Sandplay Therapy with Children

Play is the innate way for children and adolescents to learn to cope with and understand the world around them. Playfulness is necessary for all to reach maturity and to enfold one’s natural resources and talents. Playfulness and fantasy allows us to look at situations and problems from new angles, to juggle with them and then to find a creative and surprising solution to the situation. The ability to play is necessary and essential also for learning, according to new studies in neuroscience.

Sandplay therapy can often help when a child does not play, when he cannot concentrate or learn. It is helpful for children who are emotionally unstable and fighting with siblings and schoolmates or perhaps are bullying or being bullied. Children who have suffered from trauma, illness or loss might not want or dare to talk about such experiences. It is easier to create descriptions of them in the sand.

Play allows children to solve their problems with a tool that they like and know how to use. This is why sandplay is a most suitable form of therapy for children, and it is also one of the fastest. The method is based on the work done by Dora Kalff, who was one of C.G. Jung’s students. Today this form of therapy is used all over the world. Originally it was developed for children; today it is used in therapy for all ages and for many different problems.

The material for sandplay consists of two sand trays, one with fine dry sand and the other with wet sand, and a set of miniatures of different kinds: humans, animals, houses, vehicles, natural material, and more. The sand as such is an important material. Small children and also older children love to pour the sand from one container to the other. It is calming to touch the cool sand and to feel it flow over the skin.

Sandplay is nondirective; this means that the child will work on the issues that are most important in the moment. Art and play therapy are natural parts of the therapy: it is possible to draw, paint, sculpt or work with other creative arts in the same hour, if the child needs or wants to do that. She can be completely absorbed by creating images in the sand in one session; perhaps the next time it is a grocery store that needs to be displayed on the table, or the objects created using clay.

The work in the sand helps to develop dexterity and trust in one’s own abilities. The sand as material is very nice. It is easy to create satisfying shapes in the sand; it is not necessary to be artistic. With the help of the sand and the miniatures, it is simple to create beautiful images in the sandtray. The children are proud of their creations. Also children who feel clumsy or feel they cannot draw soon find that they are really good at creating beautiful “sandscapes.” The sand images and other creations are carefully documented and are at the end of the process given back to the child in form of a “book.”

Sandplay works therapeutically, in that it offers a safe space for the child, where difficult, scary or not understood experiences and feelings can be worked on. In sandplay a child can rehearse difficult situations and new approaches. Solutions to problems can be tried out in the sand with the help of miniatures, on exactly the level where the child feels he can control the situation.

In this therapy it is not necessary to talk. The child does not have to explain in words why something is scary or why one has “bad” feelings or gets upset. Therefore it is suitable also for children who for some reason do not want to or are not able to talk. Sandplay therapy allows also a silent child a way to express himself.

Through the work in the sand, a child can express feelings and memories for which there are no words. There are experiences that children cannot explain and feelings for which a child has no words. Often the essence of the experiences can be expressed in an image or in a series of images in the sand tray. In this way, sandplay facilitates the healing process.

The process takes place on an unconscious level for the child. There is often a story expressed in the tray and in the drawings, and the child sometimes talks about what is happening while the story evolves. With the help of the images in the sand, the therapist can understand processes that are still not in the scope of consciousness, or are no longer remembered for various reasons.

The number of sessions needed varies. As long as the child finds she wants to come to the session, there is still work to be done. At some point she will experience that it is more important to play in the yard or play with a best friend. This is the sign for that the need for therapy is no longer there.

For adults, sandplay can be used in combination with verbal therapy.

Further reading:

Bradway, Katherine. “Developmental stages in children’s sand worlds.” In: Sandplay Studies – Origins, Theory and Practice. Bradway, K., Signell, K.A., Spare, G.H., Boston: Sigo Press, 1990.

Boik, Barbara and E. Anna Goodwin. 2000. Sandplay therapy. London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Gonthard von, Alexander. Theorie und Praxis der Sandspielstherapie. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 2007.

Pattis Zoja, Eva. “Sandplay.” In: Jungian psychoanalysis, Murray Stein, ed. Chicago: Open Court, 2010.

Photos and text by Margareta Ehnberg-Vital

Margareta is a Jungian psychoanalyst and sandplay therapist with a practice in Zurich. She worked for many years as a teacher in an international school in Finland. She is also a mother and a grandmother. For more information visit Margareta’s website

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