Sandtray Therapy: An Alternative to Talk Therapy

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Lilly's Sandtray

Lilly’s Sandtray

Sandtray therapy is a therapy that uses a tray filled with sand and miniature figures to allow clients to express themselves. Let’s look at an example session with Lilly, a 14 year old girl who recently moved to Texas.

Lilly isn’t sure what to think about counseling, and was hesitant to go. As she scans the room, she notices lots of little figures in a corner with a box on a cart. She wonders what it’s for. The counselor explains to her, sandtray therapy may look like it’s for kids, but sandtray therapy is for all ages. Using figures is a universal way of expressing yourself. Symbols are used constantly in everyday life, and it’s the same thinking behind picking out sandtray figures. Sometimes people may not have the words to say what their feeling, or don’t want to say it out loud. Sandtray therapy lets people express themselves without having to sit face to face with someone and talk for the entire session. The figures can do the talking!

The counselor understands Lilly is feeling nervous, and wants to take it slow. The counselor suggests making a sandtray, and explains if Lilly doesn’t feel comfortable they can stop at any time. Lilly’s counselor asks her to make a sandtray of what her life was like before and after moving. She notices the displayed figures including people, buildings, wild and domestic animals, mythical creatures, cars, and plants. At Acorn Counseling Education Services, we currently have over 100 miniature figures to choose from. Why are there so many figures? We want clients to have a variety so they can create anything that comes to mind. When choosing figures, there’s no rush! Lilly takes several minutes to gather up some figures in her hands, and begins placing them in the sandtray.

It’s important to remember there’s no right or wrong way to make a sandtray. No one  judges it. There aren’t any bonus points for special figures. The counselor explains to Lilly, the sandtray might look like a still frame from a movie, except instead of a movie it’s what she’s experienced. On one side she has several people figures with happy faces facing one another. On the other side, she placed a figure alone, buried in the sand.

Lilly takes a step back to look at her sandtray. Lilly’s counselor asks her to title her sandtray, discuss her chosen figures, and explain what’s occurring. Lilly describes on one side she is happy, surrounded by her friends. Lilly describes the side after moving, which has her alone, buried, and feeling lonely. After one of the questions, Lilly shifts her weight and looks down. The counselor reinforces that Lilly is free to answer what she feels comfortable with and that she is in control of the session. Lilly looks back up and smiles.  Sandtray therapy is built upon trust between the client and the counselor.

Note: Lilly is not an actual client.

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