There are still some things that never change in our constantly changing, hi-tech world. Things like the pure joy on children’s faces as they play on the beach, equipped with nothing but buckets and shovels—and an endless supply of water and sand.
Sandplay therapy, based on the psychology of C.G. Jung and developed by the Swiss psychotherapist Dora Kalff, arose from this simple concept of spontaneous play and how it can be a powerful tool for tapping into the psyche’s natural tendency to heal itself.
Sandplay therapy is a non-verbal therapeutic modality and trained Sandplay therapists can help people get in touch with their grief in nonverbal ways when talking about it feels too difficult or painful, and for a child, traditional talk therapy is developmentally challenging.
“Sandplay is an effective intervention, particularly for issues for which words are not enough, such as grief and loss,” says Jill Kaplan, president of Sandplay Therapists of America.
“Sandplay helps honor and illuminate the client’s internal symbolic world, providing a place for its expression within a safe container,” she says.
Florence Sarigianis, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Orange, Connecticut understands “when a child struggles, a parent struggles ten times more” and she regularly incorporates Sandplay therapy techniques in her sessions with families because it helps connect them with each other and their feelings.
Sarigianis started doing this work about eight years ago after going back to school, earning a BA in Psychology- from Rhode Island College and a MFT (degree in Marriage & Family Therapy) from Southern Connecticut State University. She says one of the classes she took was using Sand Tray and Play therapy and she immediately gravitated to it.
“I was amazed by what information came out when I did it myself,” she says. “I keep learning more and I’m always using it.”
Sandplay therapists all have their own styles of working, but the materials are basically the same: a box, sand, sometimes water, and miniature objects that include representations of all parts of life and fantasy. In addition, building materials are available to make unique items when needed.
Sarigianis uses a wooden box that’s about 3-inches high, 18-inches across, and 30-inches wide that she fills with at least a few inches of fine sand. The objects are key to the therapy and Sarigianis has quite a collection.
“I have collected an eclectic group of figurines, animals, scenery—trees, rocks, houses—and other objects that are categorized and grouped in bins,” she explains.
She says she tries to have a balance of objects for clients to choose from. For example, she has both a white unicorn and a dragon to represent opposites—Yin and Yang.
If Sarigianis is working with a young person who is grieving, she may ask, for example, “What does sad look like?” and encourage the individual to look at the objects he or she is drawn to and without thinking too much, put them in the tray.
“The only direction with the sand tray is there’s no judgment, no right or wrong, no rules,” she stresses. “The sand tray has this way of putting the unconscious into the conscious and so I watch, observe, more than speak. After they finish, I may ask them if they want to tell me about the tray and ask certain things like ‘I noticed you have these two different kinds of animals in the tray.’ Basically, it gives me information. [Feelings] play themselves out in the tray.”
Good Acting Out
“This is a good venue for younger children because they don’t know always what they’re feeling or how to express it,” Sarigianis says. “And it gives them a safe place, and I’m that safe person who can hold it for them.
“Play is healing,” she adds. “If someone shows anger in the tray, it’s their way of getting anger out of themselves.”
Other helpful aspects of Sandplay, Sarigianis notes, is that she emphasizes to clients that this is their tray and will ask if there is something they can add to or take out that will make them feel better.
“They may not feel they have control in their own life, but they can feel like they have control in their tray,” she says.
Sarigianis says she does Sandplay therapy with families as a unit and it can be very enlightening as well as open up a dialogue between the parents and children.
“I ask them to each choose something that represents themselves and they put it in the tray. What they pick and where they put it tells you something. For example, if someone puts themselves on the outskirts that dynamic will show up in the tray.”
Sarigianis recalls working with a 12-year-old girl whose sister died before she was born and was struggling with feelings of guilt knowing her sister had died and she was alive.
“Her parents didn’t know how to handle it,” Sarigianis says. “They all came together, and by doing things like the sand tray, the girl began to open up a little more…it helps give parents insight into what a child is going through.”
Sarigianis also points out that sand play therapy is an age appropriate support system.
“You have to deal with grief age appropriately and [sand play] may make it easier to gauge where children are in their grief process,” she explains.
If a child’s father died, she will notice such things as whether the child put a father (figurine) in the tray, and if so, where in the tray? Or if he wasn’t placed in the tray what does that say? Was he buried in the sand or put near a figure representing the child? These, she says, are all indicators of how the child is feeling, and how much he or she is thinking about the parent.
“Using the sand tray might help someone see a way to more forward who is stuck in their grief or just a place to place their grief,” Sarigianis says.
“Kids don’t even think they’re having therapy.”
More information about Florence Sarigiani’s practice is available online at www.therapywithflo.com.
The Sandplay Therapists of America website offers a directory of Sandplay therapists throughout the nation. Visit www.sandplay.org.