Healing Commences with Sandplay

The Practice of Sandplay

Sandplay is a technique used in conjunction to talk therapy with a client (children and adults) and psychotherapist while in a therapeutic relationship. In Sandplay therapy the therapist has two trays – one dry and one wet/damp.  The client can choose to use either one or both.  Separate to the tray is a space for miniatures which the client can choose from to place in the tray.  The therapist and the client sit at the tray while the client creates their world, sometimes in silence.  

The miniatures that belong in the therapist’s collection usually range from – in my terms: above the earth; – on the earth; – below the earth; – above the sea; – on the sea and under the sea, together with past, present, future and perceived future elements.  So, essentially, anything that we might meet in our daily life can be held on the therapist’s shelves for the client to use to release their world that day. 

When the client has completed their tray the therapist will invite the client to give a name to what they see in the tray and the therapist will request permission to photograph the client’s tray. The therapist is a witness to the story hidden deep within the unconscious of the client. Dora Kalff (2003) (who devised Sandplay) said that healing takes place in the “free and protected space”- this space is provided by the therapist.

 The client chooses to take to the sand or not to take to the sand.  They can work with miniatures or not in the tray.  Either way, in choosing or not choosing to work with miniatures, healing is facilitated through the touch of the sand together with the relationship the therapist brings to the space. At times the sand can be moved around, the client can stay on the surface of the sand if that is where they feel comfortable or they can dig deep – either way it’s acceptable – there is nobody asking them to do anything other than what they want to do and in that moment they are met.

As we sit watching the story unfold in the sand the unconscious is presented in a 3D format in the tray. Usually this is done in silence which promotes movement in the unconscious. Karen Signell speaks of three different types of silence:

 0…an Ego Silence/Conscious Silence – the kind you experience stepping into a library. Natural Silence – the kind you experience when you walk into a forest and Deep Silence – a profound state of silence when you enter into the deeper layers of the unconscious where you find a more profound and ineffable place within you (Signell 1996 cited in Bradway et al 2005 p.48).

So it is in that Deep Silence that we experience sandplay and transformation.

Much of the time as the tray is evolving the process is conducted in silence while the client places the miniature where it knows it needs to go. Remembering that we are working at an unconscious level and the therapist remains mindful that this is a part of the client which can sometimes have been placed there at a pre-verbal stage of development, or at least long out of our conscious memory.  As we reveal our unconscious material we can choose to do something about it, we can choose to just know it and somehow that transforms it.

 The power of the sand to heal is in the touching of it and in the relationship with the therapist. If the client feels safe the work will go to new depths. The therapist holds a presence but not an intrusion in the work and the client feels important and respected. This can only improve their self esteem.

When the session has ended the therapist will take a photograph of the tray and this will form part of a series of the clients’ work and at a later stage in this work will be reviewed by the client and therapist together. 

 In sandplay it is task of the therapist to provide the container for the client, to be more than a witness and according to Chiaia (2005) therapists are participating observers but the therapist is also actively partaking in the work with the client. So, witness certainly to the story but as the story is being created it is the role of the therapist to be more than a witness but actually to be a participant and facilitator to the nuances that take place within the free and protected space. As the therapist sits with the created tray then she/he is a witness to a unique occurrence – a story that has been made visible in the sand facilitated through the relationship of the client and therapist.

Chiaia describes the “magical act” (cited in Bradway et al 2005 p.19) of playing with sand, water and miniatures. In this place of non-verbal and non interpretative, healing is taking place.

How Sandplay Works – (The Science Bit)

If we look at the neuroscience of Sandplay: Seigal (2010) talks about “… the focusing skills that are part of Mindsight make it possible to see what is inside, to accept it, and in accepting to let it go and finally to transform it”. (p. xii)

That theory ties in very well with making visible in the sand the story that is held within the client. So while the therapist is paying close attention to the client and their story the client’s brain is firing new neurons because of this attention (Seigal 2010 p42). While Badenoch (2008) in her insightful book Being a Brain-Wise Therapist describes the sensory information reaching the limbic region and questioning, as the client touches the sand, “does this sand feel safe or unsafe?” Badenoch (2008) further explains that the experience of arranging the sand encourages vertical integration linking body, limbic region and cortex in the right hemisphere.

The client will remain in the right hemisphere as long as they are not asked to explain or discuss, at a cognitive level, the content of the tray.  As the therapist holds the client’s story and believes this can only help to increase the “window of tolerance” of the client (Seigal 1999 cited in Seigal 2010A p.137).“When the patient senses that it is safe to sit together with whatever feelings or images arise, that dyadic sanctuary widens the window internally for her”. (Seigal 2010A p. 200) This is a “window” which has been created when an “event/occurensce(s)” has happened to the client and for every time an event involving a similar situation occurs the client will operate from a restricted place.

Panksepp (1998, cited in Badenoch 2008) explains the neuroscience of the play in therapy. He states that the open environment the therapist provides facilitates activation of the “seeking circuit” (p.301), one of seven genetically based motivational circuits, residing in our limbic regions. He further explains that fear, rage and separation distress become activated when children are “out of connection” with adults. The other four circuits are caring, social bonding; playfulness and seeking and these arise under conditions of “warm connection”. Together with this, new research into brain plasticity is showing that the brain can restructure itself.

‘Sand therapy promotes the development of new neural pathways that aren’t blocked by the trauma, and gives the client a physiological experience which helps new neurological pathways to be formed’ (Crowley cited in Somerville, 2009).

Building on and believing in the unique skill the client possesses to form themselves before even coming into the world, we sit in the therapy room to honour this seemingly lost capacity in the client as they present with disorganised coping mechanisms. The therapist holds the space and believes that this client can, through the medium of sandplay, re-form themselves into what they can be. The therapist invites the client to evolve and unfold through the means of Sandplay therapy.

In an environment of a free and protected space and in the much needed Deep Silence there the client will be given the opportunity to live to their full potential.


Badenoch B (2008) Being a Brain-Wise Therapist a Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology WW Norton and Company New York

Bradway K, Chambers L, Chiaia ME (2005) Sandplay in Three Voices Routledge EastSussex UK

Kalff, D. (2003) Sandplay – A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche, Temenos Press, CA

Siegal D J (2010) Mindsight – The New Science of Personal Transformation Random House New York

Siegal D. (2010A) The Mindful Therapist – a Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration W W Norton and Company Inc., New York

Somerville, U (Sept. 1st, 2009), Drawing Lines in the Sand,HEALTHplus, The Irish Timeshttp://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/health/2009/0901/1224253581049.html


A version of this article appeared in Inside Out: The Journal for the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy No.62 Autumn 2010


Ursula Somerville contact details: telephone 086 3564908

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