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Sand Tray Therapy


Sandplay therapy is a nonverbal, therapeutic intervention that makes use of a sandbox, toy figures, and sometimes water, to create scenes of miniature worlds that reflect a person’s inner thoughts, struggles, and concerns. This is a form of play therapy; other methods include imaginary play with toys and puppets or bibliotherapy that uses literature to help a patient interpret stories or fiction and how such writings may relate to the patient’s own difficulties. 

Sandplay is practiced along with talk therapy, using the sandbox and figures as communication tools. Sandplay therapy was developed in the late 1950s by psychologist Dora Kalff, who combined several techniques and philosophies to come up with her own therapeutic approach. Kalff learned what became known as the World Technique from British pediatrician and child psychologist Margaret Lowenfeld, who developed the original sand-tray intervention. Kalff incorporated the use of sand trays into her own form of therapy, which was based on her Jungian training and Eastern philosophical beliefs. 

When It's Used

Sandplay therapy is a hands-on therapy, often used with those who have suffered some form of trauma, neglect, or abuse. Although sandplay is especially well suited for working with young children, who often cannot express their feelings in words, it is also a technique that is helpful for some teens and adults who are having trouble expressing themselves and who may have suffered some form of severe emotional wounds. This method may also be used for anger, mood and anxiety, relationship problems such as divorce, or learning disabilities.

What to Expect

Sandplay therapy takes place in box-like containers referred to as sand trays. The trays are filled with sand that clients use, along with miniature toys, to create a play world that reflects some aspect of real people and real experiences in their own lives. The client chooses from a large collection of toys and builds a small “world” in the tray that reflects what is going on in their lives. The therapist observes the choice and arrangement of toys without interruption, allowing the person to find answers within themselves. 

After sandplay is completed, the client and therapist analyze and discuss the client’s toy choices, their arrangement pattern in the sand, and their symbolic or metaphoric meanings. Upon discussion, the client often chooses to make changes to the world they have created in sand. Sandplay therapy may consist of a few sessions or last as long as several years.

How It Works

With the help of sand trays, clients, guided by a therapist, begin to understand the connection between the world they created in sand and their own inner world. By making changes in their make-believe world, clients are often empowered to make similar changes in their real world. Today, some therapists and counselors choose to modify Kalff’s parameters for sandplay and incorporate a similar technique into their own therapeutic process.

Research that appeared in the journal Nursing Open found evidence of benefits; that sandplay can help young children with chronic diseases by reducing anxiety, withdrawal, and behavioral problems. In addition, caregivers also experienced relief in anxiety and depression. Other research on sandplay has found that children and adults who benefited greatly were those with disabilities, language difficulties, or are hard to treat through conventional psychotherapy. A key point is that the therapist provides a safe environment for the client to realize the root of their difficulties.


Sandplay Therapists of America website. Accessed April 14, 2017.


International Society for Sandplay Therapy. website. Accessed April 14, 2017.


Bradway K. What Is Sandplay? Journal of Sandplay Therapy. 2006;15(2):7


Southwestern College and New Earth Institute website.


Sandplay Therapy at SWC. Accessed April 14, 2017.

Effects of sandplay therapy in reducing emotional and behavioral problems in school-age children with chronic diseases: A randomized controlled trial. Nursing Open

Sandplay therapy: An overview of theory, applications and evidence base. The Arts in Psychotherapy.

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