The Parenting Through Sand Programme, – a Filial Therapy Model with Sand

by Ursula Somerville

… someone would need to work in greater depth with parents since it had become clear that “A large factor in the psychological situation of the children was going to be presented by the psychological situation of the parents…..”

                  Lowenfeld (1928, cited in Urwin et al 1988: 47)


This paper describes the evolution and practice of the Parenting Through Sand Programme from the perspective of a facilitator and the benefits it can bring to parents engaging in the programme. While looking for a way to bring a Filial Therapy Programme to parents I consulted with a colleague, Suzanna Knight, to assist me and together we discussed the best way to deliver this to prospective families. My devotion to, and training in, Sandplay Therapy brought about a natural way to combine the idea of Filial and Sandplay Therapy. The idea took momentum, as happens when sand is introduced, and we added a further colleague Helen Blackhurst. I ran the first programme with a client, a single mother of a three-year old child, in collaboration with Suzanna and Helen. Since then I have delivered several programmes. In time the Programme took the name of the Parenting Through Sand Programme and what follows is a brief description of the Programme together with its evolution, rationale and practice.

Filial Therapy, devised by Louise and Bernard Guerney (Guerney 1964 cited in VanFleet 2011) is a model of Play Therapy which is taught to parents to help them improve their relationship with a child with challenging behaviour. Typically Filial Therapy was conducted in groups and over a period of 10-12 sessions. The child’s session was monitored and videotaped by the therapist and used to teach and direct the parent to understand their child and help parents make changes in their behaviour (both the child and parent’s). During this training the parent would initiate a play session at home with the child and return to the therapist for support. Virginia Axline (1947) took Carl Rogers’ (1951) model of Client Centred Therapy and developed it for working with children calling it Non-Directive Play Therapy. It is this method of “child led” play which parents learn to use with their child.

World Technique devised by Margaret Lowenfeld. Her experiences of multi-lingual environment as a child left her sceptical of language as a primary tool of interpersonal communication (Friedman 1994: 7). She wanted to deepen her understanding of the child and from Wells’ ‘Floor Games’ (Wells 1911) she added trays of sand or water – the children naturally combined them, thus her new ‘World Technique’ was born. Lowenfeld found that using miniatures in the sand tray communicated emotional and mental states and it soon became clear that when “the workers” refrained from expecting something realistic, and from interfering or suggesting to the children, then something new and excitingly creative grew out of the children’s constructions” (Andersen 1979b: 280). Lowenfeld instructed therapists to: sit close to the child: make observations, as if what was being created was a direct communication of the child’s internal world to the therapist. By allowing the expression of both acceptable and unacceptable feelings, thoughts and other behaviour play served four purposes:

1. It is the child’s means for making contact with the environment.

2. It makes a bridge between the child’s consciousness and emotional experience.

3. As in art for adults, it externalised the expression of emotional life.

4. It provided relaxation and amusement, enjoyment and rest. (Friedman et al 1994: 13)

The Parenting Through Sand Programme is a unique and innovative programme for therapists and is designed to support parents to deepen their emotional connection with their child. It uses the natural medium of sand to help release the innate skills which are held within the parent but, because of difficulties in this relationship, these skills can seem lost. Typically filial programmes have relied on videotaping sessions with the child at home. However, from my experience with parents of low income, who are financially challenged and/or do not have access to videotaping I have relied on the verbal communication of parents to report on their tray-time with the child.  On occasions parents can also be nervous and distracted while videotaping their child. Therefore, in order to meet the parent where they are and for them to be able to pay close attention to the child – it can be beneficial to eliminate anything which will interfere with their presence at the tray.

Parents come for support when the child is displaying some difficulties in their life. In the Parenting Through Sand Programme the therapist supports the parent as they re-connect with their child in a new and enriching way. Parents are further supported to listen to their child’s emotional patterns and this allows their child to feel they have been heard. The unique quality of the Parenting Through Sand Programme is that the parent and child have already got a connection to build upon and, using the natural medium of sand, allows that connection to improve and grow.

The Programme is structured to welcome the parent and the child to the therapy centre. Careful consideration is given to the suitability of the parent to undertake this Programme. It will be the skills of the therapist that will determine if it is the best method of working with the parent or not. Factors such as a supportive environment is vital for this Programme with sand to work. The therapist pays close attention to the parent and child as they play together over the sand tray. The child will return to the centre for further tray sessions under the guidance of the therapist and the parent will have the opportunity to practice live tray-time while supported by the therapist. The parent also does some individual tray work and this helps them to understand, at an experiential level, how the sand can bring into consciousness material which is held in the sub-conscious. The parent is asked to talk about their picture in the sand, just enough to make it conscious but without the process that takes place in therapy.

Clinical Example:

The child is a seven year old foreign national who was adopted from their country following a traumatic experience in which the natural mother died and the child was abandoned at six weeks old. The adoptive mother came for help having “tried everything”. There was also a natural child in the adopted family.

The sequencing of sessions in the programme is as follows:

Session one

Intake session – the child is not present

History and personal information

Parent’s concerns with child’s behaviour:

– anger

– child destroys her own drawings

– sibling difficulties

– “terrorises” the family animals by kicking

Session two

Parent and child are invited to play together at the sand tray – therapist observes all aspects of play and interaction. The therapist will use their skill and knowledge of sand and child behaviour to help them read and understand the play content and therefore this will help in identifying themes in the work.

No discussion takes place with parent and therapist at this session.

Session three

Therapist and parent discuss the previous session with the therapist noticing what the parent observed.

Mum noticed that:

– “everything she had introduced to the play in the last session the child did not use”.

– “ the child liked to control the game”.

– “ the child was “calmer” when she left the session than when she came to it”.

The parent is invited to create a picture spontaneously in the sand tray.

Filial techniques are introduced with discussion over this tray – such as:

  1. 1. Limit-setting skills
  2. a. Here we employ Landreth’s (2006) technique i.e. Acknowledge, Communicate and Target (ACT).


Child wants to take one of the toys out of the play session.

Parent: I see you would like to take this toy to play with in the other room

(A), however, the toys are for staying in the box for our special tray-time

(C), they will be here for our next tray-time (T).

  1. b. End of session notice given and it is important to finish the session as stated. It offers security to the child when they can have boundaries in place that the parent holds firm with.
  1. c. What will be tolerated i.e. the child is there to play and the parent is there to keep safe the space for both child and parent.

Therefore limits should reflect these and other named structures.

2. Reflecting back how the child is.

a. Understanding that this does not need to change things but ensures that the child will feel heard.

3. Selection of toys for home play in which a 30 minute play session will take place once per week.

a. Non-archetypal toys

b. Human figures.

c. Natural elements, stones, shells, etc.

d. Journey toys, e.g. rescue cars, taxis, buses, aeroplanes etc.

Mindful of financial constraints I encourage parents to source these from charity shops and Christmas Fairs etc.

These techniques are introduced as the parent brings their concerns to the session in order to keep it relevant to their specific situation. At all times the therapist is supporting the parent to find the solution from within his/herself.

It is best to confine any skills training to a minimum of, perhaps, two skills so that the parent does not feel overwhelmed.

Session four

Check in with the learning of the last session:

Mum reported that:

– “reflecting back had worked really well” and she “got it that it calms her (child)

– The child was upset because they wanted a new toy. Parent reflected “I can see you are upset because you really want this toy – but we are not buying toys today”

The parent is invited to make a picture in the tray entitled “childhood” which opens the discussion up to the parent understanding their own parenting model.

The therapist prepares parent for the next session where the therapist will hold a play session with the child in order to “model” what will be expected from the parent in the home session.

There is a discussion to find a location in the home where the tray-time will take place, how to manage interruptions etc.

Session five

The therapist has a play session with the child playing in the sand tray while the parent watches (in silence).

– Non-directive play therapy is performed using the sand tray and non-archetypal toys.

– Limit setting is demonstrated some of which entails:


Child is ready to throw a toy at the therapist, the therapist responds (calmly) with:

I see you are angry and want to throw the toy at me (A)….., However, it is not ok to throw the toy at me (C), you can throw the toy at the cushion in the corner (points to the cushion) (T).

End of session warnings.

The session ends on time, parents should be aware where the child might want to “tidy up” as this can be a way of “testing” the parent.What will be tolerated i.e. the child is there to play and the therapist is there to keep safe the space for both child and therapist. Reflective observation, in what is done but also in how it is done (i.e. affect of the child) is demonstrated to teach parent and child the language of “feelings”.

The therapist requests permission from the child to photograph their tray at the end of the session.

No discussion takes place with parent and therapist at this session.

Session six

Parent returns to discuss the experience of watching the previous session

Mum reported the child was:

– “Different on leaving” and as they left the child said “I’m not cross”.

– “She was happy – she was open to her sibling. She was “very confident as she was leaving”

– “more verbal since doing the sand tray”.

Therapist prepares the parent to hold the play session at their next meeting.

Filial technique training continues.

Session seven

Parent and child hold their first session together with the therapist offering “prompts” and “guidance” to the parent.

Parent will practice limit setting and reflective observing in this session, all the time allowing for child-led play.

No discussion takes place with parent and therapist at this session.

Session eight

Parent returns to discuss the experience of the last session and their observations of the child since.

Preparation continues for the parent’s session with the child at the next meeting, together with planning their first play session at home i.e. checking the toy collection, looking at the practicalities of being able to hold the session uninterrupted. Answering anxious questions from the parent.

Session nine

Parent and child hold their session with the therapist observing only.

Parent will continue practicing their skills of limit-setting and reflective observation.

The parent is usually ready to hold his/her own session at home.

No discussion takes place with parent and therapist at this session.

Session ten.

Parent returns to discuss the previous session and to fine tune skills before they hold the first home session. Final check on how the parent is feeling before they hold their first home tray-time.

Sessions eleven and twelve.

Parent returns with photo of home session “tray-times” (if child permits). (If the child does not permit the photo to be taken then this is respected and the work will proceed without the photo).

The rationale for bringing the photo to the session is twofold:

  1. 1. The parent can have a better recall of the nuances as the play took place with the help of the reminder photo. The parent does not feel under pressure to “report” all that took place in the tray-time at home. While the parent asks permission to take a photo and honours the child’s decision this offers a sense of respect for the child. There is very often a sense of fun between the child and parent as they prepare to take the photo. The child knows that the photo will be coming back to the therapist.
  2. 2. The therapist can watch how themes play out in the tray. The therapist can see the movement in the relationship between the child and parent and within the child also. It forms a means of dialogue between parent and therapist.

Further skills training continues as well as preparing to close down the work together. Preparations are made to meet six weeks later and for the child to carry out the final session with the therapist present.

Session thirteen

Both parent and child return to complete the work of the child in the playroom and for closure with the child and therapist. No discussion takes place with parent and therapist but dialogue will be inclusive with all three.

Session fourteen

Brief check in with the previous session and how the child managed their final session.

Parent and therapist review the Programme and specifically check how things are in relation to presenting issues in the first session.

Relationship with child  – “Much much better, made connection. When she   was    so cross at me that was very hard”.

Anger: Mum had found a way to reflect the child’s feelings and this had been “magical” for mum. “flashpoints but much milder”.

Sibling difficulties   – generally, very good. Is now willing to share and play

Animals  – Not terrorising but not kind and loving to them. Not seen kicking

In facilitating this Programme I have observed the following in relation to parents.

The selection of the toys by the parent begins, already, the special attention necessary to bring about a new way of relating with their child. I have seen the fun and the pride parents display as they show what they have collected. While sandplay therapy encourages archetypal symbols as part of the therapist’s collection this strategy is not required in this programme. The aim of the programme is to enhance the parent’s relationship with their child. Therefore, the parent and therapist do not interpret the actual “play” but rather closely observe and reflect on what the parent saw as the child played. However, as this is a psychoeducational programme the therapist shows the parent how some themes are demonstrated in the child’s tray/play (VanFleet 2011: 154). By session ten the parent is, ideally, ready to facilitate tray-time at home with their child and at the end of their tray-time the parent asks permission from the child to photograph the tray. As they take the photo a sort of collaboration forms between them. The parent brings this photograph when she/he returns to the therapist for continued support.

The programme is run over 12-14 sessions. The parent attends for support in how to use the tray-time with their child. However, it is necessary to be flexible in the numbers of sessions needed as “life” can sometimes determine a need to extend it. The parent learns through sand how to facilitate sand sessions with the child. The toys used in the sand allow the child to play out their difficulties while in a protected environment. While teaching the parent the non-directive, non-teaching programme methods – the parent learns to accept the child by paying close attention and reflecting what they see in the child’s movement in the play. For the attending and reflecting skills we use those of Lowenfeld who encouraged the staff to “watch, observe, follow, try to understand, but as far as possible to avoid imposing their own ideas” in her World Technique (Urwin 1988: 54). In guiding the parent through this process the therapist will have emphasised the “sacredness” of the tray work by having the parent experience working in the sand.

A word about “the Client”

I would like to give some attention as to who the client is in this particular Programme. At all times the therapist must hold the wellbeing and safety of the child as prime concern. However, if we are to make real changes in the relationship I feel there must be no ambiguity about who the client is. Where the child may need to do more concentrated work on traumas held within them I believe that their own personal therapist must be sought. Caution must be exercised because if the child were to become the client of the therapist it could have the capacity to sabotage, at an unconscious level, the relationship between the parent and child. Who does the child feel the therapist “belongs to”? It could, at an unconscious level have the capacity to sabotage the relationship with the parent and therapist. How does the parent feel if the therapist “fixes” the child and they were not able to?

Therefore, I believe that the parent is the primary client. The use of the parent as an “agent of change” will be most beneficial to this relationship and the parent will be in a better place to support the child in the child’s own therapeutic work. Most definitely the skill of the therapist to dialogue with the parent deeply and sincerely to affect the best possible strategy for the wellbeing of the child will be needed.

In summary:

The emphasis of this Programme is for the therapist to help the parent to enhance their skills of relating to their child. The role of the parent is to create a non-judgemental / non teaching atmosphere in order to allow the child’s feelings to be accepted. The power of sand to heal is in the handling of the sand, together with the relationship the parent brings to the tray. If the child feels safe with the parent the relationship will go to new depths. The role of the therapist is to ensure the parent is in a “good enough” place to attend the tray work. However, I have experienced children who knew it would not be safe to continue on with tray-time with their parent because there was chaos or/and conflict within the parent’s life. On that occasion the parents were experiencing an acrimonious separation. In these situations I continued to work to build the parent’s self-esteem and confidence and their work also enabled change in the child’s life. Additionally, the therapist respects and trusts that the child knows how to self regulate in choosing to continue or even in what they will do in the sand. Remember, the parent is present but does not intrude in the work the child is engaged in, unless invited by the child. The child will then feel important and respected – which impacts their self-esteem. As a result, the tray itself is used as the boundary for both the parent and the child: the parent is reminded to stay out of the way of the play and only to enter when invited: and the child will find a safe container to play out their difficulties.

Parents will ultimately discover that the skills learnt through this programme can be used in interacting with their child outside the sand sessions.

For the parent this Programme will:

– Aim to empower them to restore their confidence to parent;

– Encourage and demonstrate to them how to listen empathetically to their child;

– Model how they will be with their child;

– Encourage and support them to search within themselves for the natural solution to their unique situation in relating to their child.

– Allow them to have fun, relaxation and enjoyment.

For the child this Programme will:

– Allow them to play out their difficulties in an accepting environment.

– Aim to improve the interaction between child and parent.

– Allow them experience a new way of communicating and also of being heard.

– Allow them to have fun, relaxation and enjoyment.


In my role as a facilitator of the Parenting Through Sand Programme I have observed the positive changes this programme can bring to parents and children in their daily interactions. Although not spoken here in this paper parents have noted the changes in their household and with the extended environment i.e. grandparents, school and peers. I therefore believe that this programme is an effective tool for use with parents requiring help with a child displaying challenging behaviour.

Play…. expresses a child’s relation to himself and his environment, and, without adequate opportunity for play, normal and satisfactory emotional development is not possible… then any individual in whose early life these necessary opportunities for adequate play have been lacking will inevitably go on seeking them in the stuff of adult life.

Lowenfeld 1935 (cited in Urwin 1988: 86)

Parenting is the most important job in the world – remember as parents we have the potential to create a Great Leader or a Villain!

Ursula Somerville (MIAHIP) is a Psychotherapist, Child Psychotherapist, Supervisor and Parenting Consultant working in private practice in City Centre and Rathfarnham Dublin.


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