Sandbox, Sand Tray, What?
March 26, 2023 by Sarah Earles, Clinical Supervisor/Child & Family Therapist
Your child just came home from therapy and says, “I played in the sandbox today.”
You do a double take, “What? The sandbox? Did you go to the park or something?”
“No. We played in the sandbox. In the office.”
Befuddled, you move on, making a mental note to address this later. You didn’t enroll your child in therapy to play in the sandbox. You enrolled them to help them learn skills, process trauma, improve relationships, or better the family’s lives. Guess what? A sand tray might be a tool to use towards reaching all of those goals. Let me explain from the perspective of a therapist who uses a sand tray as a therapeutic tool.
What a Sand Tray Is Not
A sand tray is not a playground sandbox. However, some children may call it a sandbox because of their associations with sand in other places. What children call the sand tray is not important, but it is important that parents know the ways that a therapeutic sand tray differs from the sandbox. First of all, sand trays are inside the therapist’s office. Although sand tray therapy could technically take place outside; it typically does not. Second, sand trays usually contain therapeutic grade sand, which is finer and softer than outdoor sand. Third, sand trays are often shallow, allowing for the standing of figurines, also known as miniatures. Digging and burying does occur, but often with hands, and not with equipment such as buckets or backhoes. Best practice states that sand is sprayed with sanitizing spray and miniatures are cleaned between sessions (Association for Play Therapy, n. d.). This ensures that the sand tray remains a therapeutic tool, rather than just a common play toy.
What a Sand Tray Involves
A sand tray is not just about the sand. The sand is a tool for building certain worlds or playing out certain scenarios. For this reason, the therapist usually has a large collection of miniatures for use with the sand tray. These figurines usually represent a wide variety of objects, people, and places so that the child can have full use of his or her imagination (Yorke, 2019). The therapist may reflect what he or she sees as the child plays, or the therapist may remain silent and wait until the client completes a tray and then ask questions to engage in a collaborative learning process (Creative Counseling 101, 2015). Overall, the process of sand tray therapy is far more hands-on and far less verbal than traditional talk therapy.
Why Use a Sand Tray
Therapists use sand trays for a variety of reasons. Sand tray is a form of play therapy, which makes it more accessible and palatable to children (Morin, 2021). It allows clients to express themselves nonverbally (Good Therapy, 2020). This is useful when trauma, neglect, or abuse are preverbal, or when children may struggle with words, especially those with communication struggles related to autism or speech delay (Morin, 2021). Sand trays, when documented via photo, can also provide concrete, visible evidence of concepts processed and progress made. This is very important for some clients.
How The Therapist Uses a Sand Tray
Therapists may use a sand tray in one of two ways: directive or non-directive. In directive sand tray, the therapist gives specific instructions and uses the sand tray to teach certain skills or process certain topics (Ohwovoriole, 2021). In non-directive sand tray, the therapist may just present the tray and miniatures to the client and allow the client to freely play out whatever is on his or her mind. Many therapists use both directive and non-directive forms of sand tray therapy over the course of treatment.
When Sand Tray Therapy is Appropriate
Sand tray therapy is usually appropriate for most clients. Some adults actually prefer using a sand tray for their own work, as they find that they are less inhibited when they do so (Mitchell, 2013). However, sand tray therapy may not be appropriate for individuals with sensory aversions to sand, or skin conditions that sand may irritate (though alternatives can be arranged to accommodate these needs [AutPlay Therapy, 2019]). Sand trays may also not be appropriate when there are safety concerns, such as dysregulation in which a child might throw sand and injure the therapist or others in the room with it. If situations require specific safety planning, more written and verbal forms of therapy may need to occur for one or more sessions. Therapy can then return to the usual use of a sand tray.
In conclusion, sand tray therapy is a (mostly) nonverbal form of play therapy that allows creative expression through the use of miniatures. Therapists may use it to treat specific conditions, or therapists may train to become licensed sand tray therapists, and use this as their primary mode of therapy. In any case, sand tray therapy can be a tool to help clients and their families reach their treatment goals.
Association for Play Therapy. (n. d.) Tips for a clean play room.
AutPlay Therapy. (2019, October 17). Sand alternatives for sandtray therapy work. [Video]. YouTube.
Creative Counseling 101. (2015). Sand tray therapy directions.
Good Therapy. (2020, March 25). Sand tray therapy.
Mitchell, D. (2013, April 15). Exploring the benefits of sand tray therapy for adults. Good Therapy.
Morin, A. (2021, August 29). What is sand tray therapy? Very Well Mind.
Ohwovoriole, T. (2021, August 26). What is play therapy? Very Well Mind.
York, G. (2019, December 19). What does the beginning sandtray therapist need to get started. Child Therapy Toys.