Christine Stevens PhD

Published in The British Gestalt Journal 2004 Vol 13 no 1 pp 18 - 23

Abstract:  Playing with small objects in a tray of sand is a powerful but simple form of experimentation, which for some time I have been incorporating into my work as a Gestalt therapist.  The therapeutic use of the sand tray is not something I have invented – it is used quite widely, especially in work with children, but I believe it is a rich and under-exploited resource for Gestalt therapists working with adults.  In this paper I
give a brief background to the development of the use of sand play in psychotherapy.  I then present my thinking about working in this way from the perspective of Gestalt psychotherapy theory, using some clinical examples to illustrate these ideas.

Key words:  Sandplay therapy, experimentation, Margaret Lowenfeld, Dora Kalff, Gestalt therapy, figure and ground.


Historical Background
Sand, or earth, and water are ancient elements of our world and universally part of our experience since childhood.Sadly, once children are in school, they often become inhibited in their creativity, claiming that they ‘cannot draw’ or that they are ‘not artistic’.  Later as adults, they freeze up when confronted with blank paper and drawing materials. The wonderful thing about sand play is that it belongs to the preschool years and out-of-school time so that it does not evoke memories of being marked and assessed.   As adults, we are usually remarkably free of introjects about playing in the sand.This is very useful therapeutically.

The fact that sand and water are now indispensable elements of pre-school nursery provision owes its origin to the work of Dr Margaret Lowenfeld.  She was a paediatrician working in London in the 1920’s.  In 1928 she founded the Children’s Clinic for the treatment and study of ‘nervous and difficult’ children, which in 1931 became the Institute for Child Psychology.  In 1935 she set up the first child psychology training programme in England.  Her theoretical ideas were published in Play in Childhood  (1935), which drew on case studies of 299 children seen in her clinic.  She created a therapeutic environment, which enabled free expression and safe experimentation.  She described her way of working as the “World Technique” and kept small objects and models in drawers, which the children could use as they needed, playing with them in trays of sand to which water could be added.

As a Gestalt therapist I feel an affinity with her approach.  She believed that children had inherent capabilities to survive adverse circumstances and that “difficult” children were rebels rather than deviants or social failures.  She was a friend of Margaret Mead, the anthropologist and understood the importance of social context, the developmental field. Given the opportunity, she believed that children will express what is important and healing for themselves through play, in Gestalt terms, organismic self-regulation.  Her method involved giving to the child her full attention, what she called “being there”.  We would recognise this as presence and fully entering into the child’s world, inclusion.  She did not try to fit what she observed of the child’s mind into pre-existing theory, which at that time was psychoanalytic (she was a contemporary of Melanie Klein and Anna Freud).  She carefully noted down what the child said and did in each session but made no attempt to modify or influence the child’s behaviour, a method we would recognise as essentially phenomenological.  She saw the work being initially a communication of the child to itself – objectifying its inner reality, and then a communication from the child to the therapist.  In contrast to contemporary psychoanalysis, she did not work directly with the transference between the child and therapist, or attempt to make interpretations about what she observed.  An important difference from a Gestalt approach in her method was the absence of a real dialogic relationship between client and therapist.  The therapist’s role was that of trusted elder and attentive observer rather than active participant.

From her observations, Lowenfeld believed that children think in pictures before they learn language, in a rich, multi-dimensional mode unbounded by time or space, and that this memory fades with the acquisition of language.  She thought that children did not have words for these intense experiences, but that they could access this pre-verbal thinking through the tactile quality of sand, water and toys.  She also thought that creativity in adulthood accessed this preverbal thinking, for example the dreamlike quality of the work of the artist Chagall. 


Jungian Takeover
Another important influence in the development of sand play in psychotherapy was Dora Kalff who studied with Margaret Lowenfeld for a year in 1956 at the Institute of Child Psychology and then integrated the techniques with a Jungian therapeutic framework.  Kalff shifted the emphasis from the idiosyncratic to the archetypal.  Instead of the child discovering their own meaning, the therapist saw universal archetypes and images, which the child was expressing in an unconscious, symbolic way through play.  In this analytical tradition, the client’s actual experience was bypassed as the therapist wove her perceptions of the client’s “unconscious” story into her own “conscious” understanding by drawing on a rich source of myth, symbol and archetype.  Kalff used Erich Neumann’s mythological developmental model to look for the emergence of self in the sand trays. (1)

The Jungian analytical approach to sand tray work has become dominant during the twentieth century.  Typically it places more emphasis on archetypal interpretations by the therapist than on the uniquely personal construction of meaning by the client.

Within the humanistic psychotherapies, sandplay equipment is often provided in the therapy room along with other creative materials.  Gisela de Domenico in the United States has for many years taught her particular method, which she calls Sandtray-Worldplay, in which she incorporates Kalff’s ideas with spiritual and cultural awarenesses.  Violet Oaklander, in Windows to our Children (1978) incorporates sandplay as one of many techniques for working with children.  In Britain it is taught at the Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education founded by Margot Sutherland in London.

A Gestalt Perspective
Although sandplay is known about and I think probably used quite widely as a projective technique by therapists working in the humanistic traditions, there is no well-developed theoretical understanding, possibly related to our lack of tradition in clinical research.  I am interested in understanding this work from a Gestalt theoretical perspective, particularly as developed by Paul Goodman in Gestalt Therapy Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, (1951, 1994), Souvenir Press; and from drawing on my own clinical experiences.
There is nothing special about the objects I have available on my shelves for use in the sandtray.   My collection includes little plastic animals, monsters, superheroes and mythical beasts – the sort of things you find lost under the fridge or abandoned at the bottom of the toy box.  To these I have added shells and stones – probably anything can be used.  In general I find non-human figures elicit richer projections.  Although wooden containers for the sand are aesthetically pleasing, plastic under-the-bed storage type boxes permit the addition of water without practical complications.  I do not think the exact size or shape is important.
Role of the Therapist
I locate the use of sandplay within the context of Gestalt experimentation.  I do not see it as a therapy in itself.  I do not aim to interpret or to look for universal symbols, but nor am I a passive observer.  The work is located within the active therapist-client relationship; it is part of the dialogical encounter, but the medium allows us to move beyond limitations of language.  What the client creates in the sandtray has an impact on me as we work together.  As I attend with full attention to what the client is creating, I become curious and engaged.  I may ask questions, become actively involved.  Sometimes a static scene is created; sometimes there is movement – a journey or happening.  What takes place in the session is a meeting between the client and myself that is unique.  It belongs to this moment.  The sandplay would be different at a different time, or with a different therapist. Sometimes I take photographs of sandtray work with permission for use in seminar presentations or with a Polaroid camera for the client at their request.  Photographs have a limited use: they serve as a reminder of a past event, a frozen moment in time.  However, what is important is the process, the dynamic of contact and the integration of meaning and experience.
Figure-ground formation
In Gestalt therapy, healing lies not in talking about or gaining insight, but in the formation of strong Gestalts, in the contacting process itself.  As Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb (2001) puts it, “to commit oneself to the spontaneity of contact making… is the basis for creativity”.  Growth happens as the organism creatively adjusts to its environment, spontaneously seizing upon and ingesting what is interesting and nourishing, deriving energy from the field to develop a strong, vivid figure of interest.

Therapy is concerned with the way this process is interrupted and inhibited; or as Goodman puts it, to “Remake the dynamic relations of figure and ground until contact is heightened, awareness brightened, behaviour energised” (Perls et al 1951,1994 p.232).  This contacting process is the creative integration of experience; it is the formation of self. 

In the process of figure formation and destruction, however, the client expresses certain preferences, which are valued over others.  These preferences have a habitual and characteristic quality, which indicate structural features of ground personal to the individual, and which impact on the dynamic of figure-ground formation.  What is ground may be out of the client’s awareness.  One cannot explore it without it becoming figure; the ground is then something else.  What happens, though, in sandplay when people choose their objects and place them in the sandtray is not random or arbitrary, however quickly this is done.  I never cease to be fascinated by the innate creativity by which a person chooses these objects rather than those and places them in this way rather than that.  As they work with the objects in the sandtray, profound meaning is often discovered or created, which moves the therapy process on.

The figure formed through sandplay emerges from the unique structure of the client’s ground and creates a new configuration.  As this happens, so the old habits of the contacting organism are destroyed in the interest of the new contact.  In this way, the structure of ground is transformed.  The contacting self is, as Goodman puts it, “the artist of life” (Perls et al 1951, 1994 p.235).  In the experimental process, the client both discovers and creates him/herself. The differentiated ground impacts on the forming figure.  As the figure emerges and the contacting process becomes clearer and stronger, so new possibilities for configuration are created. 
There is something about the concreteness and tangibility of the sandplay process that brings focus and energy to this figure-ground dynamic.  The very selection of the pieces and they way they are engaged with is specific to the individual – tangible evidence of their personal structure of ground.
Sandplay as Experimentation
One of the characteristics of adults engaging with children in a professional context is that they often want to control and quantify behaviour.  So instead of being a vehicle for freedom and spontaneity, it becomes fixed and rigid.  In Gestalt terms, there is a danger with any experiment becoming reified into a technique, which then becomes seen as a cure in itself.  Empty chair work and bashing cushions are often talked about in this way.  The value of sandplay in Gestalt therapy is not as a technique in itself but as part of what is available in the therapeutic environment that can be utilised for experimentation.

So I am not primarily interested in focussing on the size and colour of the tray, the colour of the sand, or the range of objects available, all of which are discussed at length by proponents of sandplay therapy.  You will notice in this article that I am not telling you how to do sandtray therapy, just as no one has told me how to do it.  If you wish to work in this way, you can be inspired by seeing it done, or by reading about it, but you will find your own unique way of working with this client at this time. As Zinker (1978) points out, (p.147), experiments are tools to be constantly modified.  They yield poor results when misused as rigid formulas, but are very useful when tailor-made to particular situations with specific clients. 

Goodman (Perls et al 1951, 1994  p.227) states that the purpose of practical experiments is to analyse the function of contacting and to heighten the awareness of reality.  One of the reasons therefore I might choose to use sandplay experimentally with a client is when there is no lively figure emerging in the work.  Something is being blocked; the person is not “all there”. 

For example, I had been working with my client, a woman in her late 20’s I shall call Janet, for over a year.  She had a history of unsatisfactory relationships, severe depression and jobs well below her abilities. Now the therapy seemed to have become bogged down.  She talked “about” many things, but it seemed as though some vital energy was missing.  I suggested we experiment with using the sandtray and introduced her to the materials. She quickly selected five objects and placed them without hesitation in the sand.  After some time, with both of us absorbed with what she had created, she explained to me what the objects meant to her.  The Disney figure reminded her of presents her father had brought back from a trip to America when she was a child, a happy memory.  The marble reminded her of how good she had been at playing marbles in the school playground as a young girl.  The tree represented her spirituality. The half-buried shell represented her mother who had died while Janet was at university studying music, and for whom she still grieved.  The red pen, which she completely buried in the sand, stood for her creativity.  Although she was a gifted musician, she had always felt forced into this by her mother and had never been able to exercise choice about how she expressed herself creatively.  During this session, Janet contacted her unresolved grief for her mother and some of the complex feelings she had about her in a more profound way than before. 

I suggested that she use the following session to create a sandtray focussing her awareness on her mother, bringing in materials for the purpose.  We shared a deeply moving time together as Janet placed the objects in the tray and brought into the here and now her buried feelings and conflicts about her mother.  One outcome has been that Janet has begun to reown her music for herself.  It is as though by making her mother’s death a clearer figure, Janet has been able to bury her more cleanly and to unearth and reclaim her own vitality and creativity.  Following these two sessions, she talked to her father who asked her why she was “so obsessed” with her mother.  She realised that what she had been grieving for was not only her mother, but also the family unit, which had been so powerful in her life and which she felt no longer existed.  She had never had the chance of forming an adult relationship with her mother.  It was as though she had become stuck in an unresolved transition between childhood and adulthood.  Her father showed her a photograph that he kept hidden in his wallet of herself, her mother and her brother, and this was very significant for her.  Janet regards the sandtray sessions as being the highlight of her therapy – the time when something significant shifted for her; a completed gestalt.  She now has stable employment and a good relationship with her boyfriend with whom she hopes to set up home.

Another criterion for the use of sandplay in Gestalt therapy is as an option when considering the grading of an experiment.  For some clients, empty chair work or psychodrama works well in the service of clear figure formation.  Others find such expressive work shaming or too challenging.  Some clients with physical disabilities also find these approaches difficult.  Sandplay can provide a safer, more contained environment for expressive work, which is, however no less powerful than other experimental tools.  It can be used by people in wheelchairs, people with speech problems and can be very effective for people with learning difficulties.  There are almost endless possibilities of how the sand can be used, with or without water, with or without almost any kind of object, but it is all held within and defined by the boundaries of the container.  This makes sandplay a useful experimental tool in situations where clients are overwhelmed by affect and need to access their thinking.

Carol is a highly histrionic client who is difficult to engage contactfully in therapy.  Her life is full of drama, panic and confusion that serve to mask her isolation and loneliness. She flits from one topic to another with affect to match so that working with her feels like riding a roller coaster.  In a recent session I suggested we work in the sand as an experiment to see if it would help ground her and focus her self-expression.  She placed herself in the centre of the tray, surrounded by mainly religious symbols representing her family.  Around the edge are soldiers and dragons, which she explained, represented her fears about the world at large.  During the session I invited her to dialogue with the people in her close circle, hearing both the messages they had for her and also her responses to them.  With the concrete representation of her present world contained within the space before her, Carol felt safe enough to engage in a sustained way with some of the significant relationships in her life.  Usually she finds it difficult to see beyond her own shut-away world of pain and misery.  In the sandplay, new possibilities for contact emerge as she is both in her world and also outside it looking in and therefore able to access her cognition, no longer overwhelmed by affect.

In another example, Gemma came very late to a group session.  She was feeling powerless and deeply distressed because the father of her 11-year-old son was threatening to take the child out of her custody.  In the sandtray she created the world of her experience, her son in one corner, being defended by her maternal self.  In front of the barricades, her fierce, fighting self stands prepared to defend him.  In the other corner lurks the real problem, her Jamaican mother-in-law who regards the child as her own.  Having created this material scene, Gemma was able to access her cognition as well her affect. As she dialogued with the different elements, the figure became clearer. Eventually she found the courage to bury her mother-in-law and experience more fully her own power in the situation.  She carried this through into making some decisions about how she organised her life that enabled her to exercise appropriate care for her child and herself and to resist attempts to undermine her in this way.

Another use of sandplay in Gestalt therapy is for diagnostic purposes.  One client with whom I held a session filled the sandtray with groups of animals representing different social groupings in his life.  He was gay and living in a stable relationship, but had not come out to his parents, so was very aware of acting differently in different circles, yet longing for universal acceptance and approval.  His “solution” was to mix all the animals up and arrange them into happy tea parties.  This helped me to understand his extreme sensitivity to challenge and confrontation.  This client’s characteristic way of being in the world was graphically played out in his sandplay. Later as we worked on issues relating to conflicts at work, we were able to use our shared metaphor of “tea parties” to explore his narcissistic need to be liked by everyone.

The possibilities for the use of sandplay in experimentation are endless. Mainly I have used it in one to one work with adults.  I have also used it in working with a family, where the children’s lack of inhibition in working in this way rather than verbally was empowering for them.  I have used it with a therapy group, where dynamics between group members were explored and played out in the sandtray, and also in supervision, where the supervisee explores the process between therapist and client in the tray.
Playing in Adulthood
Sometimes adult clients are surprised when I suggest we work in the sandtray, and often when I mention my work to colleagues, they assume I am working with children. Goodman (Perls 1951, 1994) suggests that as adults, we need to recover the child’s way of experiencing the world - traits such as spontaneity, imagination, earnestness, playfulness and direct expression of feeling (p.305) Using the sandtray appears to allow adults access to their own creative awareness.  Goodman describes this as a middle mode, which is neither unconscious nor deliberately calculating, which enables the awareness to “grow towards the coming solution.”  The experience is of meaning being discovered and derived from the world that has been created in the sandtray, within the therapeutic space.  I suspect that the logical, rational, quantifying thought networks of our brains tend to be where many of our blocks and resistances are located.  When in sandplay we access our capacity for creative play, what Lowenfeld called our “pre-verbal thought”, we seem able to bypass the resistances.  It is as though we came around the backdoor and caught ourselves out.  The contacting self through play is able to increase the area of awareness and risk and work out its own creative synthesis.  The concrete tangibility of play focuses the process, so that even one sandplay session can sometimes dramatically move the client on in their healing process.

As Goodman writes (Perls et al 1951,1994), “We believe that the free interplay of the faculties, concentrating on some present matter, leads not to chaos or mad fantasy, but to a gestalt that solves a real problem.” (p.246).   


  1. Eric Neumann postulated that at birth the child is a totality with the mother’s self, and that separation gradually takes place so that by the third year of life the child’s self is established in its own unconscious.  In his model, the developing personality passes through archetypal stages; vegetative and animal; confrontational, and adaptation. Where this process becomes disrupted, the person is left unconsciously searching for wholeness.  Kalff expected to see this process emerge symbolically in the sandtray over the course of therapy.



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Lowenfeld, M. (1935,1967)  Play in childhood. New York: Wiley
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Zinker, J. (1978). Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy. New York: Vintage Books.



Christine Stevens PhD  Malvern House, 41 Mapperley Road, Nottingham NG3 5AQ