Sandbox therapy may sound simple, but it is actually a powerful therapeutic technique.
Are there certain items that immediately give you a positive or negative feeling? Maybe frogs remind you of happy times at your grandmother’s lakeside house. Or maybe the smell of cigars makes you uncomfortable, but you don’t know why.
This is the idea behind sandbox therapy. This unique approach – part play therapy, part art therapy – helps evoke conscious and unconscious memories through tactile play.
Sandbox therapy is most often used with children and people with autism. It can also help adolescents and adults, especially those who have been through trauma or grief.
Sandbox therapy is a therapeutic approach that uses expressive and practical techniques.
The therapist or counselor conducting the session will encourage the client to express themselves by creating a safe fantasy world with a variety of figures, toys and accessories. These objects can include “real life” figurines such as trees, people, houses and animals, or imaginary figurines, such as wizards and monsters.
These carefully selected toys and tools allow customers to create aspects of their indoor or outdoor world in a sandbox. These objects represent words and the creation of the person is language.
Sandbox therapy is a healing process that helps the client overcome any painful memories, conscious or unconscious. At the end of the session, the therapist and the client will reflect and discuss the underlying meaning of creation.
We all carry conscious and unconscious memories, some of which are quite painful.
When we have painful unconscious memories – or perhaps conscious memories that are too painful to discuss – the typical types of talk therapy aren’t as helpful.
This is where sandbox therapy can help.
Sandbox therapy allows the client to choose objects that they resonate with or that make them feel safe. Using a variety of specific sandbox exercises, the client and therapist can then reflect on why certain objects were chosen.
These exercises are especially useful for people who may have difficulty verbalizing their memories and hurts. This can include children, adolescents and adults who:
Sandbox therapy can also help with low self-esteem, difficulty socializing, or problems at school.
Sandbox interventions help develop a collaborative relationship between therapist and client. They also help to promote the autonomy and freedom of expression of young people in the therapeutic context.
Therapists can use the sandbox for a variety of purposes. The specific technique may depend on the particular client (such as age and psychiatric condition) as well as the particular approach of the therapist.
The most common techniques and types of sandboxes include the world technique and the humanistic approach.
The technique of the world
The worldwide technique was developed in the 1920s by Dr Margaret Lowenfeld, a British pioneer in child psychology. Guests receive trays of wet and dry sand, as well as an assortment of toys and tools. These can include animals, cars, action figures, shovels, etc.
Using the toys and tools, the client builds a safe “world” which is essentially seen as a microcosm of their inner world. This world is determined solely by the imagination and subconscious of the client. The World Technique is one of the most common techniques in sandbox therapy.
The humanist approach
In the humanistic approach, therapists view the client as a self-fulfilling individual who has the ability to use their own inner resources to grow. Through creative play, the client is able to discover the answers to their problems, rather than relying on the therapist.
Clients use sand to express their feelings and thoughts when they would not be able to express them otherwise in traditional therapy.
The terms “sandbox therapy” and “sandplay therapy” are often used interchangeably, but there are some distinctions between the two. And because gambling is certainly a part of sandbox therapy, the terms can be confusing.
Overall, sandbox therapy is more or less an umbrella term, while sandplay therapy can sometimes refer to a specific method of sandbox therapy based on the ideas of psychoanalyst Carl Jung. .
Jungian sandplay therapy focuses on the subconscious and involves many plateaus over an extended period of time. The therapist may not perform sand play for months or even years.
Research on the use of sandbox therapy with children who have experienced sexual assault shows that this method can allow children to return to traumatic experiences and gain control over them.
During sandbox therapy, children can stage their traumatic experiences by using repetition to assimilate their experience. This is called post-traumatic play. As children gain control over their traumatic experience in a safe environment, they shift from being passive recipient to active agent. As a result, they are able to create a new sense of experience.
A 2020 case study evaluated the effects of this therapy on a 23-year-old woman with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The researchers measured the client’s anxiety symptoms as well as any changes in the brain’s thalamus.
After completing 18 one-hour sandplay therapy sessions over a 9-week period, her anxiety symptoms went from severe to normal.
When performed in conjunction with medication and psychotherapy, sandbox therapy can help reduce anxiety in some people. However, more studies are needed to determine its true effectiveness.
If you are interested in sandbox therapy for yourself or your child, you can visit Sandplay Therapists of America to search for a local therapist.
If you’d like to do some additional research first, Sand Play Therapists of America have a demonstration video online.