are common as well.

Clients choose which toys to incorporate into the tray and arrange them in any way they want. Meanwhile, the therapist mainly serves as an observer and rarely interrupts the client.

Those who offer this type of therapy believe clients will create a world that represents their internal struggles or conflicts. After the sandplay is complete, the therapist and client typically discuss what was observed—the toys that were chosen, how they were arranged, and any symbolic or metaphorical meanings.

The client may then choose to rearrange the toys based on the discussion. Sand tray therapy may also include talk therapy, other types of play or art therapy, or other types of treatment.

What Sand Tray Therapy Can Help With

Sandplay therapy has been shown to benefit the following issues:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Aggression
  • Anger management
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Depression
  • Divorce
  • Grief and loss
  • Low self-esteem
  • Physical and learning disabilities
  • School-related problems
  • Social issues
  • Trauma and crisis

Benefits of Sand Tray Therapy

Research shows that sand tray therapy reduces symptoms of many mental health issues and increases resilience. Because sandplay therapy is unstructured, it allows clients to experience healing through the therapeutic process.

Clients free themselves of deep-seated negative emotions during sandplay therapy, because they can express their inner thoughts while feeling accepted by the therapist.

(Video) Sandplay Therapy - A Brief Overview

Sandplay also may help therapists delve into the meanings that clients develop and assign to their experiences by monitoring their engagement with the toys, or symbols they choose to play with.

Additionally, sandplay therapy is often a pleasurable sensory experience facilitating the natural expression of emotions. It may be used as part of individual, group, or family therapy.

Effectiveness

Studies show sand trays are an effective way to treat a variety of problems and can be used in many different populations.

  • A study in Korea found that sandplay therapy as part of school counseling led to improved self-esteem and significant changes in emotional problems in fourth and fifth graders.
  • A study conducted on 4- and 5-year-old children with externalizing behavior problems demonstrated that these children showed less aggressive behavior after 30 minutes of group sandplay. They participated in therapy twice a week for 16 sessions.
  • Another small study in Korea included three children who had witnessed domestic violence. It found that supportive music and imagery combined with sandplay therapy improved emotional and behavioral adaptability after six individual sessions.
  • Meanwhile, another study evaluated sandplay of migrant women in Korea. The researchers found that group sandplay therapy produced positive self-expression and reduced negative self-expression.
  • In China, a study involving boys with Asperger's syndrome, a diagnosis that the DSM-5 has since retired and today would be considered level one autism spectrum disorder (ASD), combined sandplay therapy with other forms of treatment. It concluded that sandplay therapy helped develop the boys' psychological well-being and interpersonal communication skills.
  • Researchers theorize that sandplay therapy may help vulnerable, pre-verbal children with trauma, making it a good strategy for those who are too young to talk about their traumatic experience. A study supporting this theory was conducted on a 3-year-old orphan with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Researchers found that sandplay therapy provided the child with emotional support.

Things to Consider

Some people view sand tray therapy as confusing and time-consuming or too dependent on the therapist’s clinical expertise, noting that the interpretations of sand pictures may be vague or ambiguous. In addition, adults who lack creativity may be resistant to this form of therapy.

It's not uncommon to wonder how using miniature toys in the sand is helping resolve any issues. But sandplay therapy can provide therapists an inside look into things that may be troubling their clients. It's especially useful for people who have trouble communicating about stressors.

When sandplay therapy is used as part of a treatment plan, the therapist may provide a sand tray and then look for common themes that indicate insecurities or aggressive behavior, as well as resilience and positive emotional expression.

If you're concerned about the effectiveness of the treatment, express your concerns to your therapist. Together, you can come up with a treatment plan that meets your needs.

How to Get Started

If you think that you or a loved one might benefit from sand tray therapy, start by talking to your physician. Your doctor may be able to refer you to a local therapist.

  • Find a certified professional. While any psychotherapist may be able to provide sand tray therapy, some therapists are specifically certified in sandplay therapy. Sandplay Therapists of America offers a directory of certified sandplay therapists.
  • Call your health insurance. Inquire whether sand tray therapy is covered by your health insurance and, if not, whether the therapist accepts payment on a sliding scale.
  • Know what to expect. Sand tray sessions may be 30 to 60 minutes in length and scheduled weekly or bi-weekly. After arriving for a session, your therapist greets you and provides you with an empty sand tray and miniatures so you can get to work. The therapist may ask to photograph your sand trays so the changes in the scenes you create can be reviewed over time.
  • Be prepared to answer questions. At the end of each session, your therapist may take time to talk about your sand tray. For example, they might discuss what it might mean if the domesticated animals in your sand tray are caged while the more dangerous animals get to roam free. Together, you may find some meaning in the sand tray. It’s also possible that there will be little discussion at all. Instead, the therapist may simply give you a safe space to work.

How to Find the Right Therapist

14 Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Sweeney DS. Sandtray therapy. Play therapy with children: Modalities for change. Published online 2021:9-24. doi:10.1037/0000217-002

  2. Albuquerque M, Esteves-Sousa D, Moura N, Melo IH de. Sandplay therapy. EFPT Psychotherapy Guidebook. Published online February 19, 2021. doi:10.21428/fc0b32aa.e5562f00

  3. Kottman T. Play Therapy: Basics and Beyond. American Counseling Association; 2011.

  4. Rogers JL, Luke M, Darkis JT. Meet me in the sand: Stories and self-expression in sand tray work with older adults. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. 2020;1(16):1-13. doi:10.1080/15401383.2020.1734513

  5. Wang D, Privitera AJ. Beyond self-report methods: Sand tray used in resilience evaluation. The Arts in Psychotherapy. 2019;63(1):60-67. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2019.03.001

  6. Tornero MDLA, Capella C. Change during psychotherapy through sand play tray in children that have been sexually abused. Front Psychol. 2017;8:617. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00617

    (Video) WHAT IS SANDPLAY THERAPY?

  7. Roesler C. Sandplay therapy: An overview of theory, applications and evidence base. The Arts in Psychotherapy. 2019;64:84-94. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2019.04.001

  8. Kwak, Hyeon Jeong, et al. The clinical effects of school sandplay group therapy on general children with a focus on Korea child & youth personality test.BMC Psychology. 2020;8(1):9. doi:10.1186/s40359-020-0378-9

  9. Han Y, Lee Y, Suh JH. Effects of a sandplay therapy program at a childcare center on children with externalizing behavioral problems.The Arts in Psychotherapy. 2017;52:24-31. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2016.09.008

  10. Kang H-J. Supportive music and imagery with sandplay for child witnesses of domestic violence: A pilot study report.The Arts in Psychotherapy. 2017;53:72-79. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2017.01.009

  11. Jang M, Kim Y-H. The effect of group sandplay therapy on the social anxiety, loneliness and self-expression of migrant women in international marriages in South Korea.The Arts in Psychotherapy. 2012;39(1):38-41. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2011.11.008

  12. Cao H, Shan W, Xu Y, Xu R. Eastern sandplay as a safe container for a combined intervention for a child with Asperger syndrome: A case study.The Arts in Psychotherapy. 2013;40(1):134-142. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2012.12.008

  13. Ferreira R, Eloff I, Kukard C, Kriegler S. Using sandplay therapy to bridge a language barrier in emotionally supporting a young vulnerable child.The Arts in Psychotherapy. 2014;41(1):107-114. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2013.11.009

  14. Fleet D, Reeves A, Burton A, DasGupta MP. Transformation hidden in the sand; a pluralistic theoretical framework using sand-tray with adult clients. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. Published online June 14, 2021:1-19. doi:10.1080/15401383.2021.1936738

(Video) What is Sandtray? Adult Explainer Video

How Sand Tray Therapy Works (1)

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk, "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.

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FAQs

How effective is sandplay therapy? ›

Research that appeared in the journal Nursing Open found evidence of benefits; that sandplay can help young children with chronic diseases by reducing anxiety, withdrawal, and behavioral problems. In addition, caregivers also experienced relief in anxiety and depression.

What are the benefits of sand tray therapy? ›

Sand tray therapy creates a safe environment and can allow people to express emotional issues that they find difficult to put into words. For example, it may be easier for a person who has experienced a traumatic event to communicate their trauma through objects rather than explain the trauma verbally.

What is Sandbox play therapy? ›

Sandplay therapy is a nonverbal, therapeutic intervention that makes use of a sandbox, toy figures, and sometimes water, to create scenes of miniature worlds that reflect a person's inner thoughts, struggles, and concerns.

Can sandplay therapy change the brain as it reduces anxiety? ›

It is possible that sandplay not only reduces clinical symptoms of GAD but also promotes brain health and function, particularly in subcortical systems.

Is sand tray therapy evidence based? ›

Sandplay Therapy is one of the internationally most widely applied therapy methods. SPT is applicable to numerous child and adult mental health problems. There is considerable evidence for the efficacy and effectiveness of SPT.

What is the difference between sand tray and sandplay therapy? ›

While sand tray therapy may be applied in couples and group settings, sandplay therapy is meant for individuals. Sand tray therapy allows a person to construct their own microcosm using miniature toys and colored sand.

How effective is behavioral therapy? ›

Is behavioral therapy effective? Behavioral therapy has successfully been used to treat a large number of conditions. It's considered to be extremely effective. About 75 percent of people who enter cognitive behavioral therapy experience some benefits from this treatment.

What is needed for sand tray therapy? ›

Clients are provided with trays of both wet sand and dry sand, as well as an assortment of toys and tools. These might include animals, cars, action figures, shovels, etc. Using the toys and tools, the client builds a safe “world” which is essentially considered to be a microcosm of their inner world.

What might a child learn cognitively from sand play? ›

Writing words in the sand offers a chance to develop language skills. Parents can ask questions to capitalize on the language play that can occur in the sand. Play can also help children develop social skills like problem solving, sharing, and communicating.

What does burying mean in sand tray therapy? ›

Over the course of several months, the therapists are able to see progress as the children make breakthroughs. For example, burying figurines can often represent buried secrets, or fences may represent blocking off a disturbing memory. A totally empty sand tray can mean an empty life or depression.

Who invented sand tray therapy? ›

The Originator: Margaret Lowenfeld. A tray, sand, water, and miniature toys: this is the apparatus that Margaret Lowenfeld (1890-1973) began using in 1929 both at her Clinic for Nervous and Difficult Children (later renamed the Institute of Child Psychology, ICP) and in her private work (Lowenfeld, 1979, p. 4).

What are the steps in adopting sand and tray? ›

The sand tray process typically consists of six stages: (a) creation of a world (i.e., in the tray using sand and figurines), (b) experiencing and rearranging, (c) therapy, (d) documentation, (e) transition, and (f) dismantling the world (Boik & Goodwin, 2000; Isom et al., 2015).

Is sandplay therapy for adults? ›

Sandplay therapy is effective with adults as well as children. It's not unusual for some sandplay therapists to work only with adults.

Why should an art therapist allow a client to voluntarily choose sand play? ›

Sandplay provides a way for material from the unconscious to become visible, healed, and integrated into the consciousness, thus allowing life to be lived in a more conscious and authentic way.

What is EMDR Sandtray? ›

The EMDR-Sandtray protocol offers various levels of distance from the traumatic material: The actual memory of trauma where the self is present in the story, to the general story/world where the self is absent.

Why would a child need play therapy? ›

Play therapy can ameliorate the effects of trauma and loss, reduce anxiety and depression, improve children's behavior, and help children manage social and academic difficulties. Family play therapy can be particularly effective at strengthening family relationships.

Is music a therapy? ›

Music therapy is the clinical use of music to accomplish individualized goals such as reducing stress, improving mood and self-expression. It is an evidence-based therapy well-established in the health community. Music therapy experiences may include listening, singing, playing instruments, or composing music.

What age is appropriate for play therapy? ›

Although everyone benefits, play therapy is especially appropriate for children ages 3 through 12 years old (Carmichael, 2006; Gil, 1991; Landreth, 2002; Schaefer, 1993). Teenagers and adults have also benefited from play techniques and recreational processes.

What is Jungian sand play? ›

Kalff (1980/2003), of Switzerland developed what she termed, “sandplay” for use in Jungian therapy. The sandplay method consists of the psychotherapy client's creation of a three- dimensional picture with miniature figures in a tray of sand in the protective presence of a trained practitioner.

What is sand therapy for adults? ›

Sandtray Therapy is a form of expressive therapy that can be used by adults, teens and children. In a sandtray therapy session, the client has access to a wide selection of miniature objects and figures which he or she places in trays of sand to create imaginary landscapes or to visualise past or present events.

What is a sand tray? ›

Sand tray therapy is a combination of play therapy and art therapy. The therapist provides the client with a tray or box filled with sand as well as a variety of miniature toys to create a play world.

Why is CBT the most effective therapy? ›

Cognitive behavioral therapy is used to treat a wide range of issues. It's often the preferred type of psychotherapy because it can quickly help you identify and cope with specific challenges. It generally requires fewer sessions than other types of therapy and is done in a structured way.

What is Behaviour therapy for ADHD? ›

Behavior therapy is an effective treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that can improve a child's behavior, self-control, and self-esteem. It is most effective in young children when it is delivered by parents.

Is CBT the most effective therapy? ›

Numerous research studies suggest that CBT leads to significant improvement in functioning and quality of life. In many studies, CBT has been demonstrated to be as effective as, or more effective than, other forms of psychological therapy or psychiatric medications.

How much sand do I need for a sand tray? ›

For this tray we recommend filling it about halfway full of sand (50 lbs.) so that it is deep enough to be effective for the therapist, but not so deep that there are spills and a clean up period after every session.

How do you make a sand tray table? ›

How To Build A Sand Box Table - YouTube

Who created the world technique? ›

Margaret Lowenfeld developed the World Technique, often referred to as 'sand play', in the late 1920's because of her frustration with the limitations of traditional talking therapy in the psychoanalytic tradition.

What learning outcome is sand play? ›

Sand play helps with emotional development and socialization in children as well. In the sandpit, kids learn collaboration skills as they dig, carry, and move sand with other children and educators. They learn to wait patiently and take turns with the sand play materials we have on hand.

Why is sandbox good for children? ›

During sandbox play, kids can become completely absorbed in their imagined mini-worlds. Strengthen finger and hand muscles and improve coordination, which are precursors for handwriting, many sports and self-sufficiency tasks like buttoning clothes and tying shoes. Add to their sensory vocabulary.

Why is sand play important for children? ›

Sand and water play offers children many opportunities to use and develop their fine motor skills. For example scooping and pouring the sand and water with their hands. Using tools like mini-shovels, rakes, buckets and more not only supports their fine motor skills but also helps to develop their hand-eye coordination.

How is kinetic sand used for therapy? ›

Kinetic Sand is a hands-on material so, yeah, it can help develop fine motor skills! Squeeze it, squish it, or smash it with a potato smasher to strengthen hands. Poke it or pinch it to further develop those index finger skills. Roll it into balls or flatten it with a rolling pin to develop bilateral skills.

Is sand tray therapy Jungian? ›

Sandplay therapy is a hand-on, non-verbal therapeutic process based on the depth psychology of C. G. Jung and Dora Kalff. It provides an opportunity for aspects of the unconscious to be experienced and expressed symbolically by playfully placing small images into a tray of sand.

When did sand tray therapy start? ›

Margaret Lowenfeld, M.D.(1920's London) was the very first to bring Sand Play/ Sand Tray into psychotherapy. Dr. Lowenfeld watched her children play with the Orson Well's floor game's miniatures.

What is Jungian play therapy? ›

Jungian play therapy is a spiritualized approach to counseling children and emphasizes symbolic meaning (Jung, 1959). Jung believed that children contain a transcendent function—an innate striving for wholeness and personality integration that occurs by symbolic identification (Jung, 1963).

What is somatic based therapy? ›

Updated on 3/24/2022. Somatic counseling, also known as somatic experiencing therapy, is a type of therapy that helps treat post-traumatic stress and effects from other mental health conditions. This type of therapy connects a person's mind and body to apply psychotherapy and physical therapies during treatment.

What is Gestalt therapy? ›

Gestalt therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is centered on increasing a person's awareness, freedom, and self-direction. It's a form of therapy that focuses on the present moment rather than past experiences. Gestalt therapy is based on the idea that people are influenced by their present environment.

Who among of these child psychotherapists is the proponent of play therapy? ›

In 1919, Melanie Klein began to use play as a means of analyzing children under the age of six. She believed that child's play was essentially the same as free association used with adults, and that as such, it was provide access to the child's unconscious.

Is sandplay therapy for adults? ›

Sandplay therapy is effective with adults as well as children. It's not unusual for some sandplay therapists to work only with adults.

Can Sandtray therapy be used for adults? ›

Sand tray therapy, or sandplay therapy, is a therapeutic approach used for people who have experienced a traumatic event such as abuse or a catastrophic incident. Although this type of therapy is used most often with children, sandplay therapy also can be helpful for teens and adults.

What might a child learn cognitively from sand play? ›

Writing words in the sand offers a chance to develop language skills. Parents can ask questions to capitalize on the language play that can occur in the sand. Play can also help children develop social skills like problem solving, sharing, and communicating.

Who invented sand tray therapy? ›

The Originator: Margaret Lowenfeld. A tray, sand, water, and miniature toys: this is the apparatus that Margaret Lowenfeld (1890-1973) began using in 1929 both at her Clinic for Nervous and Difficult Children (later renamed the Institute of Child Psychology, ICP) and in her private work (Lowenfeld, 1979, p. 4).

What does burying mean in sand tray therapy? ›

Over the course of several months, the therapists are able to see progress as the children make breakthroughs. For example, burying figurines can often represent buried secrets, or fences may represent blocking off a disturbing memory. A totally empty sand tray can mean an empty life or depression.

What is needed for sand tray therapy? ›

Clients are provided with trays of both wet sand and dry sand, as well as an assortment of toys and tools. These might include animals, cars, action figures, shovels, etc. Using the toys and tools, the client builds a safe “world” which is essentially considered to be a microcosm of their inner world.

How effective is behavioral therapy? ›

Is behavioral therapy effective? Behavioral therapy has successfully been used to treat a large number of conditions. It's considered to be extremely effective. About 75 percent of people who enter cognitive behavioral therapy experience some benefits from this treatment.

Why should an art therapist allow a client to voluntarily choose sand play? ›

Sandplay provides a way for material from the unconscious to become visible, healed, and integrated into the consciousness, thus allowing life to be lived in a more conscious and authentic way.

Is music a therapy? ›

Music therapy is the clinical use of music to accomplish individualized goals such as reducing stress, improving mood and self-expression. It is an evidence-based therapy well-established in the health community. Music therapy experiences may include listening, singing, playing instruments, or composing music.

What is EMDR Sandtray? ›

The EMDR-Sandtray protocol offers various levels of distance from the traumatic material: The actual memory of trauma where the self is present in the story, to the general story/world where the self is absent.

What learning outcome is sand play? ›

Sand play helps with emotional development and socialization in children as well. In the sandpit, kids learn collaboration skills as they dig, carry, and move sand with other children and educators. They learn to wait patiently and take turns with the sand play materials we have on hand.

Why is sandbox good for children? ›

During sandbox play, kids can become completely absorbed in their imagined mini-worlds. Strengthen finger and hand muscles and improve coordination, which are precursors for handwriting, many sports and self-sufficiency tasks like buttoning clothes and tying shoes. Add to their sensory vocabulary.

Why is sand play important for children? ›

Sand and water play offers children many opportunities to use and develop their fine motor skills. For example scooping and pouring the sand and water with their hands. Using tools like mini-shovels, rakes, buckets and more not only supports their fine motor skills but also helps to develop their hand-eye coordination.

Is sand tray therapy Jungian? ›

Sandplay therapy is a hand-on, non-verbal therapeutic process based on the depth psychology of C. G. Jung and Dora Kalff. It provides an opportunity for aspects of the unconscious to be experienced and expressed symbolically by playfully placing small images into a tray of sand.

When did sand tray therapy start? ›

Margaret Lowenfeld, M.D.(1920's London) was the very first to bring Sand Play/ Sand Tray into psychotherapy. Dr. Lowenfeld watched her children play with the Orson Well's floor game's miniatures.

What is Jungian sand therapy? ›

Sandplay therapy is a creative, non-verbal and symbolic mode of psychotherapy that utilises a sandtray and an array of miniature figures to express a person's inner world—their thoughts, feelings, struggles and concerns. Two sandtrays are provided, one contains dry sand, the other wet sand.

Videos

1. Therapy Technique: Safe Place Sand Tray
(Liana Lowenstein)
2. 0 to 5 in 30 Minutes! Sand Play Therapy
(Valley PBS)
3. Sandtray Work with Autistic Children
(AutPlay Therapy)
4. Sand Play Therapy
(Integrative Counseling Services)
5. Sandtray Therapy 101 with Dr. Helen Land, LCSW & Dr. Erik Schott, LCSW
(Dr. Erik Eriksonian)
6. Working With Adults in the Sandtray (Part 5)
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