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Mental Health Matters: Sand Tray & Play Therapy

This past fall during my master’s counseling program at the University of Wyoming, I was enrolled in a play therapy course. During class one weekend my professor brought out sand trays and instructed us to use the sand trays and toys to share how our semester was going. What started as describing the academic semester turned into an expression of various situations in my life that had nothing to do with school. The reason sand tray therapy and play therapy can reach feelings and issues that are hard for us to communicate through talk therapy is because play gives us a way to communicate without using words.

The reason play therapy is so effective with children is because play is their language and toys are their words (Landreth, 2012). Yet, as adults we don't view play as a priority. The United Nations recently documented that children are born with inalienable rights, one of those rights being the right to play. Play is crucial to expression, growth, and development. Why are adults so quick to discount it, or dismiss it altogether? While our expression of play will likely change over time, it is still a significant factor in our growth, development, and overall mental health, even as adults.

In my experience with sand tray therapy I realized it was an easy way to use objects, toys, and manipulating sand to tell a story, the story of my life, my situation, and my feelings in a given season. During the next part of this experiment in class we partnered up with someone and explained our sand tray to them. As you can see in my sand tray, I had a dragon, army men, McDonald's fries, a dinosaur, and an alien. One of the unique things in sand tray therapy is that some objects, like dragons, dinosaurs, bridges, and gems can have almost universal meanings. A dragon can mean protector, danger, or do not enter, and a gem can mean love, goals, or achievement. Yet, what I find most interesting about play therapy is that the toys and objects can represent whatever you want, they are your words making up your story.

As adults we usually get stuck in concrete thinking. If a child has a toy car, they have a car; it can’t be a rocket ship or a time machine. Yet, in play therapy it isn’t the therapist's job to label the toys, that’s in the control of the client. For example, the McDonald's fries on the bridge to most psychologists and counselors would represent provision, nutrition, or even a deeper meaning of achieving comfort. To me, it simply meant that my in-person classes require me to travel to Casper, Wyoming, a town that has many food options, and I live in a town that has very few restaurant options. That was simply part of my experience that semester. There was no deep psychological meaning to it. It just means I get to treat myself to McDonald's fries once a month!

When someone experiences trauma, talk therapy is sometimes one of the most difficult modalities for them to utilize as they work through what they have experienced. The use of other modalities, such as art therapy, sand tray therapy, person-centered play therapy, and experiential play therapy, have proven to be some of the best ways to address trauma in both children and adults.

Amber Bass

Reference: Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play therapy: The art of relationship (3rd ed.). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

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