When children enter my therapy room, their first words are usually “Ooh” or “Wow” or “You’ve got a lot of things”. Their eyes travel along my shelves, taking in the hundreds neatly arranged objects – creatures, people, fantasy and storybook characters, structures and landscapes, vehicles, mythical creatures and mystical objects, precious things and much more. The children move towards the shelves and observe more closely. “Where did you get all of these from?” or “How did you get so many?” are common questions. Eventually interest in a particular object draws them deeper into the world of symbols. It is this world of symbols that they are here to explore, through the medium of Sandplay.
The main elements of Sandplay are – a box of sand, water that can be sprayed or poured, objects that can be placed in the sand, a trained observer and a protected environment in which to play. As children relax within the therapy room, I introduce them to the sandbox, which is large enough to give plenty of room for play, but small enough that they can view the whole Sandplay in one glance.
Within the confined space of a sandtray, children do what they do naturally – play. Once the child is playing with the sand, they are then invited to choose objects and add them as they wish. The objects provided for Sandplay are mindfully selected, miniature objects, which children can use to create aspects of their inner or outer worlds. The objects are like words for them and their play is their language. Children thus construct their sandtray, expressing themselves in a way that they and adults can understand.
The children may shape the sand into ups and downs, hills and ditches, river, lakes, oceans, and then choose objects to stand in the sand or be buried under it. For some, treasure is hidden under the sand, hidden from view. When there is safety the children may choose to dig the treasure up and reveal it to someone. In the same way that adults keep parts of themselves hidden from the view of others, so too do children.
Prior to thinking in words, humans engage in preverbal thinking. A kind of thinking which happens as sets of related images. The remnants of preverbal thinking live on in all of us, and are evidenced in our dreams, fantasies and day-dreams. Young children think in pictures, they do not have the words to describe exactly what is happening in their feelings and thoughts. The Sandplay symbols assist children in expressing what they feel or want to say, and at the same time shows me, the therapist, what is uppermost in their minds.
Who is Sandplay suitable for?
Sandplay is a very effective medium for working with people of any age, and particularly children. It is used with diverse groups throughout the world, from the deaf community in Melbourne to long term hospital patients in England. Sandplay has had acclaim as a successful method of therapy for children for over seventy years in England and over fifty years in Switzerland. More recently it has been widely used in the USA and Japan. Sandplay is relatively new to Australia and understanding of its therapeutic benefits has gradually grown over the last 25 years. Ruth Ammann, a student of Dora Kalff, and president of the International Sandplay Association currently teaches Sandplay in China where there is great interest in Sandplay as a therapy for the grief and loneliness in children growing up under the one child policy.
Over the past twelve years of practicing Sandplay therapy with children, I have found the most pressing issues for which parents seek help are:
- the acting out of angry and aggressive behaviour
- unexplained anxiety and fears
- nightmares or scary dreams
- panic attacks
- frequent crying
- lack of motivation, poor school performance when the child is capable
- child being bullied at school
- sibling rivalry
- known sexual abuse of child
- nail biting
During this time, the children have taught me a great deal about themselves and how to be and work with them. Probably the most common cause for parents to seek counselling is recurrent or persistent angry or aggressive behaviour in their child.
Why Sandplay for children?
Children’s feelings are expressed in their behaviour. Mostly this is not an issue unless the behaviour begins to disturb others or disrupt family life in some way. The most obvious approach might be to control or stop the behaviour in order to bring about change. For example, if a child is displaying aggression towards other children, the most obvious way to address this is to punish the aggression. For children, the behaviour might stop but there will be a continued disturbance in the person’s feeling life. So the child may stop showing overt aggression, but will probably start acting out in other ways, as the cause of the problem and its impact on the childs feeling life has not been addressed.
Sandplay gives children the opportunity to express their feeling life in movement, sound, symbols and images. Sometimes words will accompany the expression. If not the children will be invited to tell the story of their Sandplay or give it a title, which often captures the essence of the emotional content of the Sandplay. Sometimes it is beneficial to discuss what has been created and other times what has been created simply but powerfully makes a statement of its own.
As I observe children’s behaviour, I get glimpses of what is happening on the deeper feeling level of the children. I let the behaviour show me and guide me as to how to work with the child. For young children, I give their feeling life an opportunity to complete its expression so that not only I can understand what is happening for the child, but the child also knows and will ultimately make choices in light of what has been revealed. In this way, their behaviour transforms, without the potential shaming and self-consciousness that can happen when children’s behaviour itself is focused upon and publicly discussed with the child.
Some children work through very difficult family situations in their sandtray while others express the rage they are feeling inside. Others represent how they would like life to be and gradually begin to accept that it is not like that at all. Children of all ages represent their struggles with the powerful energies that exist within them. Some take a long time to express those aspects of life about which they feel anxious. Yet others will represent something of their own birth traumas as they process various aspects of their experience.
One little boy was brought to me because of his overwhelming fears. His fears were such that he refused to do everyday routines, such as dressing, eating and bathing because he was scared something bad would happen. His neurosis was paralysing him and bringing his life to a halt. His first Sandplay showed something of this paralysis in that he finished the Sandplay in a few moments, and there were just three objects all in the one corner of the box. The rest of the box was space. Sandplay theory teaches that each object has an energy, which contributes to the overall expression. With just three objects in the box there was not very much energy evident or flowing.
After several sessions and becoming present to his fear in an age appropriate way, his subsequent sandtrays were abundantly endowed with a great number of objects and he reported himself that his Sandplays were different now. His parents also reported that he was more like his old self again, relaxed and participating in all aspects of his life once more. Prior to the onset of the child’s fearfulness the family had decided to move to another country and it was during this process of transition from one country to another that the child’s fears had intensified. Although the thoughtful parents had given the child much factual information about the move, the child’s emotional life still called for further attention.
A confirmation of my own beliefs about Sandplay came a few years ago, while sitting with a child who was working rather energetically in the sandbox with two animals battling it out. The child looked at me and asked, “Does everyone who comes to see you do Sandplays?”
“Some do and some don’t”, I replied.
He wanted to know why on earth some people did not do Sandplay. Looking at me earnestly with an animal in each hand he said, “Make sure you tell them how good it is for getting your anger out”.
Ammann, Ruth (1991) Healing and Transforming in Sandplay. Open Court: Chicago.
Axline, Virginia (1964) Dibs: In Search of Self. Penguin Books: U.S.A
Kalff, Dora (1980) Sandplay: A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche. Sigo Press: Massachusetts.
Pearson, Mark & Wilson, Helen (2000) Sandplay and Symbol Work. ACER Press, Melbourne.
Weinrib, Estelle (1983) Images of the Self. Sigo Press, Massachusetts.
History of Sandplay
Sandplay grew out of the World Technique, which was developed in the 1930s in England by Dr Margaret Lowenfeld, a child psychiatrist. Her work with children influenced not only psychotherapy for children but also found its way into early childhood curriculum in the form of sand and water play as well as imaginative/dramatic play. In the 1950s Dora Kalff, a Swiss Jungian analyst, studied with Margaret for twelve months and further developed Margaret’s technique and named it Sandplay. John Jensen, a student of Dora, brought the Jungian technique to Australia and combined it with Gestalt therapy.