The following article appears in the September 2004 issue of the Big Apple Parent Paper.
In the early 1950's, Carl Jung urged his protégée Dora Kalff to develop an approach in working with children. Out of Kolff's research came the integration of several psychological schools of thought leading to the birth of Jungian Sandplay Therapy. Although Sandplay therapy has long been valued as a treatment for both children and adults, it is particularly accessible to children. Walk into any Sandplay room and you'll see why.
Sandplay rooms are filled with miniatures that symbolically represent the world at large. Typically you will find animals (wild and domestic), people (varying ages and cultures), homes, vehicles, caves, dinosaurs, soldiers, trees, rocks, mythical and spiritual figures, bridges, fences, lighthouses etc. With little prompting, children seem to instinctively take the miniatures off the shelf and play with them in trays filled with actual sand (dry or wet). They tell stories; they create images; the sand, the tray, and the miniatures combine to engage the active imagination, launching a healing journey.
Why sand? Dora Kalff discovered something most parents already know intuitively - children love to play in the sand. Indeed sand is used ritually as a healing and grounding medium throughout the world. In Jungian terms, since sand mediates between the land and the water, it is seen as a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind.
Sandplay is a non-directive modality that can be used as a non-verbal therapy or as an adjunct to verbal psychotherapy, which is typically how I use it in my practice. The beauty of Sandplay is in its uncanny ability to target what needs attention in the moment. This is especially useful for children do not have the layers of defenses that adults have developed over time. Therefore if a therapy can accurately target that which is creating an obstacle for growth and development in the present - treatment can be accelerated. Here is one case example.
A 9 year old child comes in for anger management. His life is punctuated by loss, trauma, and divorce. His trays depict many battles, no victors. There are so many miniatures flooding the tray, it's hard to decipher. The trays show us what his inner world looks like. He can't talk about his feelings because they are simply too chaotic. These trays go on for many months.
The initial role of the therapist in this case is to help hold the child's inner experience, to witness it accurately with him. Once the chaos and pain can be seen, they become less frightening and a shift becomes possible. In this process, we see how the trays themselves are containing vessels, the trays communicating what is not available to his conscious mind, especially at such a young age. Typically, children can not articulate what is making them anxious. There may be an underlying anxiety that is not yet "known" or there may be pre-verbal anxiety. In these situations, talk therapy may not get to the source of the anxiety which is one of the reasons why a non-verbal therapy like Sandplay can be so effective.
As time passes, his trays begin to differentiate. There is less flooding, more separation, less chaos and a clearer sense of self emerges. Out of this process, this child becomes more communicative (although still very private), better able to manage social situations in an appropriate manner, and less angry with his mom. In fact, he learns (once again) to lean on mom and trust her ability to help him manage the challenges of his life. This child made important strides during a particular period of his life. Were all issues resolved? Possibly. Possibly not. What is clear, however is that the work he did freed him up to attend to his developmental tasks allowing him to move forward at a time when he was stuck.
In closing, Sandplay therapy is getting recognized in a more formal manner since 911. Researchers at Columbia University are documenting its value. After 911, school social workers and guidance counselors were desperate to find effective means of treatment for trauma. As clinician and collateral providers learned about sandplay, its efficacy in helping children and teens identify, process, and contain their fears, grief, and anxieties through symbolic expression became evident. As a result, Sandplay emerged as a treatment of choice both for its capacity to heal and it's gentleness.
Now more than 17 schools in lower Manhattan (and the entire school district of Montclair, NJ) officially use Sandplay and have found it to be useful for a wide range of issues from trauma to learning disabilities, from language delays to normative developmental stress.
To find out more about Sandplay therapy or to locate a Sandplay therapist in your area visit: www.sandplayusa.org.