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What is Sand Tray Therapy?

Sand tray therapy is a form of creative therapy that can be used as an alternative to or in conjunction with traditional talking therapies. Sand tray therapy represents a non-verbal method of communication that enables clients to access and express their feelings through non-verbal channels. In this respect sand tray therapy is no different to other modes of non-verbal communication therapies such as art therapy, other forms of play therapy or music and drama therapies. Different therapists work in different ways with the sand tray. My approach to using sand tray in sessions is non-directive and client led. Many people are unfamiliar with the concept of sand tray therapy so here is a brief overview of how I work with clients using a sand tray.

Founder of the person-centred approach to counselling, Carl Rogers, believed that creativity gives the client freedom of symbolic expression, permitting the individual to experience, feel and be whatever is most inward within them.

Clients of any age may benefit from sand tray therapy, particularly if they are introverted and tense, hyperactive

or have trouble verbalizing

Why use sand tray?

  1. The boundaries and limits of sand tray therapy bring focus to the therapeutic process in a safe environment. Creating an expression of emotional pain or trauma within the sand tray means that what is represented is contained and helps to keep the client safe.

  2. Clients of any age who are unable or unwilling to verbalize can use sand tray as a medium of expression.

  3. When the client physically creates a world in the sand tray that gives them distance from their emotional pain. This is not creating distance from the therapist, as I am permitted to observe the process of creation by the client, and thus we are in contact throughout that process.

  4. If a client is traumatized they may be unable to verbalize this and sand tray therapy creates a safe environment where they can express their feelings. From a person centred perspective, my unconditional positive regard for the client means they can freely express themselves without fear of judgment.

  5. Involuntary clients, such as children brought to therapy by parents, may have a resistance to therapy. Sand tray therapy is engaging and nonthreatening so can captivate the resistant client. Play is also a natural medium of communication for children.

Sand tray therapy can be used as an introduction to counselling, particularly with resistant or reluctant clients or to reenergize or refocus clients who have been in talking therapy for some time. So how does it work in a session? I will invite the client to choose miniatures and place them in the sand tray. I do not specifically direct the client but suggest creating a ‘scene’ or ‘world’ with the miniatures in the tray. I let the client know I will sit quietly until they are finished and ask them to let me know when they are finished. This way I am giving the client control and freedom of the session.

Once created, I will not interpret or attempt to analyse the client’s creation in the sand tray. The post-creation phase is led by the client, they may choose to rearrange miniatures and they may add or remove miniatures. Some clients may wish to discuss their tray and some may not. I may offer to discuss the sand tray with the client if they wish to but it is for the client to decide.

Dismantling the sand tray is often done by the therapist after the client has left the session. This allows the client to leave with a visual image of the tray in their mind which they may continue to process after they leave. However, if the client wishes to dismantle the tray they may do so. I may offer to help but as this is part of the client’s process it will be their decision. The therapist should not touch the client’s tray unless invited to do so as this is potentially a direct violation of the client’s creation, could break the connection the client has to the scene they have created and interfere with the therapeutic process. Typically, photographs are taken of the clients sand tray at the end of the session and kept, but only with the client’s permission. At the conclusion of the therapy the client can look over the photographs as a way of summarizing their journey or the client may refer back to previous trays during the course of the therapy.

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