By Emma Allen – founder and pioneer of Forensic Sandplay Therapy
What is Sandplay Therapy?
Sandplay Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that invites clients to create three-dimensional pictures in sand trays using miniature objects and figurines whilst in the presence of a trained therapist. It is an expressive, non-verbal, creative approach that is used with children, adults, couples and families in a variety of settings.
The miniatures used may represent people, ideas, situations, feelings, and facilitate self-expression and reflection. Sand pictures often come to represent the client’s “inner world” where clients can become more aware (conscious) of their relationship with themselves, their unconscious ways of relating, and thereby becoming more insightful and self-aware of any current difficulties or struggles in their life. Previously unknown thoughts and feelings may emerge and become visible through the imagery and symbolic approach that is applied, which can make sessions feel very deep and powerful.
Sandplay Therapy involves providing a “free and protected space” (Kalff, 1980), where feelings, and both the verbal and non-verbal expressions can be safely expressed and contained within the sand tray, and by the therapist.
Where did Sandplay Therapy originate from?
Sandplay Therapy was developed in the late 1950s by Dora Kalff, a Jungian therapist in Switzerland. It is based on the psychological principles of Carl Jung & the work of Margaret Lowenfeld, a British physician who developed the “World Technique”(1979) (from H.G. Well’s (1911) “Floor Games”) that allowed non-verbal forms of communication to take place in treatment with children. Dora Kalff had worked with C.G. Jung and Emma Jung in her analytical training and adapted the approach, and studied the sandplay process within a Jungian theoretical framework that considers that the psyche can be self-directive and self-healing (Kalff, 1980).
How does it work?
Sandplay facilitates healing and transformation by bringing up conflicts from the unconscious. They may appear in symbolic form and may allow psychological change to occur. The length of time in therapy can vary as it can be used in brief and time-limited approaches, as well as being offered in the longer term. Sand tray images can help show the therapist and client when it feels appropriate to end. Sand images may be reviewed in therapy where some difficulties or perspectives may have shifted. Clients may notice that they have stopped using certain symbols that have represented unhelpful aspects of themselves and this can be a useful way of documenting change. Sand trays are sometimes thought about as being like mirrors that speak or reflect back to the client, offering new insights, awareness and creative possibilities. Most important, (and fundamental to any treatment outcome) is the centrality of the therapeutic relationship.
Sandplay, similar to all play, requires the breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way and suggests to both the client and therapist that there are possibilities beyond what is already known. By offering a creative and explorative space to support feelings, different or unknown (non-verbal) aspects may be shared and found. People often feel that they are able to show a different side to themselves; expressing very deep thoughts and feelings that would otherwise be too difficult to verbalise. Creating three-dimensional pictures (using hands to touch, mould, and sculpt) activates the right side of our brains (the limbic system) which is associated with accessing emotions and an authentic sense of self, intuition, memory, and learning. The symbolic approach of using the medium of sand and objects aims to encourage self-expression and reflection; providing the psyche a means in which to display itself (the inner world) and assisting in providing both client and therapist increased insight into personal difficulties, relationships, thoughts and feelings. The use of sand, and creating pictures in the sandtray, activates, stimulates, utilizes, and coordinates all functions of the brain, and when the sand is touched, there is an immediate connection, and engagement of both body and mind.
Play renews our sense of optimism, hope, and builds upon resiliency, the ability to handle unexpected things, emotional competence, and empathy. The more relaxed, playful but concentrated state is not as quickly achieved as a rule in verbal therapies. Creative therapies like Sandplay can provide essential sensory experiences that support positive self-regulation, reduce stress-related reactions and develop self-soothing behaviours. Sandplay helps people to process traumatic memories, associations, and experiences. Trauma is stored in memory as imagery in the right hemisphere this makes verbal declarative memory of the trauma incident difficult. Expressive processes provide an effective method for processing and resolving them. Non-verbal treatments offer depth-orientated, multi-sensory, safe and direct access to trauma at the level it was experienced & an experiential means to work it through.
Jung considered that “Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain”. Sandplay works towards encouraging a creative regression that abandons and lets go of rational thinking in order for imagery to bring new psychological possibilities. Sandplay therapy works with exploring personal images, symbols and metaphors where the pictures made use symbolic language as communication. Images made with sculpting and shaping the sand may be just as, if not more, expressive, for some people. Through ‘following a symbol’, changes and shifts can be witnessed, along with promoting offence-free living and non-offending relationships, emotional processing, and a symbolic means in which to master or recover from traumatic and violent experiences.
How is Sandplay used in therapy sessions?
Sandplay Therapy is mostly offered on an individual basis in treatment, but can also be used as a reflective tool in groups, (e.g. family therapies), clinical supervision and reflective practice. I have begun facilitating forensic Sandplay workshops with prison services where staff teams are directed to think about their communication in this symbolic language together in order to be able to confront, and resolve potential conflicts that occur in the workplace.
When people work together in a sand tray, they can experience their interactional patterns, and discover new ways of resolving these issues. Clients are not instructed what to do, and instead, are encouraged to not think too much, and to see what naturally occurs, where authentic expressions can be made and found. The focus can be very much on the here and now, and this self-directive approach can be helpful to those who may be consumed by negative or critical thoughts, perfectionist traits, and a tendency to be over-controlled, rigid, and restricted in life. Having this expressive freedom can be very liberating for clients in secure settings for example, encouraging clients to make autonomous decisions.
The sand tray in Sandplay Therapy is 28.5 x 19.5 x 3.0 inches deep in order that the sand tray, and client can be still seen. The sand tray is painted a light blue, including the sides and the bottom, in order to represent water, lakes or the sea, when sculpting landscapes. Real water can also be added to the “wet: tray, The miniature collection is the therapist’s own personal collection of findings, and things that the therapist comes to understand symbolically, and feels connected to – this is thought to be helpful for clients who may then also use these objects to help resolve their difficulties over time, where the miniature collection becomes a kind of extension of the therapist in treatment.
Clients are invited to use a diverse collection of miniature figures and objects (that represent all walks of life) in a tray of either, or both, wet (where more water can be added) or dry sand (that clients are instructed to not add water to). These ready-made objects allow people of all skill and ability to be able to make a picture, and be able to communicate and symbolise something very personal about themselves that does not always require words. Clients may decide to just use the sand, or just use symbols – there is no right or wrong.
Sandplay imagery is routinely photographed and then dismantled by the therapist. Sand trays should never be dismantled with the client, as this can be psychologically detrimental. This also allows for any difficult material to be held and contained by the therapist during treatment. As the client beings to engage, the therapist will have notified the client that some notes will be made of what figures are used, and what is said in response to the symbols, or anything that may be significant for therapy. Interpretations are not made or placed upon imagery before any joint understanding has been made over time, where notes will assist the therapist in developing an understanding of what is happening in the Sandplay therapeutic process.
Is Sandplay more effective with specific clients or issues, and does it tap into specific parts of a client?
Sandplay can be very useful for people who struggle to articulate their thoughts and feelings into verbal language, useful for those who talk over, or avoid considering their difficulties, and can overall, be therapeutic for those with a diverse range of communication difficulties. Forensic Sandplay is designed and delivered specifically to suit high, low and medium secure settings, and in working with offender client groups and has particular value for clients who present as over-controlled and highly threat sensitive, and are encouraged to be more spontaneous, creative, and playful in therapy. People often feel that they are able to show a different side to themselves; expressing very deep thoughts & feelings that would otherwise be too difficult to verbalise. Interpretations are not assumed, & need to be checked alongside the reality of the client, however, a good knowledge and understanding of symbols is fundamental for anyone working as a sandplay therapist. Symbolic language allows clients to communicate a part of themselves that otherwise may be unknown. Sandplay Invites spontaneous play which does not require skill or ability, and there is no right or wrong, which can assisting with self-worth and confidence.
What’s your experience of using Sandplay?
I first experienced Sandplay during personal psychotherapy before applying to train as an art psychotherapist. I found it particularly helpful in exploring my sense of self and identity and in being able to use symbols to represent my thoughts, feelings, relationships and experiences rather than needing to talk about them straight away with my therapist. This allowed me to feel safe and to work at things at my own pace. My clients will often share and disclose very deep and personal aspects of themselves through the use of the sand and miniatures (the third object in the room) that alleviates feeling threatened. Sandplay is thereby an effective, expressive and creative medium that can assist those with communication and engagement difficulties. As a therapist, it is important to have undergone your own therapy to be able to work safely and ethically with a client so that you can differentiate between feelings that are your own, and your clients. It helps the therapist in being able to experience and truly empathise what it is like being in therapy, and is important in the practice of understanding symbols.
Following my own training, I developed a Forensic Sandplay Therapy service in a high secure setting with adult men who have been detained under the Mental Health Act, are classified as having a mental illness, intellectual disability disorder, personality, and/or a psychopathic disorder, and are considered to be a high risk of harm to themselves or others. Those who have engaged and responded well to Sandplay include those who are deemed to be highly threat sensitive, over-controlled, and highly self-critical, where spontaneous, creative play can be liberating, and allows the development of psychological flexibility. Forensic Sandplay (in secure settings with offender client groups, who have often been severely deprived of play as children can find it difficult to express themselves safely) allows defences to diminish because it is non-threatening and often, an enjoyable experience. The process can also empower those who are incarcerated for their crimes, by allowing movement from the position of victim and perpetrator to creator. Sandplay can offer a symbolic means to which explore offending (Allen, 2016).
As adults we are skilled at concealing our inner experiences with verbal fluency and intellect, where we may sometimes resist non-verbal symbolization. Sandplay constructions are able to provide access to a different side of ourselves that we may have pushed away, denied or avoided. The images are also able to illustrate and tell very tragic life stories that would be too difficult to put into words – these stories the sand tells can elaborate over time, and inform both client and therapist upon the roads to take in life, and in recovery journeys.
Allen, E. (2016). “Lighting Up” the Symbolic Crime: New Approaches in Sandplay Therapy and Fire-setting Analysis, in Rothwell, K. (Ed.) Forensic Arts Therapies: Anthology of Practice and Research, Free Associations.
Kalff, D.M. (1980). Sandplay: A psychotherapeutic approach to the psyche. Boston: Sigo Press.
Lowenfeld, M. (1993). Understanding children’s sandplay: Lowenfeld’s world technique. UK: Antony Rowe Ltd. (Original work published 1979 as The World Technique).
Wells, H.G. (1911). Floor Games. Public domain.
Emma Allen is the founder, and pioneer of Forensic Sandplay Therapy. She has published papers in the Sandplay Therapy Journal (USA), and regularly provides training, talks, lectures, presentations, workshops, and team away days. Emma is a HCPC-registered art psychotherapist, as well as a Sandplay therapist at Rampton Hospital, one of three high-secure settings in England, and is an hourly paid lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Emma is currently studying towards international registration with the International Society for Sandplay Therapy (ISST) and is compiling a book on ‘Forensic Sandplay Therapy’.
© Emma Allen 2019
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