Have you ever sat on the beach and run your hands through the sand as a way to just relax and be in the moment? Or maybe you spent a couple of minutes tracing shapes in the sand?
The truth is, it can be incredibly relaxing to trace shapes in the sand or even just run your hand through it. Kids enjoy it too — which, of course, is why sandboxes are such popular toys.
This is also why sand trays can be used as therapy too, especially for people who have experienced abuse or lived through trauma.
In short, sand tray therapy is a therapeutic technique, or tool, that can be used with kids, teens, and adults to help therapists diagnose and treat various mental health conditions.
Unlike other therapeutic techniques, this type of therapy allows you to show your feelings rather than articulate them.
“Sand trays in psychotherapy are a creative approach to reading a person’s mind,” says Jordyn Mastrodomenico, a licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor, and clinical director of the treatment center ChoicePoint.
“Unlike other techniques, you don’t have to force a client to talk. [Instead] clients let out their emotions and frustrations over sand miniatures, and in the process heal their psychological wounds,” Mastrodomenico says.
That’s why it’s particularly effective for people who have lived through trauma or experienced abuse. They can express their emotions without having to experience the distress of talking or reliving the event.
It’s also an effective technique for kids because children sometimes have a difficult time expressing verbally how they’re feeling.
It can also be effective for kids, teens, and adults who:
- have depression
- have an anxiety disorder
- have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- are autistic
- are grieving
- have learning difficulties
- have low self-esteem
- have physical disabilities
What is the difference between sand tray and sand play therapy?
Both sand tray and sand play therapy are terms that are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. But there are some differences in terms of how the sand is used.
In sand tray therapy, the focus is on what a person is experiencing in the moment. To open up emotionally, you use the sand tray to express yourself. Your therapist may guide you to use the sand in different ways, or interpret what you’re doing to help them come up with questions to ask you.
Sand tray therapy is also sometimes used as the umbrella term for the therapy, while sand play therapy may refer to a specific type of approach.
In sand play therapy, the focus is more on your unconscious thoughts. You can use the sand tray however you like in a free, protected space to express yourself nonverbally. Your therapist won’t guide you or infer anything while you use the sand tray — the analysis happens afterward.
Yes. Several studies have found that sand tray therapy has a measurable impact on people who went through it.
A 2017 study found that this type of therapy can be effective in helping children who have experienced sexual assault revisit the traumatic memories and take control of them. This allowed them to feel more active in their lives and process the event in a healthy way.
A 2021 study also found that it can help kids express themselves more, while also minimizing psychological distress.
There’s evidence of its impact on adults too. A 2020 case study found that after 18 hour-long sessions of sand play therapy over 9 weeks, an adult who had generalized anxiety disorder saw their symptoms decrease substantially.
A 2019 overview evaluated 33 studies and also found significant improvements in both kids and adults, especially those who were experiencing traumatic stress or who lived with disabilities or language issues.
The benefits of sand tray therapy can include:
- reduction of anxiety and traumatic stress symptoms
- increased resilience
- expression of feelings without the need for words
- effectiveness as a stand-alone technique and complementary therapeutic technique
- boost in creativity
- sensory, calming experience
- unstructured technique
- grief and loss processing
- boost in low self-esteem
- anger management
- can be used in individual, group, or family therapy
- can be used with kids, teens, and adults
The history of sand tray therapy
Sand tray therapy was originally a technique developed by the pediatrician and child psychiatrist Margaret Lowenfeld in the 1920s as a play technique to be used in child therapy. She called this the “world technique”, and it drew from Jungian training and Buddhist philosophical beliefs.
Psychologist Dora Kalff, in the 1950s, then drew on this to create sand play therapy, which is now used worldwide.
There are a number of different techniques and activities that can be done in sand tray therapy. But broadly, there are two main techniques:
- World technique: With this technique, you’d be given both wet and dry sand, as well as a number of toys and tools. Then you’d be encouraged to build a “safe world”, which is considered a microcosm of how your subconscious mind really feels.
- Humanistic approach: With this technique, you’d be encouraged to creatively play with the sand to discover the answers to your problems. You can express your feelings and thoughts while you use the sand tray.
Sand tray therapy for kids and adolescents
Sand tray therapy is a type of play therapy for kids and teens.
Mastrodomenico finds free sand play to be most helpful with kids, especially children between the ages of 5 and 10, because it allows them to be creative and open up.
Another activity Mastrodomenico tries with children is “promote and create.” This is when she asks them to answer questions or prompts in creative ways using just the sand tray.
You can also use sand trays in family therapy, she adds, because “it’s a great way to bring families together by asking them to collectively make something from the sand.”
It can be used as part of or alongside other types of play therapy, including imaginary play or cognitive behavioral play therapy.
Sand tray therapy for adults
“Sand tray therapy is wonderful for adult clients who have speech problems or language barriers,” Mastrodomenico says. “I recently started using sand trays for trauma-induced depressive patients who have difficulty processing or uttering words.”
Sand tray therapy can also be used in couples sessions in a manner similar to family trays, Mastrodomenico says.
At what age is play therapy most effective?
Play therapy, which includes sand play therapy, is most effective for kids between the ages of 3 and 12, but it can be effective for all other age groups too.
How do I know if my child needs therapy?
Signs your child may need therapy usually involve a drastic change in your child’s typical demeanor or behavior.
For example, problems in school, aggressive or angry behavior, bedwetting, more intense temper tantrums, or extra anxiety or clinginess can all be signs. Age regression can also be a sign, as can destructive behavior, increased sadness, or social isolation.
How many sessions do you need for play therapy?
There’s no easy answer here, Mastrodomenico says. It really depends on why you’re in therapy and what issues you’re seeking to resolve in therapy. Some people just need more therapy sessions to see results than others, and some mental health conditions require longer treatment.
However, one case study found that 18 sessions over 9 weeks (i.e. twice a week for an hour) was helpful in reducing anxiety symptoms in an adult.
What materials are needed for sand tray therapy?
All that’s needed for sand therapy is sand, a tray, and some objects like toys, tools like small shovels, and other miniature objects. Having wet and dry sand can be helpful too.
Some therapists that use this technique often have large collections of miniatures and terrain pieces to allow you to fully sculpt the world or event you have in mind. But this can also be effectively done with a handful of toys and small objects.
Can sand tray therapy reduce anxiety or change brain chemistry?
Yes, there’s some evidence that sand tray therapy can lead to a reduction in anxiety symptoms. However, further research is needed into why it can be effective and how long the benefits last.
Finding a therapist who uses sand tray therapy
If you’re interested in finding a therapist who uses sand therapy, a useful place to check is the Sandplay Therapists of America directory.
Sand tray therapy is a therapeutic technique that uses a tray of sand along with small tools, toys, or figurines to help people express themselves without words.
It can be an effective way to help people cope with trauma and anxiety, as well as express their feelings in therapy without needing words.
It has been shown to be particularly effective in kids, but it can be useful for teens and adults too.