David (name changed) was a sweet and somewhat shy 6-year-old boy, who started therapy with me after an adolescent male babysitter had sexually abused him. During one of our early sessions, I showed him a tray filled with sand, as well as a large array of figurines, toys, objects, and props that he could use to build an imaginary world in the sand. He proceeded to retrieve any plastic play animal that he could find in my collection, and arranged them in the sand tray in a rather random fashion. When he was done with this, he surveyed the scene and then, while looking concerned, stated, “No, that’s no good because the wild animals will eat the gentle ones.”
He turned back to my collection of play objects and, after looking pensive a while, retrieved a collection of interlocking fences. He proceeded to build different fenced-in areas and then to segregate the two types of animals (“wild” and “gentle”). Upon completing this, he looked relieved and said, “Great, now the animals are safe.” He sighed, with a distant look in his eyes for a few moments, and then he looked up at me and smiled.
David’s experience during the session was a powerful example of the beneficial uses of play in psychotherapy. Play can give a child the opportunity to express emotions, thoughts, and needs that they might be hard-pressed to describe fully in words. In addition, play can provide the opportunity for a kind of therapeutic “working through,” in which the child may encounter and respond to traumatic material in a completely new way. It is often in play, where the child is the master of the story he is telling, that he can experience a sense of mastery and safety over circumstances, which previously made him feel helpless, hopeless, and filled with shame and inadequacy.
David was able to express his emotions and work through his experiences through the toys. He was able to show me, metaphorically, how unsafe he, as the gentle animal, had been when he was being exploited by the wild animal, which was a symbol for the perpetrator. In building the fences, David then established the sense of boundaries, separation, and safety that should have been in place from the beginning, to prevent him from exposure to the babysitter’s exploitative behavior. Symbolically, David was able to imagine himself being able to build his own protection, which then brought on the mood of relief and even happiness.
The sand tray is a popular therapeutic technique that enables the young client to make a visual representation of their internal and/or external worlds. The inside of the sand tray box is painted sky blue to emphasize that a “world” is being created. The upper part of the tray comes to represent sky, and the blue at the bottom of the tray can be exposed, in order to represent bodies of water. Play objects can range from the mundane to the supernatural, and may include figures of people, vehicles, houses, trees, common everyday items, ghosts, dragons, buried treasure, and armed knights on their steeds. The child can mold the sand into mountains, valleys, etc., and then place the figures in various modes of relationship or interaction.
The sand tray technique has been used successfully with adolescents and even adults. It can stand powerfully by itself or as an initial activity that will lead to a deep discussion of the symbolic significance of the sand tray display.
I often look at the sand tray as if it is an acted-out dream. Similar to the way dreams intermix random elements to come up with new interrelationships and meanings, so too in the sand tray the participant has the ability to respond to the array of play figures, and then arrange them in a way that seems interesting to him. In my experience, dreams and imagination are not only very powerful forms of self-expression, but might also hold the key to how to take a quantum step forward. To use my own metaphor, we can only soar after we have imagined that we can.
By Dr. Michael Milgraum