What is Sandplay?

What is Sandplay?

Do you just make castles or something? That’s the usual question I get when I mention that I’m a Sandplay Therapist. It’s not a silly question. Sand. Play. Castles. They all go together. My standard response is that Sandplay is a non-verbal expressive therapeutic technique. That usually gets me a blank stare, which is wholeheartedly understandable because unless you’re in the field of therapy, non-verbal expressive therapies shouldn’t resonate. Truthfully, many therapists don’t really know what Sandplay is either.

So, I’ve been thinking about how to explain Sandplay in a more relatable way. It’s a challenge because often, I don’t have words for what I witness or experience. Instead, I feel it and most importantly, the client feels it. Therefore, rather than explain Sandplay in an intellectual manner, I’d like to share my story: how Sandplay came into my life and reappeared when I needed it.

I was 21 years old and in Philadelphia, for my paternal grandmother’s funeral. We had arrived some days before the funeral, while she was in hospice. It was difficult watching my father manage the decisions about his mother. I was old enough to understand mortality and didn’t like thinking about my own parents’ mortality or my own. My great Uncle Bill, my father’s uncle, spied me sitting in one of the hospital waiting chairs and asked me if I wanted to take a break from the hospital and come with him. I jumped at the chance to escape the heaviness I felt, even though I didn’t know my great Uncle Bill all that well since we lived on opposite sides of the country.

That hospital day, Uncle Bill brought me to his house and asked if I’d like to come into his office. With a psychiatrist as a father, I was well versed in psychobabble. If he wanted to “have a session” with his grandniece, I’d oblige because I knew how to avoid, dodge, and circumvent the real intimate questions. Never in my strangest dreams could I have imagined his office. Ceiling to floor shelves lined the walls. Figurines covered every inch of space. Name something; he had it. Animals. Mystical creatures. Nature objects. Famous buildings. People.  I stood at the entrance of his office motionless, in amazement. Uncle Bill didn’t push or pull. He just let me be and experience whatever it was that I was feeling.

Great Uncle Bill had returned to school in his late 40s to earn a PhD in psychology. He was a character, a total free spirit. As the youngest of seven brothers, Uncle Bill would pull me aside and tell me that we, the youngest, have to stick together. It didn’t seem to matter to him that I was just the youngest of two whereas he the youngest of seven brothers! He saw us as equals and it endeared him to me.

After a good amount of time, he asked me if I’d like to create something. I asked him what he meant. Gently, he explained that the figurines were to use in the sand tray that sat glaringly in the middle of the room. I looked at him. I looked at the thousands of figures. I looked back at him. What the hell, I remember thinking. At least I won’t have to talk.

And so, I created. I spent almost an hour engrossed in little figures. I created a mini world in the sand tray while my great Uncle Bill observed. He didn’t question me. He didn’t make comments. He just let me be and do whatever it was that I needed to be and do. He made me a big cup of tea afterwards and we sat together until my parents and brother came to pick me up.  They asked me what I did. They asked me what I said. I just shrugged. It was inexplicable (and none of their business.) That day with my great Uncle Bill never left me. I recall that day as vividly as if it were yesterday.

Fast-forward 22 years. I was a school counselor, educational therapist, and adjunct professor. I had two boys of my own. I decided to open a private psychotherapy practice and wanted to do something special. I wanted Sandplay. I wanted others to be able to experience what I did with my uncle. I found the only training happening in New England and dove straight in. Although I enjoyed the training because I was able to re-immerse myself in Jungian concepts and learn about Dora Kalff and the roots of Sandplay, the most meaningful and worthwhile part of becoming a Sandplay Practitioner was the journey of my own Sandplay process.

To me, Sandplay is about allowing the psyche – our soul or spirit – to express what it needs to. Words can be manipulated and carefully chosen whereas images/figurines can’t hide their true meaning. The images/figurines our psyche chooses when we create a tray may reveal both our conscious and unconscious thoughts/feelings. Sandplay is a vehicle for our psyche’s expression. The psyche, both conscious and unconscious parts, deserves to be heard and explored.

Uncle Bill made me feel seen and Sandplay offered a window to really see myself. It wasn’t always pretty. In fact, it was a very uncomfortable and painful process. But, in my experience, change and self-understanding is never simple or easy.