What Is Sandplay?

Prepared by Renee Flam, LCSW & Rosalind Heiko, Ph.D., ISST, CST-T
Copyright © 2009 All Rights Reserved

Developed by Dora M. Kalff of Switzerland, Sandplay has become more popular throughout the United States since Kalff began presenting lecture in California in the ‘60’s.  Sandplay evolved through Kalff’s combining and refining Carol Jung’s work, the sand tray World Technique developed by Margaret Lowenfeld at her Institute of Child Psychology in Britain, and Tibetan Buddhist principles.  Sandplay is typically used in conjunction with other therapies, including talk therapy, art therapy, consultation and traditional play therapy.  Only Kalffian work in the sand is referred to as Sandplay (Sandspiel); other therapies using sand are referred to as Sand Tray work (see Gisela De Domenico’s Sand Tray World Play or Lowenfeld’s World Technique, etc.).  Kalffian Sandplay is also distinguished by a strong emphasis on personal process of the therapist in the sand (i.e., Sandplay therapy experienced first by the clinician, and then used by that clinician in therapy with clients).  

Sandplay is a nondirective, as opposed to directive, therapeutic method.
Sandplay is not for everyone.  The child or adult must be willing and able to engage in representational play and to use the sand within the confines of the tray.  Pre-sandplay activities are recommended for those who are not yet ready to engage with the tray or miniatures.  

Clients are presented with a rectangular, shallow tray halfway filled with sand and a large selection of small items, or miniatures.  These symbols may represent anything and everything found in the world (i.e., houses, animals, cars, traffic signs, people, fantasy figures, archetypal symbols, etc.).  The collection of miniatures is actually a reflection of the clinician’s culture, world-view and personal symbolic representations.  Clients are usually presented with a choice of two trays:  one which is waterproofed and with which the client can wet to whatever degree she or he and the clinician are comfortable; and one which remains dry.

The Sandplay process involves inviting the client to choose from amongst the miniatures to make a picture in the sand, representing their world, their issues, their feelings, or possibly a dream.  The therapist provides a “safe and protected space”, sitting quietly nearby but without offering interpretation or discussion.  According to Kalff, the clinician provides this space by nonverbally holding and containing the client’s emotional states and conflicts.  The sandtray is left intact when the client leaves the session.  The therapist then takes slides of the sandtray in order to assist in diagnosis, treatment planning, and general tracking of the therapeutic progress of the client.  Supervision and continued training in Sandplay interpretation is vital to this process of understanding the client’s use, placement and personal meaning regarding the symbolic miniatures in the sandtray.

Often the first tray lays out “the problem or problems” the client is experiencing.  First sandtrays, especially those of young children, are typically more chaotic, including themes of strong conflict.  Other themes emerge and evolve over the course of treatment as the client works though various issues.  The Sandplay Journey© process is a circular one.  When the Self is allowed to emerge (i.e., in trays which symbolically represent the “constellation of the Self”, where self-symbols and the numinous quality of self-expression are present), more peaceful and centered representations emerge.  During this process the client confronts and integrates her or his shadow material and the tension of opposite needs, emotions and experiences within what Joseph Campbell referred to in story and myth as The Hero's Journey. 

The process of creating the sandtray enables the client to nonverbally express both conscious and unconscious material.  Emotions and difficulties can be worked through and various aspects of these conflicts or personality issues can be integrated.  The result can help bring clients to a state of “wholeness”.  Always, of course, with the proviso that continued processing and awareness of emotional material can bring deeper and more meaningful spiritual understanding of ourselves and our world at the different stages and challenges of our lives.