How Does Sand Tray Therapy Work?

Sand tray therapy allows people to work through complicated emotions and traumatic experiences. When done effectively, this work facilitates powerful insight for clients. In addition, it can help people recognize viable solutions for their problems.

Sand tray combines elements of both play and art therapy. Although it’s unstructured, it can support therapists in helping clients identify important insights about their lives. Here’s what you need to know. 

What Is Sand Tray Therapy? 

Sand tray therapy is a form of experiential therapy that encourages here-and-now processing. But instead of talking about your thoughts and feelings directly, you will use sand and various objects to share more about your inner world.

Sand tray therapy may resemble child’s play. However, it can be a highly effective therapeutic tool for both children and adults. 

Furthermore, research shows that sand tray therapy is evidence-based. That means that the theory and interventions have been comprehensively evaluated and proven to make positive differences when compared to controlled trials. 

Who Can Benefit From Sand Tray Therapy?

Sand tray therapy can be done with children, adults, and families. Some therapists also use sand trays when working with groups. 

This therapy can be helpful for people struggling with:

  • Complex trauma
  • Anger issues
  • Depression
  • Grief and loss
  • Identity problems
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Childhood behavioral issues
  • Sexual assault

Some therapists may use the sand tray as a supplemental intervention to their usual therapy. Other therapists focus on providing exclusive sand tray work. Before meeting with a provider, you can certainly inquire about their preferred approach.

What Happens During Sand Tray Therapy? 

Different therapists have different approaches when it comes to sand tray therapy. However, they will outline their expectations before you engage in this intervention.  

Your therapist will likely begin the session by offering you a large tray filled with sand. They will also provide an assortment of miniature toys. These toys are limitless- you might have access to people, trees, doors, houses, and foods. The toys might include a combination of ‘real life’ figurines as well as imaginary ones. 

As part of “the work,” your therapist may encourage you to design a world that best represents your current feelings, struggles, or fears. Therefore, you will be invited to use the sand and toys in whatever way you see fit.

During this time, your therapist will typically observe how you use, arrange, and respond to the sand tray. Remember there are no wrong answers or “right way” to do anything. Whatever you do (or don’t do) is completely permissible.

How Long Does Sand Tray Therapy Last?

Generally speaking, therapists don’t subscribe to a particular timeline when it comes to expressive therapy treatment. Instead, they evaluate progress based on how the client’s growth and abilities to implement change.

That said, you may start feeling better after just a few sessions. Ideally, you will be learning more about yourself and experiencing some relief about your current situation.

At the same time, the beginning stages of therapy can be difficult. Awareness is often painful, and it isn’t uncommon to feel like you’re taking a few steps backward once you begin your healing journey. 

It’s important to maintain open communication with your therapist. You have a right to be informed about your treatment. If you are concerned about the length of services (or the efficacy of your care), it’s reasonable to ask questions and get the clarification you need!

What Else Should You Know About Expressive Therapies?

People often think of therapy only within the context of traditional talk therapy. Indeed, many times, this method can be incredibly beneficial. Processing your feelings with a trusted professional can help you feel validated and supported during a challenging time.

But talking directly isn’t always the best approach. At times, it may not even be feasible. Some people, for example, find it extremely challenging to open up to someone. They may feel guarded with their fears or scared to be vulnerable

Others might struggle to really articulate their emotions or needs. Even if they want to talk about what’s going on, they may lack the language (or insight) to do so. This is particularly true with children and adolescents. It’s also a common reaction when people have undergone severe trauma.  

Expressive therapy offers a different form of processing. Art, play, and creative expression allow you to share your inner world without necessarily talking about it in such an upfront way. 

Final Thoughts

Sand tray therapy can offer a powerful emotional release and give you beneficial insight into your mental health. Ideally, it will help you in different ways from traditional talk therapy.

At Willow Counseling, we offer numerous types of therapy treatments for clients. Regardless of your circumstances, we aim to work with you to ensure you receive optimal support. Contact us today to learn more and get started. 

Willow Counseling, PLLC – Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.


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