Sand Therapy: The Windows of Wonder.

Mairead Kavanagh

Even the name ‘Sand Therapy’ evokes images and interest to those who hear it.
 Most people have happy memories of playing in the sand, building castles, being 
buried, filling in holes and building bridges. And that is exactly what Sand 
Therapy is all about; building a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious,
 digging for things buried, filling in holes and gaps.

There are many old sayings which refer to sand. Something built on sand is 
considered unstable. Someone with their head in the sand is refusing to
 acknowledge obvious danger. While if we say that the sands of time are running
 out we would mean that a time of grace is nearly at an end. And of course the
 sandman denotes sleepiness.

So before we move into the whole area of Sand Therapy we have a whole lot of 
images and symbols in our minds as well as many memories and associations.

Play and Therapy are not a new concept. Early in the 20th century H.G.Wells tells
 of the games that he played with his children and the profound effect it had on them 
in his book called Floor Games. In the late 30s and the 40s a Psychiatrist called 
Margaret Lowenfield used a technique called The World Technique with children
 who had been evacuated during the war in London. She used this technique in
 order to help these children to rebuild their shattered lives. Virginia Axline also 
describes her play therapy techniques in her work with a disturbed young boy in
 her book Dibs in Search of Self. And Winnicott describes his work in play and
 symbolism in his book The Piggle.

It was after a conference at which Margaret Lowenfield made a presentation of her
 work that Dora Kolff, a close colleague of Jung, first came into contact with the 
process. Kolff listened while Lowenfield described how she used a tray, 18 inches 
x 27 inches with a rim and 2 inches deep made of wood and waterproofed. The tray
 filled with sand and water lends itself to the demonstration of a large variety of
 fantasies, for example, tunnel-making, burying or drowning, land and sea scapes.
 When wet, the sand may be moulded, and when dry it is pleasant to feel and many 
tactile experiments can be made with the addition of water. (Lowenfield; Play in 

Lowenfield used the tray in conjunction with what she called ‘world’ material;
 objects representative of real life. Kolff saw that many of the small toys and objects 
would lend themselves to particular symbolic meaning and the sand tray scene
 could be seen much as a dream sequence. The sequence or process could be
 recorded by photograph and a client’s work could be viewed over a period of time
 and so process and progress could be recorded.

At its purest the client will work from free association, picking and choosing 
objects to which they feel drawn or repelled. Working with a client this way, the 
less instructions given the better. One of the advantages of this work is that the
 client cannot say, as they so often do when asked to draw or paint, that they cannot
 do it. However issues do arise such as ‘how do I do this right’ or ‘what will she see 
in this’. However these are issues which can be dealt with in the way in which any 
resistance is dealt with. Although this way of working is attractive and appears 
simple the therapist must at all times be aware that sand therapy is a powerful tool 
and can provoke deep unconscious memories quickly and powerfully.

Using symbols (generally regarded as typifying, representing recalling something) 
means that clients may work at different levels. For example, a client using Snow
 White to represent his/her mother/sister/wife may say that she is beautiful, good,
 kind in fact perfect. They may use a large brown bear to symbolise his/her father/
brother/husband saying that as this bear they are strong, brave and cuddly. If the
 therapist explores further s/he may discover that Snow White, for all her perfection, 
or perhaps because of it, is irritating, infuriating, patronising and the client may 
well resent her and even hate her beauty and perfection seeing it as reflecting their 
own imperfection. And likewise the strong cuddly bear may also be seen as
 vicious, dangerous threatening and untrustworthy. The client of course must reach
 these levels of awareness themselves but the symbols used will help them to do so.
 The therapist who is intuitive will be able to do this by noting discrepancies in the 
symbols and how they are described. The fact that they are visual images helps to
 do this more immediately.

I recall one client using a ceramic ornament of a teddy bear to depict his father. The 
bear was stern, even cross looking, and stood with his hands behind his back. In
 the tray this bear was in the upper left hand corner of the tray and the client had put
 himself almost opposite in the bottom right hand corner. Between the two figures 
were a tree, a dog, his mother and two other siblings. I was surprised at how he
 described his father;

Client; He was a big teddy really, we were very close, I could depend on him for 

Therapist; When you see him in this tray do you feel close to him?

Client; Well not there but we were close……

Therapist; Do you remember a time when you were close to him?

Client; Oh yes! ……When I broke my arm……he carried me all the way to the 
hospital….all the way….he held me very close….I remember I didn’t feel any 
pain….he was so strong…..all the time I was in hospital I could remember what it 
was like to feel his strong arms carry me so close….I could hear his heart beat and
 the wheeze in his chest as he ran..the smell of tobacco from his coat… and he said 
’it’s o.k. Tom it’s o.k’… was the only time I ever felt safe….the only time.
 Tom cried quietly for a few minutes.

The longing Tom had to ‘feel safe’ again was very painful. His feeling of loss was 
agonising. The picture Tom held in his conscious was very different from the
 picture in the tray. Many times when he spoke of his father Tom recalled the tray.

Sand Therapy works well with both adults and children, although most people
 assume that it is a therapy for children. While it is ideal for children it is also ideal
 for working on issues which were experienced preverbally, or issues which the
 client finds it difficult to put into words for many reasons. However, when used for
 whatever reason, the visual picture often speaks volumes. The picture can be used
 by the client to describe what is going on. As described before, the therapist may 
explore it further. S/he may explore it in a gestalt way by asking the client what is 
being said between certain figures? Could they, perhaps, face each other? How 
would it feel if they moved closer to each other? And sometimes the scenes in the 
tray are enough by themselves and the client can process them without obvious 

Jimmy, a 38 year old client worked in the sand quite a lot. He had great difficulties 
with authority figures. In his trays he continuously used a Russian Doll (a doll
 within a doll within a doll etc.) made up of Russian leaders. Over a period of many 
weeks he removed the outer dolls until he was left with just a small figure of Lenin. 
’Not so big now are you?’ he laughed. The following week he took the figure out
 of the tray saying ‘Ha! I can take you out if I like.’ A week or so later Jimmy arrived 
for his session beaming! I quit’ he said. I couldn’t take any more in the job. (He
 had been asking for a transfer for months to no avail.) Suddenly I got a vision of 
the tray and I realised that if I could take Lenin out surely I could take myself out,
 so I did. And guess what? when I told them I was leaving they offered me my 
transfer.’ The visual impact was obviously very powerful for Jimmy and when he 
had processed the work he had done he was able to assimilate it into his everyday

To indicate another process I would like to introduce you to Brian. He was 8 years
 old when he began to attend. He was referred by his mother. She was worried about
 him as he was displaying a lot of anxiety at home, at school and even while out 
playing. At our first meeting of the three of us, she described how he often came 
home sweating ‘as if he were being chased’, hyperventilating and agitated.
 Although she spent time with Brian, he was adamant that he didn’t know why this
 was happening and she was afraid that her own anxiety was only making it more 
difficult for Brian.
 Brian was living with both of his parents and his younger brother. He was a good 
child, well mannered and always clean and neat. He was tall for his age and looked
 older than his 8 years. He had been doing well in school but lately his work results 
were falling, his homework was not being done and he was inattentive in class. He 
had also gone on the hop twice with some older boys. Besides the anxiety attacks
 at home he was beginning to fight more and more with his brother.

There was a lot of addiction issues in the family. His Mother had 2 children in a
 previous marriage. The eldest daughter was an I.V. drug user who stayed in the 
home occasionally. When she did, there was a lot of tension and eventually the time
 would come when she was thrown out again. Her brother also used some drugs, 
mainly hash and some ‘E’ at the weekend. He was living with his girlfriend but
 visited often. Brian felt very close to him.

Brian’s father drank a lot causing huge problems between the parents. There was
 constant tension in the home, occasional violence (Mother’s words) and a lot of
 money problems. Brian’s mother attended Al-Anon and was also beginning to 
attend therapy herself. On the way out Brian’s mother asked to speak to me for a 
moment and she said that she was in the process of getting a Barring Order out
 against her partner and as yet Brian was unaware of this.

Brian attended for 24 sessions over an 8 month period during which he consistently
 used the sand therapy. For his first tray he chose 14 wild animals, mainly wild cats.
 He chose a huge black snarling panther, lions, tigers, a wolf, an elephant, a lynx,
 some snakes and a huge black gorilla and finally a spider monkey. He found 
platforms for all of these animals-blocks, shells or stones, and he stood each animal 
on one of these. In the centre of the tray was the panther with the spider monkey 
on its back. It was a spectacular, if frightening tray. When he had all the animals in 
place, he began a war making animal sounds and war sounds of attack and pain.
 He killed, buried and fought continuously for 15 minutes ending the skirmish with
 the panther standing triumphantly on top of a pile of ‘dead’ animals with the spider 
monkey on his back. He was now sweating and breathing hard. His face was red 
and excited and his final exclamation was a resounding ‘YES’ with his fist shooting 
into the air in a triumphant salute. When he noticed me again, he became 
embarrassed. He walked around the room looking at different things. He then came
 back to his tray and sorted out the battlefield until he had arranged the animals into
 their original positions before the fight. There was now evidence at all that the 
battle had taken place.

Over the next number of sessions Brian continued the battles with some variations
 of animals and figures, but he always used the panther and the spider monkey and
 together they always won the battles. He identified the monkey as himself and the
 panther as his friend. He calls his friend Shadow. Only Shadow can help in the
 battles. No one else would do. As Brian and Shadow battled on, I asked why he
 always went back to the way they had been and he replied, ‘That’s the way it has 
to be’. Brian’s mother reported that his anxiety was lessening but that he was now 
having occasional nightmares where he seemed to be fighting the whole world.

In session 7 Brian ended the battle by burying all the animals with the exception of
 the monkey and the panther who stood on top of the pile side by side, for the first
 time separated. Brian’s father had left the week before. In session 8 Brian changed
 his players. Instead of using animals he used soldiers. However the monkey remained driving a tank. With the soldiers he began to identify some of the players.
 On his side was the monkey, his mother, his younger brother and some of his 
friends. On the enemy side was his father, his step sister, his grandmother and his 
teacher. During these battles all were killed except those identified as on his side.
 He continued to return all the pieces to their original positions. On week 12 the war 
ended with the monkey, mother, father and step – father alive but Brian said father
 had sneaked over to the family side, only Brian knew this, the others didn’t. His 
mother, at this stage noted a rise in anxiety again and related this to visits to his

The following weeks, Brian’s battles with the soldiers continued but now the
 Shadow had returned. During one such battle when the father sneaked over to the 
family side, Shadow caught him in his jaws and shook him to death. Brian was 
sobbing when he finished this, he left the room to go to the toilet, then asked for a 
drink of water. When I asked him why he had been upset he simply replied “It’s
 OK I’m all right now – I’m fine now.”
 On week 16, Brian’s mother accompanied him to the centre – he usually came
 alone – he stopped her at the door and told her, This isn’t a place for you. You can’t 
see the sand, it would frighten you.’ When she left I asked Brian how he felt the 
sand would frighten his mother. He replied that ‘it would frighten her because he 
would disappear in the sand and do magic’

Brian continued to battle against his father and protect his mother while he tried to
 keep appearances serene. Eventually in session 21 after a long and hard battle,
 Brian didn’t tidy up, the figures, animals and soldiers remained in a messy tangle 
and Brian finished by saying ‘OK! That’s it!’ There was something very final in the 
way he said it. I must admit to feeling a great sense of joy for Brian. The following
 week he repeated the same ending but he appeared bored, he had engaged in the
 battle with only a little of his previous enthusiasm of the past weeks, he finished
 much sooner and spent more time walking around the room and then asked to play
 a game of marbles. In week 23 Brian used figures he had never used before and 
set up a game of football with boys v girls. Of course the boys won, but nobody

Week 24: Brian came in very excited, he had been picked for the football team – he
 would have to train 3 evenings a week and so he wouldn’t be able to make our 
sessions. The following week I met with Brian’s mother. She said that he was much
 more settled. School reports said he had improved but could still do better. His 
behaviour was OK again, could be better, a bit cheeky at times and of course his
 writing was still sloppy. His mother was delighted with the report. She herself felt
 a lot more relaxed and was dealing well with her separation. The tension was less
 at home and she ‘didn’t tidy up as obsessively at home any more.‘ I was taken aback 
by this statement but couldn’t help but smile.

Sand therapy is an exciting, simple and creative way to work with clients. It allows
 them to process their issues using imagery and symbolism and involves more
 sensory involvement than just the oral. The visual effect is powerful and healing as
 well as empowering. It allows the client to be expressive on many levels. In the
 area of addiction where I work it has the added value to clients who have serious
 chemical addictions as the excessive medication depresses the dreaming function
 of the brain. I personally use Sand Therapy with adults and children, with groups 
and in the prison work I do. In all of these areas I am amazed time and time again 
at the simplicity, the power and the value of the Sand Tray. The work is limited only 
by the imagination of those using it.

Mairead Kavanagh, SRN, MIACT, MIAAAC, MIAJST, is a Client Programmes Co-ordinator at the Ballymun Youth Action Project.