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What is Sandplay Therapy?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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Sandplay therapy is used in many types of therapeutic practice. It is based on the work of Eric Neumann, whose principal psychological leaning was toward psychodynamic practices and the work of Dora Kalff, a Jungian. There is distinction between Jungian and psychodynamic sand tray use that is important, and the two therapies are sometimes called sandplay (Kalff) and sand tray (Neumann) to make clear they represent two different methods.

In Neumann’s approach, clients use sand trays with figures or other shapes, and use is viewed as expression of unconscious material. The therapist assumes active and directive roles, asking questions about the client’s choices as scenes are made. Therapists may directly client’s creations, and during the session the tray could be emptied and cleaned. This conversation between therapist/client during creation and interpretation fits well with Freudian models of the analyst as interpreter/instructor to the client, helping clients to grasp unconscious expressions in daily behavior or art production.

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Dora Kalff’s interpretation of sandplay therapy is said to have been inspired by Neumann, and was created in the mid 20th century. There are real differences between Kalff and Neumann, and how the sand tray might be used. One of the biggest changes is the way in which therapist and client interact while a sandplay therapy scene is being created. Kalff advocated for therapists to not intervene in this process at all; therapists only talk if a client asked a direct question. In other circumstances, the therapist is accepting and quiet while the client creates the sand tray picture with sand and a selection of figures.

Additionally, the sand tray is left undisturbed until the client leaves. There might even be a picture taken of it, which could be shared with the client. In Kalff’s early recommendations analysts made drawings of trays.

The divergence between the two types of sandplay therapy is due in part to differences between psychodynamic and Jungian approach. Kalff argued that all humans strive toward wholeness or individuation, and given things like representative figures and sand, they will naturally create archetypal scenes signifying this journey. This needs very little intervention on the therapist’s part, and emerges specifically through creative acts. The psychodynamic approach favors a different view of the unconscious where people require interpretation to understand unconscious motives. The Jung/Freud schism is evident especially in Jung’s belief in a collective unconscious, or set of images/archetypes shared by all people that are recognized on a deep level.

In actual practice, therapists may differ in how they employ sandplay therapy. They may use it as part of a session or all of it, and in each session or only in a few. It can be used with children and adults, and may be best employed when therapists have a number of figures to be chosen for the sand tray. A number of therapists attend special workshops to train in its use and these may rigidly adhere to a single type of therapy or could blend schools of thought.

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