Friday, November 4, 2011

Sandspiel (Sand Tray Play Therapy)

Most therapeutic parents I know are not psycho-therapists, nor registered play therapists, nor even social workers.  We’re just moms and dads raising hurt kids with traumatic pasts we will never fully know nor understand.  We’re just people trying to help our children live their best possible lives.  So when I write about sand tray therapy, please remember I’m presenting my experience and whatever knowledge I have as a layman – as “just” a mom.  There are plenty of places on the internet where you can find more scholarly articles and research-based information.  One place you might start to look for that information is  The purpose of this blog is for sharing parent-to-parent, not to serve as therapist.  So, that’s my not-very-legal-sounding disclaimer before I begin.

Sandspiel (or sand play) therapy was developed by a Swiss therapist named Dora Kalff (1904-1990).  There is some argument about whether or not she is the originator of sand play (or sand tray) therapy.  Some people say H.G. Wells was the inspiration for it because he wrote about his two young sons using miniature toy figures to work out problems with each other and with other family members.  Frankly, I don’t care who originated it.  I know Kalff wrote about it first and then other therapists expanded upon it.  It boils down to using a tray, filled with sand and usually, a bunch of different kinds of small toy figures to make pictures in that sand.  (Sometimes, it’s just drawing in the sand.)

Sand tray therapy is a specific kind of play therapy where the therapist (or therapeutic parent) sits close by and seemingly does nothing while the child uses sand to make a picture.  Sometimes, the person observing the play will give some open-ended direction such as, “Make a picture that shows how you’re feeling.”  Other times, the direction may be more pointed, but still rather open-ended.  For example, the first time our therapist pulled out her sand tray, she drew a line down the middle of it with her finger.  She directed my son (then 14) to “Make two pictures in the sand.  One of your life before your adoption, and one of your life with your family now.”  (Notice she left the part “before your adoption” open-ended.  She didn’t tell him to make a picture of his family before adoption, or of his orphanage life before adoption.  She left that up to him.)   Still, other times, there may be no more direction except to “Make a picture in the sand.”

People have been making pictures in the sand throughout history.  The Bible talks about Jesus “drawing (or writing) in the sand” when the Pharisees questioned him about a woman caught in adultery (John 8).  In Navaho Symbols of Healing, Donald Sander writes about sand painting ceremonies.  When the ceremony is over, the painting is wiped away.  Today, Zen Sand Gardens are popular gifts and people of all religions (or no religion) enjoy making designs in the sand as a relaxing “de-stressor.”  The thing that is common for all of these is the non-verbal imagery of the activity.  Jesus was silent as he drew in the sand.  The Navaho ceremony is conducted in silence.  People play in their desk-top sand gardens in quiet solitude.  Thoughts are processed in the silence while the sand provides a tactile experience or outlet for those thoughts.

As a parent, you can discern a lot about what’s going on with your child by watching him work through a sand tray picture.  Does the picture have people?  What about dinosaurs or other monsters?  What about super heroes?  Animals?  Fences?  Houses?  Is there violence in the picture?  (Crashed cars, fights, etc.)  Is there conflict of emotion?  (Domestic scene with mom walking away?)  Granted, as a parent, we might not be able to figure out everything exactly as our child is thinking it, but we can get a good idea.  When he’s done, asking an open-ended question such as, “Tell me about your picture,” will provide him an opportunity to make things more clear for your interpretation.  When he’s finished, if you’d like and if he’s receptive to it, you might add what you see.  For example, “Wow.  It looks to me like these guys are really upset with one another -- like maybe they want to kill each other.”  Or “This mom looks peaceful to me and her kids look like they are happy.”

For our family, the sand tray has provided an opportunity for me to redirect a child,  to stop the crazies so we can focus on something else, and to help my child get the big feelings stored in that center, emotional part of his brain where there are no words (the Amygdala) to the front part of his brain (the Neocortex) where he can process those feelings with words and rationalization.

Well, at least that’s the goal.  Granted, we don't always get to rationalization because hurt kids aren’t always able to process big feeling with words and rationalization.  Still, even when our kids can’t process those big feelings, the sand tray gives us an opportunity to verbalize what we see going on in their picture which is a snapshot of what is going on in their brain.

You might say something like, “This mom looks peaceful to me and her kids look like they're happy.  I know I want to be peaceful and I want my kids to be happy.”  Or, “They look like they want to kill each other.  That makes me wonder if they’re really angry about something that happened, or maybe if something bad already happened and they’re remembering how they were scared.”  When our kids CAN’T tell us about their sand picture, cues from a therapeutic parent can sometimes help them “get there.” Even if they end up saying, “NO!  That’s not what’s happening!,” we've still helped them begin to process.  In that case, we can say, “Oh, okay.  So, tell me what they’re really doing.”

While the child is involved in the work of making the picture, the parent does nothing but observe.  Answer any questions your child has with an open answer.  Ask, “What do you think?,” without giving your own opinion, as a way for your child to explore even more.  For our son, wanting to KNOW THE ANSWER was a big, stress-filled motivator for him.  Open-ended stuff like sand trays drove him batty at first because he needed to know the rules.  If there was any question, he didn’t want to appear as though he didn’t know the answer – the RIGHT answer.  It was freeing for him, though it was not without struggle, to get to a point where he realized that sometimes, there are no “right” answers.  Sometimes, things just “are.”  And sometimes, things can’t be fixed or righted.  However, we can process those things, move on, and try to learn some skills to help us navigate through life, maybe adapting those broken things so that they have a new purpose.

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