It's no a day at the beach. Sure, there's sand, water and what appear to be toys, but this technique is serious business. So serious and intriguing that it qualifies as one of the Ten Coolest Therapy Interventions.
In 1928, a London psychiatrist named Margaret Lowenfeld opened the "Clinic for Nervous and Difficult Children" (thankfully renamed "Institute for Child Psychology"), where she used toys, art supplies, rubber bands and bowls of water in her therapy. She taught her techniques to a Swiss therapist named Dora M. Kalff, who integrated Lowenfeld's work with her own Jungian training and Buddhist philosophy to create sandplay. According to Kalff (1980, p. 30):
Sandplay therapy can establish an inner peace which contains the potential for development of the total personality, including its intellectual and spiritual aspects...It is the role of the therapist to perceive these powers and, like the guardian of a precious treasure, protect them in their development.
I'm honored to be joined by Dr. Barbara Turner, author of The Handbook of Sandplay Therapy in addition to several articles and book chapters. Dr. Turner studied with Kalff in Switzerland and has over twenty years experience in the field. She is Director of Publishing at Temenos Press, which published a new edition of Kalff's foundational work, Sandplay: A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche and H.G. Wells' Floor Games: A Father's Account of Play and Its Legacy of Healing.
As stated in the introduction, all these techniques (with the exception of #6 The Hunger Illusion!) should be conducted only by clinicians with sufficient training. Having said that, enjoy Dr. Turner's wisdom regarding this cool intervention:
1. When would a clinician use sandplay?
Sandplay stems from the work of British physician, Margaret Lowenfeld (1939), who developed the "World Technique" as a means of communicating non-verbally with children in treatment. The late Jungian therapist, Dora M. Kalff of Switzerland developed what she termed, "sandplay" for use in Jungian therapy.
2. What does it look like?
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. The sand tray is 28 1/2 inches long by 19 1/2 inches wide and 3 inches deep. The sides and bottom of the inside of the sand tray are colored light blue. By moving the sand aside, the blue coloration can be used to represent areas of water in the sandy landscape. Real water can be added to the sand to make it adaptable to being shaped and sculpted. Miniature figures representing all aspects of life and fantasy are arranged on shelves near the sand tray. A wide variety of building materials out of which the client can fashion needed items is also available.
3. How does it help the client?
The client is encouraged by the therapist to make whatever he or she likes in the sand tray and is given no further instructions. The remarkable feature of sandplay is that, as the client fashions and moves the figures in the trays, his or her psyche concurrently moves into new and healthier configurations. This takes place with no intermediary. Instead it is a direct link of psyche, or brain patterns to three dimensional figures that "write" and "re-write" its configuration to healthier, fuller functioning. I know of no other treatment modality that works with this immediacy with the brain and mind.
As the client works in the sand tray the therapist sits nearby making note of what figures the client uses and what the client says, or does, if anything. The therapist sketches or "maps" a diagram of the sand tray for future. Although no interpretation is made with the client at the time of the production of the sand tray, it is very important that the therapist develops an understanding of what is transpiring in the client's sandplay process. The strength of the sandplay method is commensurate with the therapist's capacity to safely hold the client's emerging unconscious content. The therapist experiences the client's emerging symbolic material in a pre-verbal right hemispheric manner. Through right hemisphere to right hemisphere mirror neuron communication the therapist's training, understanding of symbolic process, and his or her personal experience of intrapsychic work at the depths of inner development acknowledge and support the client's ability to bring the newly emerging material to consciousness. Although sandplay appears simple at first glance, it requires extensive training to practice appropriately. Clients should look for certification of their potential sandplay therapists by the Sandplay Therapists of America (www.sandplay.org)
4. In your opinion, what makes sandplay a cool intervention?
Sandplay is a wonderful treatment modality for children, because it takes place in the child's own natural language of symbols. The power of sandplay for adults is that it by-passes both the client's and the therapist's limited capacities to understand and/or bring about profound intrapsychic change.