The Play Therapy Chronicles: Adventures in Sand Tray

Welcome to the Play Therapy Chronicles series! Some of you might know that I’m undergoing training and supervision to become a Registered Play Therapist. As I go through this process, I’m experiencing all kinds of play therapy interventions myself for the first time. It’s been a revealing and somewhat bizarre experience so far, and I found myself compelled to tell stories about it. I’m aiming for educational as well as autobiographical with this series; as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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My very first sand tray creation came out of necessity.

At the very beginning of my therapy career, I was adamant that I didn’t want to work with kids because I felt scared around them. They’re too…confident? Too ready to just blurt out their opinions as fact. Too secure in asking invasive personal questions (“Why don’t you have a kid?” “How old are you?” “Are you going to get a husband?”) As a brand-new therapist, I wanted to keep this weird exposure to a minimum.

My early mistake was making it known to my boss that I preferred not to see kids. In what I can only assume was an unsubtle “screw you” to me and my preferences, I started seeing my caseload fill with child clients almost immediately. I felt out of my depth, but it wasn’t as if I had a choice. The kids were there, and I had to be there with them. Their stories had ten times the impact on me as the stories of adults did, the crucial difference being that children rarely have any control over the circumstances that bring them to therapy. Maintaining empathy was (and still is) much easier for me with child clients. 

Communicating with them, however, took some work.  

I had a coworker that was (still is) a play therapist, and I wanted to be like her in as many ways as I could. She often offered to show her favorite play therapy techniques to her colleagues, I think because that was one of the most natural ways she knew to connect with us. I eagerly took her up on this one day, feeling lost and wanting to know how to better connect with kids. She guided me to create my very first sand tray, and it was unlike any technique I had ever studied or experienced.

Sand tray, for those unfamiliar, is a play therapy technique that allows the client to create their inner “world” by placing miniatures in a tray of sand (hence the name.) The therapist observes as the client chooses their miniatures and places them, and after this is finished, prompts the client to process what they’ve created. I went into it cocky, assuming that this was going to be a fun exercise to help me understand “kid” issues. 

My coworker gave me the simple prompt, “create your world.” So I did. I set up a little fenced-in area in the sand with miniatures that represented all my insecurities, including a trophy and a mirror that loomed very large in my mind. Beside that, I placed a bridge leading to some nice, colorful imagery to represent the good and lovely parts of my life. There was a baby dragon in there, to represent my infancy as a therapist and general feelings of incompetence. I didn’t know it at the time, but this baby dragon would become a recurring theme in my sand trays from that point on.

My coworker gestured to the tray and said “Tell me what’s going on here.” I explained my reasoning behind each piece, putting off the trophy and the mirror for as long as I could. 

“They represent perfection,” I said when it was time to acknowledge them, and that was all it took to unveil a shadow that I didn’t realize was lurking so close to the surface. I don’t remember if I elaborated to my coworker about this. I probably would not have told her about the constant self-judgment that cranked at the back of my mind, like rusty gears turning, straining to meet a standard that didn’t exist. A generic statement about anxiety and perfectionism was probably as close as I came to explaining it. But, as I would later learn, verbal processing isn’t always the end goal of sand tray. The process of assembling the tray is important work in itself. 

My very first sand tray in 2016.

After that hour, I definitely felt like I had done work. I was physically exhausted, even, as if my body had been working as hard as my mind. My personal issues aside, I came out of that experience with a newfound fascination for play therapy. It’s worth noting that my main takeaway from that experience was “play therapy is awesome” rather than “wow I have some unresolved issues that are still affecting me!” Maybe I wasn’t ready to let that fully sink in yet.

I picked my coworker’s brain every chance I got after that, and she always seemed happy to oblige.

“When we try to make kids sit still in a chair and just talk, we’re asking them to speak a second language,” she would say. My stilted interactions with my clients, asking them to verbalize their thoughts like mini adults and panicking when they came up blank, were proof of that. But even in spite of my struggles at the beginning, I eventually came to the conclusion that working with children was part of my path as a therapist. 

The light bulb went on when I realized that kids were one of the few populations that I could have the slightest inkling of what they were going through. Of course none of us can ever truly inhabit another’s experience. But when we go to therapy, we find an extra level of validation and support if the therapist relates to us in a real way (whether they disclose their own experiences or not.) I can’t pretend I had ever trod the ground of a drug addict, a married couple, a person of color, a struggling parent, or a disillusioned middle-aged person. But childhood and adolescence? I’ve experienced the hell out of that. With kids, I was starting to feel like something was clicking into place, like I was becoming the therapist I was supposed to be. 

Play therapy certification emerged as an obvious next goal for me. I talked with that fairy-godmother coworker and asked her to be my supervisor. Our first supervision session included a sand tray about what I envisioned for my supervision experience and what I wanted out of it. The baby dragon made another appearance, representing me, while a full-grown dragon represented my supervisor.

The “official” beginning of my play therapy journey. I wish I remembered what the bee was supposed to be for.

“Why am I still the baby dragon?” I wailed at her, confidence suddenly dead. “I’ve been the baby dragon for two years. I should be past this.”

“I wonder if it could represent the beginning of something,” she mused. “Not just that it’s a baby, but that it’s emerging from its shell and ready to move into a new phase.”

“I hope so,” I offered, but inside I was still miffed. I wanted to be the fully-grown dragon for once. I wanted to reach my full potential, but resented the hard road to get there. It was too messy. It was too hard to hide my failures.

This brings us to around 3 months ago. By this point I was a fully fledged therapist, going to my first official sand tray training to figure out what I did and didn’t already know. I wasn’t surprised when part of the training was to make sand trays of our own. (A note for any therapists or counselors reading this: you really shouldn’t try to lead a client through a sand tray experience if you haven’t been through it yourself. You need to understand the power of it firsthand.) 

Again, the prompt was simple: “all about me.” Completely wide open to interpretation. And I was with a bunch of strangers whom I probably will never see again, so I would have been free to fill my tray with superficial half-truths.

But I couldn’t. Maybe I had unknowingly been looking forward to this training so I could exorcise the dark shadow that was coming back to the surface. Maybe I was just too exhausted to filter myself. In any case, I assembled a real downer of a tray. There were the usual elements of nature and music, but there were also miniatures to show religious doubt, imposter syndrome at work, family baggage, and feelings of being trapped. 

We had split off into groups, tasked with asking each other processing questions about our trays. I started answering my group’s questions and felt tears starting to come immediately. But I held it together until I came to one miniature in particular–the duck. I had placed the duck in to illustrate the way I try to appear calm and unaffected (read: perfect) at all times, but underneath the surface I’m frantically moving, trying to stay above water. As I explained this to my training group, that was when it all spilled over and I found myself fully weeping in front of strangers.

The “duck” in this tray is actually a pelican. But if I say it’s a duck, it’s a duck.

“The duck thing triggered you,” said our instructor, who had wandered in just in time to see this. “Your whole body locked up when you started talking about it. Did you feel that?”

“Yeah,” I said, wiping snot off my face but deliberately not drying my tears. It was okay to cry in front of people, I challenged myself. It was okay not to be perfectly composed all the time.

“What do you think it is?” she asked, vaguely. She might have worded it differently. I remember my response more clearly than her question.

“I guess, fear. I’ve had anxiety for a long time.” 

“What are you afraid of, baby?” She was someone that could call people “baby” and sound completely authentic and natural. It comforted me instantly.

“I don’t know,” I told her. It wasn’t true, and I’m sure she knew that, but there was only so much of my injured psyche I was willing to reveal to a group of strangers. Even so, the work had been done.

That night, I went to my hotel, which was a (desperately-needed) pleasure because I love staying in hotels. I like the anonymity of it all; no one knows me or cares what I do, so I can drop this worry about what kind of image I present. And I thought, why couldn’t I feel like this all the time? 

Sometimes techniques that are “for kids” can hit some neglected sore spots in adults. Most of us have a wounded inner child, and the symbolic elements of sand tray can remind us “oh yeah, this still hurts me even when I don’t think about it.” That duck revealed more than words ever could about my mental state, how I’d been neglecting my own needs in order to appear flawless to others. 

Sand tray is effective because it combines so many different elements–sensory experience, creativity, storytelling, and symbolism. It’s a world of your own creation, so you get to assign your own meaning to the things you choose to put in your tray. And yet, sand tray relies heavily on the Jungian idea of “making the unconscious conscious.” The therapist can offer nudges and alternative interpretations (“I wonder what the duck would say to the family in the corner”) to help you discover unconscious meanings behind your choice of miniatures and placement. So if you see a sand tray in your therapist’s office, ask to try it out. You’ll probably get a lot of bang for your buck with it, especially if you are an adult.

The last day of the training involved more sand tray assembly, but the prompt was different this time. Rather than a prompt related to the present, we were instructed to build a tray based on our vision for the coming year. The dragon made a reappearance in this tray, except this time it wasn’t a baby dragon clutching its broken eggshell to its body. This time I chose a fully-grown gold dragon, hoping it would be an omen for the future. At the same time, I was allowing myself to realize that it was okay to be the baby dragon sometimes. There could be excitement in this process of becoming, if I was open to it. 

Elsa is also a recurring character in these sand trays. I relate to her character arc; for me, she represents embracing my full potential and all the anxiety that comes with that.

One thing that did not make a reappearance was that duck. I never want to see a duck in my sand tray ever again. My hope is that the next time I do a tray, I will gravitate to an animal that represents freedom, not stifling self-control. What would that be? A tree frog? A goat? Some sort of monkey? 

That’s a question for a kid, probably. Someone who would confidently blurt out an answer without thinking it to death. Someone I could still learn a lot from.

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