Sandplay Past, Present and Future.

By: Rie Rodgers Mitchell

And Harriet S. Friedman.

Published by Routledge in 1994


A review by Paul Berkers, University of Nijmegen, Holland



Sand tray, the generic term, is referring to the technique of using miniatures in a shallow box partially filled with sand.



Sand tray as a technique, it attracted therapists from many different theoretical orientations, who were able to incorporate it into their work. For example: Charlotte Bűhler used it as a diagnostic instrument for cross-cultural work.



There has also been a longstanding ambivalence regarding the use of the sand tray.


Working with verbally limited clients you will find this method helpful, because language skills are not necessary for understanding the expressions of the other, and so it has truly become a cross-cultural method that is practiced worldwide.


Margaret Lowenfeld started with “The World Technique” in 1929 in Lowenfelds clinic known as the Institute of Child Psychology. (ICP).

Each child client (between the ages of one and eighteen) was treated two or three times weekly, each session lasting two and one-half hours.

Lowenfeld believed that the emotional experience of the child tends to be relived more in relation to the objects of play and to the whole building of the institute than tot the person of the therapist. (She changed therapists during the treatment).

This perspective differs markedly from that of Melanie Klein and others, who emphasized the importance of the child’s transference to the individual therapist.


The size of the tray, which Lowenfeld used, was 75 x 52 x 7 cm.

She used a cabinet to contain the miniatures.


In her early use of  “The World Technique” the children were expected to use the objects to make realistic scenes. It soon became clear that when the workers refrained from expecting something realistic and from interfering or suggesting to the children, then something new and excitingly creative grew out of the children’s constructions.


When she introduced the World Technique, she pointed out that many experiences cannot be expressed in words, but can be depicted in pictures and actions.

Than she showed the contents of the cabinet and asked the children to “make a picture in the sand”, using any or none of the objects in the cabinet.

They did not need to make a real picture!

To adults the introduction was modified to their age.


Lowenfeld emphasized her belief that interpretation of the play productions is unnecessary. The process of play itself, without interpretation, is therapeutic because it allows the expression of both acceptable and unacceptable feelings, thought and other behaviour.






In Lowenfeld’s view play serves four purposes:

  1. It serves as the child’s means for making contact with his environment. Such play in childhood partakes of the nature of, and fulfils much of the same social purpose as work in adult life.
  2. It makes the bridge between the child’s consciousness and his emotional experience, and so fulfils the role that conversation, introspection, philosophy and religion fill for the adults and the mature people.
  3. It represents to the child the externalised expression of this emotional life, and therefore in this aspect serves for the child the function taken by art in adult life.
  4. It serves the child as relaxation and amusement, as enjoyment and as rest.


She stated in her book: without adequate opportunity for play, normal and satisfactory emotional development is not possible.

Her theories have been either overlooked, or anonymously integrated into other systems.


Charlott Bűhler made the World Test.

She used 160 tiny miniatures, in ten categories.

People, domestic animals, wild animals, houses, vehicles, enclosures (fences), constructions (bridges), nature, war implements, other objects.

She used this as a diagnostic and research instrument


Fundamental differences:

The goals are different (diagnosis versus therapy).

Different use of space and materials.

Bűhler did not use a sand-tray, and she did not use sand.


Later she described what she called “signs”, indicators of emotional disturbance and/or mental retardation.

One sign is usually found in almost all subjects, whether or not there is emotional disturbance.

Two signs, particularly when one is a CRD-sign, seem to indicate a fairly serious emotional disturbance.

1.      A-signs: Aggressive World Signs.
Aggressive signs were normal in children.
Instruments of aggression could be viewed in a positive role of protection and defence as well as destruction.

2.      E-signs: Empty World Signs.
Her criteria for Empty world signs:

2.1.   Less than 50 miniatures

2.2.   Elements from less than 5 of her possible 12 categories.

2.3.   Major groups of people omitted (e.g. no adults, only children)

3.      CRD signs: Closed, Rigid, Disorganised.
Closed worlds are partially or completely fenced in.
Rigid worlds: unrealistic rows of animals, people or things lined up in a fixed, stiff manner.
Disorganized worlds showed miniatures in disparate and disconnected places and chaotic arrangements of the items or groups.


CRD signs were more significant symptoms of emotional disturbance than either A-of E signs.


In 1952 she wrote “National differences in World Test projective patterns”. She researched 264 children from 5 different countries, The United States, Austria, England, Holland and Norway.


She illustrates her findings on national differences, as well as to indicate the different ways children defend against anxiety.

Bűhler's cross-cultural findings are important for therapists because they emphasize the importance of considering the profound national/ethic as well as individual differences in viewing the creation of a sand tray.


 Dora Kalff, analyst in Zurich, went to London to study with Lowenfeld in 1956. She had studied with C.G.Jung, and she developed the method further and gave it the name “SANDPLAY”. Dora Kalff added another significant clinical dimension to the sand tray, joining a symbolic, archetypical orientation with Lowenfelds perspective. Kalff emphasized the importance of using the tray in a free and protected space, enabling the client to contact the unconscious and express pre-verbal experiences and blocked energies.

The effect of this expression was the activation of regenerative and healing energies.

Currently its main use is as a therapeutic tool of self-expression and healing, as the sand tray allows an opportunity in therapy for a fuller expression of the joining of the mind, body and imagination together.

Kalffian Sandplay is currently the major approach worldwide.

During the creation of the Sandplay picture the therapist becomes a “silent witness”.

Interpretation of the tray is delayed until a series of trays has been completed, so that the process can unfold naturally without interference from the intellect.

A photograph can be taken of each picture after the conclusion of the session.

Some time later all of the photographs (or video’s) may be reviewed by the client and therapist together. The joining of cognitive awareness to the deeply felt experience of Sandplay at this later time often brings a new level of insight.


The name Sandplay can initially evoke a negative response from clients (and workers) until process itself is directly experienced.

The rejection of the spontaneous, creative, unfocussed and more feminine aspects within us is indicative of a widespread patriarchal attitude in society that values focused and rational thinking.

Play is recognized as one of the important ingredients in promoting healing, as it encourages the necessary transcendence of the thinking and cognitive realms.

Kalff recognized that symbolic play creates a dialogue between the unconscious and the conscious mind.





Current Trends

In Sandplay.


Dora Kalff considered the constellation of the self to be a central principle in the healing process.


She explained that, when the Self is constellated, a feeling of inner harmony and a transformation of energies that evokes a numinous quality accompany it.

She also noted that, after the constellation of the Self and the emergence of a renewed and strengthened ego, a shift occurs in the Sandplay process: the child or adult becomes more verbal and the sand trays become more progressive in character, suggesting a more capable and independent stance in the outer world as well as a feeling of increased centeredness internally. The client is then ready to participate in the individuation process in a more verbal and direct way.


Therapeutic power of Sandplay (from a Jungian perspective)

In giving visual shape to the images during Sandplay, the healing energies are activated. Jung himself emphasized the importance of he roll symbols play in the healing process. Symbols (or miniatures in Sandplay) are reflections of images from both the personal and collective unconscious. The power of the symbol can be seen in Sandplay, as well as in dreams, fantasies, myths and religion.

Working interactively with both the conscious and the unconscious contributes to the powerful force of this technique. 


Bradway analysed the effectiveness and power of Sandplay:

Sandplay is a form of active imagination; the images are concrete and immediate in contrast to dream images.

The critical therapeutic elements that make Sandplay a powerful tool are:

1                    The use of concrete materials, such as miniatures, a tray.

2                    The coagulative potential of these materials

3                    The freedom to be creative

4                    The feeling of being protected by a trusted, non-intrusive therapist.


Bradway further explains that Sandplay provides an opportunity for the client to experience and transcend the opposites, as well as to see order emerging out of chaos. She points out that to experience one’s moods and affects thorough Sandplay in a visible and tangible way can help to objectify and depotentiate negative images leading to a healing experience.



To achieve a free and protected space, the therapist must hold two parallel attitudes: one of open-ness and acceptance (non-judgemental understanding), so that self- expression is safe; the other attitude must be protective, so that clients stay within their own natural limits.

The free and protected space has both physical and psychological dimensions. The physical dimensions are the sand-tray itself, which is both limited and contained, along with the finite number of miniatures. The psychological dimension is provided by the personality of the therapist as the psychological container and protector of the process”.


Delayed interpretation

Weinrib highlights the importance of delaying the interpretation of the Sandplay production until there is an internal readiness, even though it may be difficult to remain silent in this case. It is important to let the unconscious go its own way and to experience it as a reality is something beyond the courage and capacity of the average person. What is the appropriate time for interpretation??

She explains that: “To press for associations would be to encourage cerebral activity, which is not desirable here except in its most spontaneous exercise, because it is a basic premise of sandplay that psychological healing is emotional in nature and not cerebral”.

Delayed interpretation does not mean that the therapist never comment about the scenes. The therapist should be able to identify the clear moments for intervention. Sandplay therapists often discuss their associations with their clients because personal associations to symbols are so critical.