What Are Play And Sand Tray Therapies?
Because play is the primary language of children, play therapy is used to help young kids and adolescents understand and express their emotions. Kids naturally learn about the world by engaging their imagination through toys, storytelling, dress-up, and creativity, and these same elements can be incorporated into the therapeutic space so that children can process their experiences. Similarly, sand tray therapy allows individuals to access the creative parts of the brain to work through difficult experiences, but it can be used for kids, teens, and adults alike.
The British psychologist Margaret Lowenfeld, who founded the Institute for Child Psychology in the late 1920s, established the “Lowenfeld World Technique” which incorporated toys, sand tray exhibits, and other forms of play into her model for therapy. As this approach began gaining traction in the 30s, Lowenfeld presented at a conference that was attended by the renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who is credited—among other Jungian clinicians—for further developing the sand tray therapy method that we use today.
While talk therapy predominantly engages the left hemisphere of the brain, play and sand tray therapies engage all parts of the brain, especially those not often used by adults who are in the process of outgrowing their imaginations. As such, both of these approaches are highly effective for integrating memories—particularly traumatic ones—so that the central nervous system can be more effectively regulated, improving coping skills and making difficult emotions more tolerable.
As you might imagine, play therapy and sand tray therapy are extremely useful for children, teens, and adults who have experienced trauma. However, play therapy is well-researched and widely used to treat children who are experiencing a wide range of mental health challenges, including anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), attachment issues, and other behavioral challenges.
How Do Play And Sand Tray Therapies Work?
Though many types of play therapy have been developed and adapted since the 1930s, child-centered approaches tend to be highly effective in empowering children to understand, process, and overcome adverse experiences. As opposed to sessions being directed by the therapist, child-centered play therapy will let the child lead the sessions, cluing the clinician into their thoughts, feelings, and emotions along the way.
Play therapy begins by introducing the child or adolescent to the therapeutic space where therapy sessions will take place, wherein children will have access to toys, costumes, creative outlets, and other play items that they can use as they see fit. It’s likely that, as the child or adolescent becomes more and more comfortable with the therapist, they will begin to play out difficult experiences and emotions during sessions, which will then be reflected by the child’s therapist. From there, the child or adolescent will be encouraged to learn the value of self-direction and will also be given boundaries for inappropriate behaviors, so that essential coping skills can be developed and nurtured.
Sand tray therapy sessions are not all that different, except that they are suitable to be used in conjunction with talk therapy for adults. In sand tray therapy, the child or adult client will be introduced to a room of miniature figurines that are meant to be placed in the sand tray to create a scene. The process of building a display and acting out sensory experiences or emotions can help the client understand how their discomfort or trauma is being stored in the body. Doing these exercises allows clients to integrate their memories on a deeper level that goes beyond the use of language.
The therapist will be there to observe and witness as clients learn new information about themselves by engaging the right hemisphere of the brain. And since new perspectives are bound to surface through play or sand tray therapy, the therapist can be there to offer support and guidance as clients work through difficult experiences.
How Do You Incorporate Play Or Sand Tray Therapy Into Your Practice?
At Insight Counseling Center, we take a person-centered approach with all of our clients, including with those of our clients in play and sand tray therapy sessions. We believe that when our clients are empowered to explore their emotions and build on their inherent strengths, they’re more likely to develop successful coping mechanisms that can help them regardless of their age or life experience.
Our playroom contains two separate spaces where either play therapy or sand tray therapy sessions will take place. Much of our approach aligns with the renowned play therapy program of the University of North Texas – Denton, which categorizes play materials into three distinct groups: toys that mimic real-life (dolls, puppets, playhouses, toy cash registers, etc.), toys meant for aggression release (bop bags or egg cartons that can be destroyed, for instance), and toys meant for creative expression (paints and crayons). Of course, sand tray therapy is another form of creative expression and we have shelves and shelves of colorful and diverse figurines that can be used to create scenes in our sand tray.
Because we are trauma-informed counselors, we often incorporate other methods into play and sand tray therapy sessions. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a particularly useful approach that also aims to stimulate both parts of the brain in order to clear blockages created by trauma and adverse experiences. When appropriate, our therapists may use EMDR and/or other behavioral techniques while working with clients in play and sand tray therapy sessions.
There is so much progress that can be made without the use of language or talk therapy. Play and sand tray therapy can facilitate growth and healing in a way that other therapies simply can’t. These approaches are well-researched and commonly used, underlining the importance of nonverbal, creative, and integrative therapies when it comes to targeting trauma and distress.
Play Therapy Can Help You Learn To Process Emotions Using Your Creativity And Imagination
If you or your child are struggling to understand and process an adverse experience or behavioral issue, play therapy and sand tray therapy at Insight Counseling Center offer nonverbal outlets for healing. For more information about our approach or to schedule an appointment, please visit our contact page