Communicating Without Words: Sand Tray in Therapy

A child with a history of neglect comes to the therapist’s office and will not speak. A mother who is overwhelmed with grief comes to the therapist’s office and cannot talk through her tears. A teenager comes to the therapist’s office and does not say a word. He is only in counseling because a judge has ordered him. What does the therapist do? At ChildSavers, the therapist recognizes that people, and especially children, often share without words. The therapist offers a number of ways of working together, one of which may involve the sand tray.

What is Sand tray?

Sand tray therapy is one of the many expressive therapies used at ChildSavers. It involves presenting the client with a box filled with smooth, soft sand. A collection of miniature objects meant to represent anything in life is also offered. These miniatures can range from animals to furniture, from fairies and dragons to seashells and trees, from cars and plants to people and fences. The client is invited to build a world, a thought, a dream, or whatever else they might like. They can use as many miniatures they like in the sand. Once the “world” is complete, the therapist and client may process it together, with the therapist using carefully chosen questions and prompts.

Alternatively, the client may choose to engage in sand play, rather than creating a stagnant world. Another option, depending on the client and the treatment issue, is for the therapist to remain silent and bear witness to the client’s process and creation.

How is it Used?

Sand tray therapy is a great fit for the children and families served at ChildSavers. Many clients are not able to talk about their experiences. This may be because of their age, the impact of the traumatic experience on their brain, or a combination of these two factors. By working with a sand tray, a child is able to show the therapist a view of their world, without ever saying a word.

Additionally, research suggests that the sensory appeal of the sand may tap into right-brain activity where traumatic memories may be stored and then released (Badenoch, B., 2009). Further, by using miniatures to tell a story, the client is able to process past events from a safe distance, as he or she works within the metaphor created.

As such, the sand tray creates a buffer between the painful emotions linked to past experiences. At the same time, the client can try out different endings to their story. They can add in resources that they wished had been there, or representations of people who can help make a positive difference.

Case Example

Erin* is an eight year-old girl who has seen physical fights between her parents. She understands that mom and dad are not always safe, but she loves them both. She does not understand how to help them, yet has a sense that the way they behave is wrong.

In session, she does not talk about her parents. When asked about things at home, she puts on a brave face, and responds that “everything is fine.” She gravitates towards the sand tray and lines up baby animals on one end of the tray, and “parents” on the other. She then puts dragons in the middle, and begins playing out scenes in which the “parents” are “punished” for how they treat each other. The “parents” apologize to the dragons and their babies, and promise not to hurt each other anymore. Without ever speaking directly to the therapist, she has shown what is going on in her world.

Application to Mission

Central to the mission of ChildSavers is the use of trauma-informed services. The sand tray gives people from all backgrounds and ages an outlet in which they can feel in control as well as safe. This therapy offers processing as well as growing. It allows physical objects to represent what cannot be put into words, and creates a space for understanding through the absence of language. By recognizing the impact of trauma on the brain, and honoring that individuals have different ways of sharing their stories, the use of sand tray aligns perfectly with the mission of the agency.  It gives children like Erin a way of sharing her story, on her terms and in her time.

*The details of the story have been changed to protect the client’s identity.

Badenoch, B. (2009). The integrating power of sandplay, In B. Badenoch, Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology, pp. 220-243, NY: Norton

Stephanie Hammerk is a licensed clinical social worker. She is the Program Supervisor of the Outpatient Clinic, and has worked at ChildSavers since 2015. Stephanie has a background in residential treatment and crisis intervention. She worked as an outpatient clinician for three years prior to assuming her role of Program Supervisor.

She completed her undergraduate and graduate education at Virginia Commonwealth University, and maintains contact to the VCU Social Work program through her supervision of the agency’s MSW internship program.

Stephanie is passionate about social work, and the impact of macro level policies on micro level outcomes and interventions.


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