Introduction Integrative Sand Therapy

Introduction & Overview Integrative Sandtray Therapy

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Integrative Sand Therapy Overview

In this broad overview course you will have a good idea of How Integrative Sand Therapy can be applied, cross-theoretical applications that align with this whole brain approach to healing and the non-verbal nature of How clients can tell story (trauma narrative) without the need for re-traumatisation.

The aim of this free training is to help you develop your skills for when you begin your own practice to learn through observation, both of yourself and others. You will learn to see the world through a different lens as you look for symbols, listen to language and immerse yourself in the invisible world of sand therapy where you will encounter many aspects, visible and invisible, to utilize in your own personal growth and guiding others towards theirs.

Brief History Overview

Sandplay Technique is a cutting-edge method of therapy that has been used in Europe and America since the 1920’s by educators in Kindergartens, by psychiatrists and in psychologist’s rooms. It enables children to gain a sense of self-regulation and resilience. Today it is known as a non-verbal expressive form of communication helping children, teenagers, adolescents and adults to build a bridge from the unconscious to the conscious mind. This is what is commonly known as self-growth. Sandtray Therapy is for children from the age of 3 years, teenagers, adolescents, adults, couples, families and groups. Older versions of sand play can be traced to ancient Japan, Korea and many other Asian countries. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have included, dances and songs, learning animal calls, and created drawings in the sand for thousands of years as an art form and a way of communication. 

 Pre-viewing material

Before you begin you may want to do some of your own research on the different approaches to Integrative Sand Therapy. It is also recommended that you watch the videos on the Dr Margaret Lowenfeld Trust website

Opengate Institute has recommended readings and resource articles which can be found on the Student Portal of the Opengate Institute website.

We also suggest viewing the following YouTube videos

Gabor Mate – Implicit Memory

 Family Systems Theory, Developmental Theory

 Stephen Porges – Poly Vagal Theory –

The Polyvagal Theory: The New Science of Safety and Trauma

Peter Levine – Spirituality, Archetypes, and Trauma

You might also like to view these:

Dora Kalff: Sandplay Therapy

World Technique

Sandtray Therapy for counselling

Sandtray therapy: Play therapist

As you listen to the speakers in the YouTube videos, think about the Integrative Sand Therapies and how the clients ‘sand worlds’ relate back, how you could start to see the ‘sand worlds’ through the eyes of symbolic language, the clients developmental stages and theories that support your hypotheses of attachment or development using a theoretical lens.




 Integrative Sand Therapy – Fiona Werle

 Integrative Sand Therapy in the exploration of trauma across the lifespan

Sandtray therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach to healing based on the research of Dr Margaret Lowenfeld (1929). This method allows the therapist to provide the individual a safe and expressive space for exploration of their intrinsic world of emotional and mental states using a sand tray and the vast array of miniature objects. Sandtray therapy is supported by theoretical frameworks and has been evidenced to adapt cross-theoretical methods into this framework including trauma informed principles. The aim is for clients across the lifespan, to experience good psychological health using this psychotherapeutic approach, where changes to neural plasticity will be of a lifelong benefit, leading towards awareness, new perspectives, a new trauma narrative and self-growth. Sandtray Therapy is a non-intrusive trauma informed approach that is often non-verbal and accessible to ages from 3 years throughout the lifespan. In this paper will explore these various stages to understand the influence of unmet needs and how these are viewed in the exploration of sand worlds.

Lowenfeld Approach

Lowenfeld stated in a paper read on March 23rd, 1938 that ‘the role of psychotherapy is to make contact with the whole of the patient’s mind. My own endeavour in my work with children is to devise an instrument with which a child can demonstrate his own emotional and mental state without the intervention of an adult either by transference or interpretation’. We often project onto others what we need to see for our own learning. The lessons we learn, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so, are played out in our private playgrounds in which we learn and grow; birth, school, home environment, separation, first time parent, and all the changes through the life stages can have a dramatic and profound effect on our lives. The loss of a loved one can take our emotions to places we never knew existed, then at later stages in life we may experience financial difficulties, social issues or changing family dynamics. These can all be triggers which can be experienced as a trauma. It is not the intention of this writer to differentiate the different types of traumas into category, simply for the reader to acknowledge the ability of Sandtray therapy as a method of exploration of trauma throughout the lifespan.

Sand Therapy as a trauma informed method towards good psychological health

Towards the end of the lifespan we look for a sense of connection, Erikson’s psychosocial stages express this as Generativity vs. Stagnation. Some choose to ground their sense of belonging in faith or religion, others go deep into their psyche and explore their soul-equation in search for answers or perhaps the meaning of life, (through Socratic questioning of the self) who am I? Sandtray therapy is a means to guide clients through these psychological processes, unlock thought provoking and deep aspects of yet uncovered virtues to achieve unmet stages of development, self-growth and good psychological health and wellness.

Consider for a moment, that your life consists of a multitude of memories. Think about your childhood and all those stored memories. Now look at you as an adult. Do you hear yourself saying things, repeating your parent’s words as they echo: ‘You can’t do that, you’re too short, too tall, too thin, too fat, too dumb, that’s a boys’ job, girls can’t do that’, and on it goes – all these words we took in to our core our very being, they formed part of our belief system and those words were stored in our unconscious mind, in the form of images and a felt sense. Bruce Lipton in his work on epigenetics and Gabor Mate both analyse trauma and how words, actions and emotional felt senses are warehoused in the very cells of our body. Individuals carry trauma in a different part of the body, this concept forms a part of the theory of psychosomatics, which is a very real area of health and wellness in which unhappy people will undoubtedly create or manifest pain within the body. This is the body mind connection; it is how our system communicates to us that there is a dis-ease building up. This could be an issue from childhood which was left unchecked, pushed away.

Currently research into the sensorimotor highlights the body mind connection. Pat Ogden (2015), an advocate for the body mind connection has been able to provide current research into Margaret Lowenfeld’s E= whole Self and sand as the instrument as a healing medium. Gabor Mate (2009), takes this research to another level in his book The Body Says No, he suggests that there are certain personality types who are prone to dis-ease. If this is indeed a fact, then it is of utmost importance that children are given this medium to express emotional stress before any physical symptoms are manifest. Do you get a headache at the mention of someone’s name or a task? Do you feel sick in your stomach from nerves if you have to do public speaking? Does your ankle hurt when you need to step up, move forward, and take control? This is your body reacting, saying ‘no I can’t do it, I won’t do it, you told me I couldn’t, shouldn’t’. You get the picture; our resistance is entirely stored within us. This is the mind body connection. This is the depth at which the child ego pushed down the hurts and pains for self-protection. It served us then, but as adults, it no longer serves to hold the pains of yesteryear. Left unchecked this stagnation can erupt into dis-ease, illness or even death in extreme cases, because it was easier to manifest cancer or heartache, than to look at the issue that has caused you so much discomfort. Trauma held is a very real and dangerous foe.

 Personal Development

As adults we are capable of change, growth, wisdom and knowledge, yet trauma in the form of complexes hinder growth, we can be left with our deep-seated beliefs (think the iceberg effect) where the traumas are laying just below the surface, pushed down into the unseen realm, this is your unconscious mind. In Sandtray therapy this is the realm that is of great interest and the realm that is activated by this method, the intrinsic realm. We are often driven by these unseen forces to behaviour fueled by our complexes; if we have little awareness of these drives our attitudes are reflected in this behaviour, thinking and way of being in the world. An example of a complex could be, not feeling good enough. But how was that seed planted and how can this lead to trauma. This is the nagging voice in your head, rumination, the monkey mind, the wounded ego, the one that confirms to you as an adult that ‘No you can’t do that, remember!’, ‘you aren’t smart enough, good enough, pretty enough’, and so we fulfil that complex by not acting because we believe the voice. This voice was a harsh parent, a word said in anger or an angry parent who themselves were treated unfairly. The continuing line of intergeneration trauma has its roots in passing on negative and abnormal behaviours. Sandtray therapy can stop trauma from its energetic flow and profound significance in thinking and behaviour. We have what is expressed as a conscious mind and the unconscious mind, this is where deep psychology is found, and this is where we work using Sandtray therapy to work through childhood traumas that may be affecting adult behaviour and psychosocial development through the lifespan.

Early Childhood Trauma

The sand tray miniatures as objects represent implicit memories as images in early childhood trauma from the ages of 2 – 7 years according to Piaget (1965). To build resilience against a trauma is to relive a moment in time where you were a vulnerable child and unable to defend yourself against harm, either physically or verbally. To cope you pushed your felt emotions down to a safe place in order to cope in dealing with a situation or a person’s behaviour towards you as a child. This is the job of the ego; however, what we need is a healthy balance and that is why presenting issues to the sand tray opens that deep part of our inner self and gently allows an exploration into our intrinsic self-equation. Archetypes are used for this process, these are given meaning by the client and become the symbol in the tray. An example could be a dinosaur used by a child, not as a dinosaur, but as the hero that rescues the mother and child from the enemy. Now the dinosaur as an image has taken on the character strengths and virtues of Courage. The antagonist, the abuser, is no match for the brave dinosaur who helps to change the story by giving the child the courage and strength to speak up. A new trauma narrative is created by expression and verbalising (cognitive behaviour therapy) and the felt sense released through the sensorimotor manner that is Sandtray therapy. This is an area of sandtray therapy that plays a vital role, we will not go into the E = movement aspect of the sensorimotor in this paper.

Integrative Sand Therapy

A skilled professional Sandtray therapist offers clients a safe and trusted space where children or adults affected by trauma can play out their distress. Often with children this is a non-verbal manner of therapeutic healing. Lowenfeld observed children group clusters of awareness according to their subjective sensory experience of objects and events, these objects are classified into proto systems. Proto systems become the manner in which a trained professional can distinguish a trauma sandtray from others, as the sand player gives meaning to objects in relation with other objects. As a therapist follows a child’s sand world series the ‘objects can re-organise to show a healthy development and more developed cognitive ability. This re-organisation of sand worlds according to Barbara Turner (2005), is the elemental re-organisation of experience in sensory, feeling laden clusters whereby the client is affecting differentiation in various aspects of their inner and outer experience into coherent meaning systems. In other words, building resilience, creating a new trauma narrative, implanting new images to mind and releasing felt senses.

Object relations theory is a branch of psychodynamic thought that focuses on relationships being more crucial to personality development than are individual drives and abilities (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983). Here, the important identity-preceding structure is the self, a personality structure formed out of interpersonal interactions. The view of the development of the self-presented here combines the thought of Bowlby (1982), Mahler et al. (1975), and Kohut (1977). The self is formed in infancy and early childhood out of the internalized and ‘metabolized’ interactions between the child and significant other persons (sometimes called ‘self-objects’). Although the origins of the self, lie in self-other interchanges, the self is experienced as one’s own, and one comes to sense one’s existence as both a separate and interdependent being. In Jungian Sandplay this is the process of individuation.

Mirror Neurons & The Therapist

The conditions necessary for the establishment of a self, include an initial period of undifferentiated symbiosis (Winnicott’s ‘dual unity’) with a mothering/caregiving figure, differentiation from that figure, attachment to the caregiver and other significant objects, exploratory back and forth movements from the attachment figure, and eventual individuation as the self–other interactions become internalized and take the form of a secure self. In counselling terms this is how a secure attachment is formed. Concurrent with, and following, the establishment of a self are conditions, described by Kohut (1977), that promote the maintenance and enhancement of that self. These are the presence of several kinds of ‘self-objects,’ namely ‘mirroring’ (an object who reflects the infant’s ambitious grandiosity), ‘idealizing’ (an object who can be admired, identified with, and whose strength can be shared), and ‘twinship’ (a ‘best friend,’ a companion of one’s heart). These self-objects continue to be important to self-maintenance and enhancement throughout the life cycle.  (J.E. Marcia, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioural Sciences, 2001). In secure attachment we talk about a ‘good enough’ mother in whom the child will gain a secure attachment. Insecure or other attachment issues result in the child unable to separate the Self, or in other words the child may experience attachment trauma, and related issues may continue throughout the lifespan.

In order for self-maintenance as adults, you begin to steer your own ship and yes there will always be a strong wind blowing you off course, dangerous undercurrents and rips, shark infested waters, but isn’t this a wonderful metaphor for life, because on the other hand you will also experience perfect sun filled days, calm waters, gentle breeze, dolphins playing and sails billowing in the gentle breeze. This forms the Polarity of Balance; we need to experience the extremes in order to find our best place or balance. Here also you find the polar opposites, duality, and a shadow side where neither can exist without the other. The more you experience adversity with an open mind the more you can explore the many sides of you. The more you relax into the joy of profound synchronicity the more you attract good health and wellness. The key is Self-awareness and the courage to climb from the depths of Self-indifference to the heights of Self-awareness, whether the courage is contained in a dinosaur or another image this is key, find your central figure, your hero or heroine. Let them be your courage, let them walk beside you to explore your trauma in your hero’s journey.

Margaret Lowenfeld would have loved our modern-day Star Wars characters as images, the fusion between fantasy, reality, the present and the past and the person we perceive ourselves to be our persona and our shadow Self, behind the mask! I mean who doesn’t want to be the hero or heroine in their own story?  The rest is how we got to be the characters in our life’s story. Just like our dream state, we are connected to each and every character or miniature in the sand world through our unconscious mind playing out our unresolved issues, childhood traumas, leading us to the experiential centre of ‘who am I?’ and ‘what is my purpose?’ And how do I heal.

Allowing the space for opening our inner psyche to a place within the boundaries of the sand tray to safely tell the story of our childhood. This is where we get to see the patterns of our parents, grandparents and forefathers/mothers. Here we can see if a significant other was a threat to us in our childhood, such as it is now the case with many victims of childhood sexual abuse – their memory has been triggered by another’s story or seeing the abusers on TV. We use images, memory and story to get to the heart of the real issue, and allow the pain stored in the cells of the body to release. The event will never go away, nor will the memory; however, the pain can be eased.


Sandtray therapy allows adult clients to step back and literally look at dysfunctional behaviour, set patterns and beliefs expressed in sand worlds; for example are you one of those people who just never finishes anything, could it be, you were told by your father that you would never amount to anything in life, so what do you do? You proved him right, that’s how you showed your love. Or are you a high achiever, yet your mother thinks you can still do better. If you attract the wrong type of man into your life, you know the sort I mean, he’s just not the right person for you – you may develop a low self-esteem, why? This was a pattern you set up as a child to get attention from your father. These are also perfect examples of a father or mother complex. If you have as your mantra – “oh I can’t do it” and now you believe you can’t do anything, not even attract a partner that you desire or who desires you. In effect you have intrinsically ingested this belief and the complex has become an intrinsic part of your character. Sandtray therapy can help clients to see this intrinsic belief expressed as externalised in sand worlds. Once seen, felt and expressed a reversal is possible – basically believing you can do it! 

A client may have sexual trauma or issues, perhaps they were brought up to be a good Catholic girl and told that, feelings of sexual desire were bad, so they buried their sexual urges deep within. Consequently, they may have experienced psychosomatic issues such as; invisible pregnancies, cancer of the ovaries or miscarriages. So be careful of what you are reading here, what I am saying we have already covered in this section around our cells holding memory and psychosomatics. Tapping into what set that idea into the mind of the child can set you free as an adult. Sex is good, good sex is great. No church religion or state can tell an adult what to do with their body or their natural urges.  As you listen to your mind listen to your body also, it’s speaking to you. A child who experienced sexual abuse grows into an adult who experienced sexual abuse. Sandtray cannot undo the traumatic event, but it can help you distinguish those parts of you that hold onto the hurt, pain, anger and sexual complex.

As a Sandtray practitioner, I watch your body language and listen to your verbal language; with adults I listen for any incongruences, such as you saying, “I’m so sad”, with a smile on your face. What’s going on there? Once we narrow down a current issue, then I invite you to start processing in the sand tray, that’s where things start getting interesting. With children in Sandtray therapy it’s a little different, they will choose their miniatures and create sand worlds as an extension of play, they do this often by moving the miniatures around, burying miniatures in the sand, placing miniatures together in clusters. Boys may create fighting battle scenes, girls in general tend to like fairy-tale archetypal miniatures. The idea is, they are working through issues from the unconscious, (where complexes reside) whether it is dealing with how parents argue often or dealing with the birth of a new sibling or more traumatic issues. Children use the sand tray as a preventative place of therapy, of sorting through the self-equation thereby releasing pent-up stress held in their body, current issues and early traumas.

Carl Jung in his little red book talks a lot about our ‘other selves’, he shows us how we can be many personalities in one and I don’t mean schizophrenia, I am talking about our different persona’s, characters that we have as traits, such as the Rescuer, the Martyr, the Leader, the Enabler, these traits are found within our whole Self, they make up our personality. Tapping into character traits is what makes us all unique. Although some traits have been adopted from our parents or role models and because of this some clients may lose their own sense of identity. Erikson represented this as Industry vs. Inferiority (Competency) ages 5 – 12 years and Identity vs. Role Confusion (Fidelity) 12 – 18 years. The key is to be aware of your personality traits, recognise them, as many as possible and find the balance. It’s important that if you are a rescuer, you allow yourself to be rescued or if you are a martyr you recognise that you can’t always save the world.

What do the Sand Worlds Reveal?

Sandtray worlds will reveal through the chosen miniatures and patterns in the sand a side to your own true self that you may be unaware. It is important to do your own series of sand trays before you practice with clients to understand this. Remember we spoke of the dinosaur representing a child’ s courage. Courage is a virtue; it lies dormant if not ignited by the energy of the sand player who instinctively knows to tap into the ‘object’. This is your story! The story of your inner child, I am a reader and as I read, I will be curious and ask questions, only you know the answers. However, by tuning in the therapist experiences a limbic resonance that serves to bring in the safety and trust, basic elements, but necessary ingredients. Your unconscious is what drives most of your waking hours, so it is necessary to tap into this vast iceberg in order to find the essence of you. Buried very deep beneath the ocean lies the true you, ready to be revealed and swim to the surface to finally begin to live a true authentic life, just as Mother Nature intended.

Sandtray therapy is cross-theoretical and works well alongside many different models of therapeutic techniques including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT), Narrative Therapy, Creative Arts Therapies, Person Centred Therapy, Mindfulness, Positive Psychology, Sensorimotor and Neuroscience. Sandtray Therapy is a therapy that can be used as a standalone method or combined to work collaboratively with the other psychological methods. It cannot unfortunately be quantified to satisfy the scientific rigour of today’s psychological assessment. However, there is descriptive and correlational approaches to quantitative research to support the proof of the success of this method documented by Dr Margaret Lowenfeld since its inception in 1928 and others. A quick google search will reveal hundreds of research and peer reviewed articles. Its success is also echoed by the thousands who have been brave enough to enter its realm, they are the evidence, their voices the advocates. It is the purpose of this author to support others in their pursuit to continue to explore quantitative research designs, that support this method as a trauma informed practice method used extensively in Asia, UK, America, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

In Sandtray therapy the ease at which the miniatures in the sand tray become the pictures held in the unconscious mind, creates and awakens a part of the client’s cognition and nudges them on to discover more, to go deeper, to reawaken a knowing and awareness that resides within them, this is resilience unfolding. Sandtray holds no barriers; it cares not your faith, beliefs, language nor culture, you can be 3 or 103 it does not matter. What matters is that this method enables choice, and choice is a key to healing trauma. It helps to build resilience, awareness, new perspectives and it opens your mind to other ways of being. This paper has brought together knowledge from all manner of places only to highlight the cross-theoretical manner of this method, yet as a standalone method it holds firm. Children benefit by simply being able to play out their childhood issues in the sand tray and adults’ benefit by tapping into an expressive non-intrusive method to explore trauma across the life span.