Sand Work

Sandtray provides felt safety and therapeutic distance through the powerful use of metaphor.
— Marshall Lyles, LPC-S, LMFT-S, RPT-S
photo credit: @marshallsminiatures

photo credit: @marshallsminiatures

Many people associate a sandbox with children’s play. However, there is a special type of expressive therapy in which a tray of sand is used to create and explore imaginary worlds. This modality, called Sand Work, can be appropriate for people of any age. Many adult clients enjoy Sand Work as a way to bypass the logical and intellectual parts of themselves in order to access a deeper, creative aspect. 


How It Works

The sand tray that is used in therapy with adults and adolescents is a rectangular, wooden tray, several inches deep and painted blue on the inside. Typically, the tray is placed on a wheeled table that is about regular table height. The tray is filled about two-thirds full with clean, white sand.

In the same room, there is an open shelf containing a broad variety of small toys or figurines. These usually include human figures of different types, as well as animals, plants, buildings, vehicles, and other types of things that are commonly seen in everyday experience. Any of these figurines can be placed within the sand tray to create a small, imaginary world. In addition, the sand in the tray can be shifted to make an evocative landscape. Sand can be piled up to show a hill or mountain, or it can be scraped away from the bottom of the tray to show the blue interior in order to represent water.

Sand tray offers the opportunity for internal states to be explored externally through placing figures in a literal tray of sand.

Sand tray offers the opportunity for internal states to be explored externally through placing figures in a literal tray of sand.

How It Helps

Sand Work can be used with adults when success with verbal therapies is stifled, or when a therapeutic modality that allows more access to innate creativity is desired. An excellent use for the sand tray can be with grief or trauma, when words are difficult to utter or fully process. When clients touch the sand, it can be very soothing to the psyche, offering a healing beyond what we can visibly understand.

“When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart, it seems no bigger than a grain of sand.”  —John Cheever

There are several components of Sand Work that make it effective for many people, including:

  • The design of the sand tray environment is a safe, contained world that is fully controlled by the client, and can be manipulated or changed by adding, subtracting, or moving figurines within the scene.

  • It does not require any artistic skill to have a satisfying sand tray experience—only selecting and placing objects.

  • Physically moving representational objects within the sand tray container has a beneficial effect on the body, especially in people who have undergone traumatic experiences—more so than simply talking about memories or ideas.

Who Benefits from Sand Work

          Adults and Adolescents

Sand Work is a creative method that does not feel “childish.”  It provides access to a deeper level of consciousness and allows clients to “play out” their fears, hopes, dreams, experiences, and traumas.  Clients are simply invited to create a world in the sand.  Through the process of creating their world, they can make connections, apply problem-solving skills, and create new insights.


Not only is sand work an effective method for children, but it is fun! The miniatures and sand are often appealing to children, and the sand work provides an effective and safe way for children to share their inner world.  It helps children express themselves when they may not have the words or ability to adequately express their thoughts and feelings. Children can freely play out their experiences and resolve life challenges from everyday stress to grief and traumatic events.

What To Expect

In a session using Sand Work, the facilitator will typically begin by encouraging the client to explore the sensory experience of the sand tray itself. Many clients may spend a few minutes just experiencing the cool, smooth sand on their fingers.

The client can leave the sand smooth and flat or create a landscape by shifting the sand in the tray. Then the therapist will explain how to choose figurines in order to create a world or scene in the sand tray. The facilitator will instruct the client to choose several figurines that elicit a strong reaction, either positive or negative, and reassure the client that it’s OK not to “know” what each figure represents. Then the client will decide where to place each object in the sand landscape. The scene may be static, or it may evolve over the course of the session. The facilitator will encourage the client to observe what has happened in the world of the sand tray and discuss the meaning that the client sees in this experience. A photograph of the scene may be taken in order to keep a record of the session.



I offer Individual Sand Work Sessions, as well as GROUP Sand Work Workshops for up to 8 people.

It is almost impossible to describe the power of Sand Work tray.  When clients place their chosen miniatures into the sand, it is a representation of their inner world.  As a witness to their process, I am able to make observations, ask questions, and sit with the silence that often takes place while creating a sand tray.  It is a beautiful process to witness.


Please note that Sand Work is not counseling or psychotherapy and it is not a substitute for treatment with a licensed therapist.