Sand Tray Therapy in Trauma Counseling

The following excellent materials on sand tray therapy are excerpted from an article by Jane Webber and Barry Mascari, and a link can be found further down the page.

The article is entitled Sand Tray Therapy and the Healing Process in Trauma and Grief Counseling.

Webber and Mascari have a true gift, I believe, for describing how the trauma counseling process can be enhanced using a tray of sand and figurines chosen by the participant to place in the sand and manipulate in a way that allows them to become more deeply aware of their own grieving process.

The sand tray can help a client move around the verbal process, where there may be an internal rule or two about what can be said out loud and into a kinesthetic experience which facilitates healing.

But here is the excerpt, so you can decide for yourself. " Sand tray therapy is increasingly recognized as an effective therapeutic tool in trauma and grief counseling.

Sand Tray Therapy Effective in Grief and Trauma

But here is the excerpt, so you can decide for yourself. " Sand tray therapy is increasingly recognized as an effective therapeutic tool in trauma and grief counseling.

The tactile, nonverbal experience promotes awareness of deeply personal emotional issues within a safe, therapeutic environment.

Sand tray therapy provides a powerful therapeutic medium that addresses Herman’s (1997) three-step trauma protocol to establish safety, reconstruct the trauma story, and restore connections with the community. Clients report that they feel drawn to certain figures and are surprised at the power of sand tray in promoting their disclosure of sensitive issues. The arrangement of miniature figures in sand reflects the client’s inner world and evokes spontaneous metaphors and healing narratives that provide understanding of the trauma story. Individuals begin to find solace and healing in the sand tray experience without using words.

Sand Tray and Trauma

Sand tray is a treatment approach, an intervention, and an assessment tool for trauma that provides a unique safe and protected environment to allow the client to reconstruct the trauma story (Gil, 2006). Counselors should carefully evaluate the appropriateness of sand tray as a therapeutic technique and the readiness of the client for trauma and grief work:

1) When tactile, multi-sensory, or holistic modalities may be more accessible to the client;

2) When talk therapy is not appropriate for jump-starting treatment without using words;

3) When safe distance and physical boundaries are needed to deal with emotional pain;

4) With clients who are very resistant or fearful;

5) With clients who need control and power over the environment to address graphic memories of abuse, injury, or death;

6) When the trauma is so unmentionable and unspeakable that client cannot begin the process of healing through traditional verbal interventions.

Sand Tray Therapy-Kara and the Birthday Party

Kara: The Birthday Party

Kara was eight years old when her father died in the World Trade Center disaster. Kara, her mother, and brother attended a family therapy program with other families of victims for several years. She also worked with her school counselor and liked making scenes in sand. Kara first selected tiny inanimate rocks and shells and grouped them in one corner, leaving the rest of her tray empty. After many sand trays, Kara began adding figures and trees. Four years later, around the time of her dad’s birthday in September, Kara chose figures representing her family that included her dad for the first time. She placed a miniature barbecue grill, umbrella, and picnic table in the sand, and arranged her family around the table with a cake. She formed candles from clay. “Dad misses his birthday party. We can’t have it at home because Mom cries so much. Happy Birthday, Daddy.”

When Kara was asked if she would like to invite her family to do sand tray, she eagerly agreed. Kara’s mother learned how expressive Kara was with sand tray and how it helped her children heal. Through group sand tray, family members took turns making scenes. When they felt safe, Kara’s mother and brother shared their stories with her with similar themes of grief and loss and rebuilding their lives.

Interpretation is based upon the client’s readiness and the counselor’s level of skill and training. Client insight always precedes counselor insight. The counselor is vigilant about the timing for narrative empathy based on the client’s progress in the healing process. Attentive to the client’s developmental readiness for questions, the counselor gently invites the creator to put words to the sand tray creation within a protected environment. “Tell me about your tray.” “What is the title?” “Perhaps you could make up a story.” As the client becomes able to speak, the counselor encourages the story to unfold. “Are you in the tray?” “Which figure represents you?” “Are there others in the tray?” “What (who) has the most power?” “What are you saying to the others?”

Sand tray theorists suggest that universal themes are reflected in how the tray is organized, how the space is occupied, and whether human figures are included in the tray (Homeyer & Sweeney, 1998; Turner, 2005). Each sand tray creation is a unique reflection of the client’s inner world.

In sand tray sessions the counselor invites the client to risk becoming creator and sole author of his/her world. Counselors must be prepared to receive and contain spontaneous disclosures and deeply personal stories. This new constructivist role can be immensely transformative and at the same time frightening for the client. As the client begins to reconstruct the trauma story, the role of narrative empathy becomes increasingly important. The following are basic guidelines for the counselor in using sand tray in the healing process.

* Provide a deeply safe and protected healing environment. * Avoid speaking until the client completes the sand tray creation. * Stand or sit so that the entire building process and tray can be viewed. * Notice the client’s development of the sand tray. Which figure is placed first? What items are moved? Does the creator engage the figures in action? Does the creator narrate the action or speak for the figures? * Observe the client’s contact with the sandbox and self-soothing with sand. Does the creator move the sand with his/her hands or a tool? Moisten the sand? Place figures under the sand? Work outside the tray? * Hold back from giving interpretation, meaning, or names to the client’s sand tray. * Respect the pace of sand tray construction and the client’s need for repetition in reconstructing the trauma story. Do not rush the process. * Recognize, with the client’s stories, the potential personal impact of vicarious trauma.

Closure of Therapy

The sand tray is not dismantled until after the creator leaves. It is considered a sacred, personal construction. Weinrib (1983) cautions that “to destroy a picture in the patient’s presence would be to devalue a completed creation, to break the connection between the patient and his inner self and the unspoken connection to the therapist” (p. 14). In the trauma healing process, photographs can be taken to provide the developmental history of the sand tray process.

Family or group sand tray can help clients reconnect with friends and family members who can work together with a large sand tray or take turns, watching while each one works in sand. They become silent observers watching the creation and listening to the creator’s story. This approach was particularly therapeutic with families after September eleventh who received emotional support and comfort through group sand tray experiences.


Sand tray as a therapeutic approach offers tremendous opportunities to address a wide range of problems. Many therapists have limited its use to young clients; however, the cases in this article should provide encouragement to expand its use. Of the large number of traumatized veterans returning from Iraq, many may be unable or unwilling to address their issues through traditional modalities. Sand tray may offer the safe therapeutic environment needed to assist in their healing process. Often, traumatic experiences imbedded as traumatic memory may not heal with words without safely re-experiencing and reconstructing the traumatic event. Sand tray can provide the therapeutic method and medium to begin the healing journey."

References Gil, E. (2006). Helping abused and traumatized children: Integrated directive and nondirective approaches. New York: Guilford Press.

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Homeyer, L. E., & Sweeney, D. S. (1998). Sandtray: A practical manual. Canyon Lake, TX: L 

Webber and Mascari on Sand Tray Therapy 

I was very touched by the story of Kara above, who was eager for her family to participate, and a family sand tray is a very intriguing prospect for me.

Just wondering how a counselor might do mediation or marital or divorce counseling using a sand tray?

Would a family sand tray help folks move past the he-said, she-said victim-persecutor kind of dialogue and into a more productive emotional state, move past the grief and into a mutual creativity kind of state, where a couple or family members are working on their realm to build it?

I will have to check and see if sand trays have been used in positive psychology.

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Sand Tray Therapy as Novel Learning Experience

If you have been reading anything at all about the brain fitness research in the last year, then I am sure you have come across materials about the pillars of brain fitness.

It turns out that there are a couple of recently discovered capacities of the human brain which we can enhance by attending to the pillars of brain fitness.

One capacity is neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells, and the other is neuroplasticity, which describes how neurons rewire very quickly when we learn something new, and working in a sand tray, quietly attending to unconscious processes would certainly qualify as a novel learning experience, which is one of the pillars of brain fitness.

The other pillars are physical exercise, nutrition including getting lots of omega 3 fatty acid and antioxidants, sleep, and stress management.

To prepare yourself for deep exploration, it might help to try out some of the computerized novel learning experiences like the Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Pro, or Lumosity, or the Posit Science Brain Fitness Program.

Here are links, and I hope you enjoy your continuing exploration. For a great overview of the pillars of brain fitness and how to enhance them, please read Brainfit for Life by Simon Evans,Ph.D. and Paul Burghardt,Ph.D., neuroscientists at the University of Michigan. 

Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Pro - Software that makes you smarter

Would You Share Something That You Are Grateful For?

When I was beginning my personal growth journey, a wise person told me that when I was feeling resentful or afraid or sad, that I should remember the phrase "gratitude is the attitude" when I was ready to feel better. That phrase has helped me feel better tens of thousands of times.

Would you share what you are most grateful for? Your story could be just what another person is searching for to renew themselves? Thanks.

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