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Sand Tray Therapy Facilitates Healing, and Solves Problems with Children Adolescents and Adults

By Tracy McConaghie, LCSW, RPT/S

Most of us have had the experience of playing in sand, whether it is in a childhood sandbox, on a beach vacation, or lounging by a lake. When in the presence of sand, we often feel a pull to run our fingers through it, shape it, or wiggle our toes in it. What most do not know is that playing in sand is also a powerful therapeutic technique.

Sand tray therapy is a technique used to facilitate healing, gain insight and solve problems with children, adolescents and adults. The picture below is the sand tray therapy space in my office: two specifically proportioned sand trays and a myriad of miniatures for clients to choose from as they create their sand tray. The sand tray miniatures represent the diversity of life: beauty, pain, nurture, violence, spirituality, daily life, aggression, death, fantasy, fun, nature, animals and humans.

sand therapy

Sometimes sand tray work is a free creative experience. As such it provides a window into the inner life and experience of a child or teen, which can be reflected on together or allowed to stand as it is. Children in particular often create the healing experiences they need when building a sand tray in this manner.

In addition, I often suggest sand tray work when a client is attempting to solve a problem or gain perspective on a situation they are struggling with. Examples of this include using the sand to:

  • show how things are at school with a bully
  • show the way things are and the way you want them to be
  • create the marriage you want to have
  • create a tray with your family doing something
  • show what it will look like when you are not afraid of ______

My clients and I then take our time to examine and reflect on the truths and messages in the sand, and this often leads to new possibilities. Since the sand tray is a concrete, limited space, it invites us to look at our world and experiences as a whole and in three dimensions, often offering brand new ideas. I have seen a boy re-create a situation with a bully and then discover he could let go of some of his reactions and change the whole relationship. Other children have represented their feelings about divorce in the sand in a way that gave them tremendous relief and also provided their parents and me with insights into how to support them. Children who have been paralyzed with anxiety can easily create a sand scene in which they have mastered their fear and this sets in motion the mental process they need to let go of their fears. Sometimes I ask clients to put figures that represent a problem in the center of the sand and then we surround it with figures that represent the solutions and resources available to them.

One of the reasons my career brings me such joy is the opportunities to watch my clients bravely face life and form new beliefs about themselves and their world, often with the magic of sand work.

Tracy McConaghie, LCSW, RPT/S, CPDLT, works with clients of all ages, with a specialty in children, teens and parenting. Her husband Andrew is a couples counselor, and together they run McConaghie Counseling in Alpharetta. They can be reached at 770-645-8933, or tracy@mcconaghiecounseling.com.
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