Sand tray therapy may sound like simple play, but it’s actually a powerful therapeutic technique.

Are there certain objects that immediately give you a positive or negative feeling? Maybe frogs remind you of happy times at your grandma’s house on the lake. Or perhaps the smell of cigars makes you feel uncomfortable, but you’re not sure why.

This is the idea behind sand tray therapy. This unique approach — part play therapy, part art therapy — helps evoke both conscious and unconscious memories through tactile play.

Sand tray therapy is most commonly used with children and autistic individuals. It can also help adolescents and adults, particularly those who’ve experienced trauma or a bereavement.

Sand tray therapy is a therapeutic approach that uses expressive, hands-on techniques.

The therapist or counselor holding the session will encourage the client to express themselves by creating a safe, imaginary world with a variety of figurines, toys, and props. These objects might include “real life” figurines such as trees, people, houses and animals, or imaginary figurines, like wizards and monsters.

These toys and tools, which are carefully selected, allow clients to create aspects of their inner or outer worlds in a tray of sand. These objects represent words and the person’s creation is a language.

Sand tray therapy is a healing process which helps the client work through any painful conscious or unconscious memories. At the end of the session, the therapist and client will reflect on and discuss the underlying meaning behind the creation.

We all carry around both conscious and unconscious memories, some of which are quite painful.

When we have painful unconscious memories — or perhaps conscious memories that are too painful to discuss — typical types of talk therapy aren’t as helpful.

This is where sand tray therapy can help.

Sand tray therapy allows the client to choose objects they resonate with or that make them feel safe. Using a variety of specific sand tray exercises, the client and therapist can then reflect on why certain objects were chosen.

These exercises are particularly helpful for people who may have a hard time verbalizing their memories and wounds. This may include children, teens and adults who:

Sand tray therapy may also help with low self-esteem, difficulties with socializing, or trouble at school.

Sand tray interventions help develop a collaborative relationship between the therapist and client. They also help foster autonomy and freedom of expression for young people in the therapeutic setting.

Therapists can use the sand tray for a variety of purposes. The specific technique may depend on the particular client (such as age and psychiatric condition) as well as the therapist’s particular approach.

The most common sand tray techniques and types include the World Technique and the humanistic approach.

The World Technique

The World Technique was developed in the 1920s by Dr. Margaret Lowenfeld, a British pioneer of child psychology. Clients are provided with trays of both wet sand and dry sand, as well as an assortment of toys and tools. These might include animals, cars, action figures, shovels, etc.

Using the toys and tools, the client builds a safe “world” which is essentially considered to be a microcosm of their inner world. This world is determined solely by the client’s imagination and subconscious mind. The World Technique is one of the most common techniques in sand tray therapy.

The humanistic approach

In the humanistic approach, therapists view the client as self-actualizing individuals that have the ability to use their own inner resources for growth. Through creative play, the client is able to discover the answers to their problems, rather than relying on the therapist.

The clients use the sand to express their feelings and thoughts when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to vocalize them in traditional therapy.

The terms “sand tray therapy” and “sandplay therapy” are often used interchangeably, but there are some distinctions between the two. And because play is certainly a part of sand tray therapy, the terms can cause some confusion.

Overall, sand tray therapy is more or less an umbrella term, while sandplay therapy can sometimes refer to a specific method of sand tray therapy based on the ideas of psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

Jungian sandplay therapy focuses on the unconscious mind and involves numerous trays over a prolonged period of time. The therapist might not interpret the sandplay for months or even years.

Research on the use of sand tray therapy with children who’ve experienced sexual assault shows that this method may allow kids to return to traumatic experiences and take control of them.

During sand tray therapy, children may act out their traumatic experiences using repetition to assimilate their experience. This is called post-traumatic play. As kids take control over their traumatic experience in a safe environment, they move from being a passive recipient to an active agent. As a result, they’re able to create new meaning of the experience.

A 2020 case study evaluated the effects of this therapy on a 23-year-old woman with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Researchers measured the client’s anxiety symptoms as well as any changes in the brain’s thalamus.

After completing 18 one-hour sessions of sandplay therapy over a 9-week period, her anxiety symptoms dropped from severe to within normal range.

When practiced in conjunction with medication and psychotherapy, sand tray therapy may help reduce anxiety in certain individuals. However, more studies are needed to determine its true effectiveness.

If you’re interested in sand tray therapy for yourself or for your child, you can visit Sandplay Therapists of America to search for a local therapist.

If you want to do some more research first, the Sandplay Therapists of America provide an online demonstration video.