Sand Tray Therapy Techniques


Recently I was perusing the web for different sand tray techniques and decided to share the approaches I catalogued from other websites. Some of these I have tried, some I have not. If you have experienced any and want to comment, please do! I am new to sand tray work and would love to hear your insights.

Non-directive Approach: The client chooses any items and places them in the sand tray without instruction. No interpretation or guidance is given by the therapist, although the client may be asked tell the story of their sandtray when they are done. This approach is thought to work best in helping clients access troubling memories since the sand is thought to unlock the subconscious. Some say the first sand tray almost always should be non-directive.

Humanistic Approach: Therapist relies solely on the client to find solutions to their problems, using the sand as a tool for healing. Through creative expression, a client is able to manifest in sand things they would otherwise not be able to vocalize or address in traditional therapy. The therapist treats the client as whole and healed, knowing that the process of sand tray therapy allows the client to find the answers that are already within them.

World Technique: This approach involves the use of miniatures. Clients are encouraged to use miniature toys, figurines and objects in the sand any way they choose. They can add water to the sand, and place the miniatures in the sand tray in any order. The design of the sand tray is guided by their imagination and their subconscious. The result is a microcosm of their inner world. The world within the sand tray is expressed through symbolism and metaphor, and may not even make immediate sense to the client. But aided by the therapist, a client, even a child, can begin to recognize the relationship between the creation in the sand and their own inner world.

Directive Approach: Therapists provide clients with themes to explore. They may ask clients questions about their sandtray, suggest changes to the sandtray, or ask the client to elaborate on object choices. Sometimes the therapist will change the sandtray themselves, although rarely. Directed sandtray therapy is commonly used to help people manage their memories and understand the impact it has had on their lives.

Trauma Technique: Initially, there is little instruction from the therapist, the client who may have difficulty recalling traumatic experiences is free to develop his or her own expression of situations while unlocking access to their subconscious. As the trauma unfolds in the sand, the therapist works with the client to alter the positions of the miniature objects as representations of the true people and events. By beginning to facilitate change on a fictitious level, a client gains the courage and ability to recognize that these same changes can be made in their own life.

Genogram Technique: Have the client pick miniatures to represent their near, distant, or ancestor relatives in the sand tray, items can be arranged as the client wishes. The therapist processes with the client about who the relatives are and what they mean to the client, as well as explore the family ancestry and culture of the client. What strengths and struggles did these ancestors pass down to the client? What did these ancestors have to go through? What can the client learn from this sand tray genogram? What rituals or celebrations would the ancestors like the client to remember? Are there any illnesses family members struggle with? What are themes across generations?

Mandala Technique: The word “Mandala” comes from a Sanskrit word that generally means “container of essence,” and the idea is used artistically to represent the whole self and the Cosmos in its totality (microcosm and macrocosm). The client is asked to sit comfortably and turn inward, keeping focused on breathing deeply until they feel relaxed. Then they are to bring awareness to the body, via sensation, thoughts, and feelings they encounter. When the client is ready they are given free rein to create any image, geometrical design, or patterns in the sand for their mandala. They may use nothing but sand, colored or plain, or objects of their choosing. It has been suggested that circular trays can help feelings tell their own stories and integrate the different aspects of the design within a symbolic enclosed space.

While sand tray therapists generally do not interpret sand stories to the client, and each client’s sand work is unique to them, some themes are thought to be prevalent enough to be fairly representative. They are:

1) Empty world= sadness and depression
2) Unpeopled world= pain or abuse
3) Fenced or closed world= compartmentalized or protected issues
4) Rigid or schematic world= world of rows, control or hiding abuse
5) Disorganized, incoherent world= lack of control, chaos
6) Aggressive world= war, violence, anger

Regardless of the approach and technique of the sand tray, the therapist should capture the sand tray as an image and make a good note. Here is a form I designed to help me improve my sand tray application and understanding. Sand Work Note FORM

Some websites that informed this post:
Counseling Outfitters
Creative Counseling 101
Sand Play


For Therapy Services: The Key Counseling of SA

  1. I generally start non-directive with the sand tray, but have had clients who get stuck before even starting so then I give them a subject. This wasn’t enough for one client so it became more directive with more questions and suggestions until they became comfortable enough to run with it. I find I have to go with the client and their needs rather than stick with one particular method or another.

    I like your form. Do you have it out during the session? I can never remember all the details of placement order. However, I find that writing while observing feels distracting to me. I feel like it puts a barrier between me and the client.

  2. Lavelda Naylor said:

    Ah, that makes sense. I imagine you are right about it being a philosophical distinction. Perhaps we will get more comments 🙂

  3. Amy said:

    The information shared was useful. A professor of mine was quick to point out the difference between sand tray and sand play. While I cannot articulate everything- I believe there are some differences in philosophy mostly having to fo with the directiveness of the therapist. Might be worth looking into. Thanks for sharing!

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