Sandtray Therapy Introduction For Parents and Counselors

I love using Sandtray Therapy with my clients. I learned about sandtray therapy as a graduate student during my internship with domestic violence victims. I find that most of my clients (even adults!) are drawn to it, and it fascinates me every time to see how it brings out issues that many people were not aware before how much it impacted them. I wanted to introduce you to my colleague, Amy Flaherty to give you an introduction to what sandtray therapy is, how to learn the process of sandtray therapy, and what to ask for if you are a parent of a child looking for more information, or an adult seeking therapy.

Tell Us About Yourself

My name is Amy Flaherty and I’m a Licensed Psychological Examiner-Independent in Northeast Arkansas. I have an unusual license through the psychology board in Arkansas that allows me do both psychological testing and counseling. I’m also a Registered Play Therapist. I have been in private practice at True Hope Counseling since 2007. My ideal clients are kids, teens, and those who feel alone and without hope. My passion, far and away, is sandtray therapy.

How did you find out about sand tray therapy?

 I fell in love with sandtray therapy when I did my first training several years ago. I had a weekend where I had to take an introduction to sandtray course as part of my training to be a play therapist. This was my “road to Damascus” moment. After doing this training, I KNEW I found the tool I had been looking forward to access that stuff with clients that you just can’t get with words- the early trauma or subconscious material that runs our lives, both as kids and as adults.


What is sandtray therapy?

Sandtray therapy is a way of working with your whole brain using the tools of sand and miniatures. It’s fun, easy to do, and non-threatening but oh so powerful. The instructions are to place the miniatures (which are just small items- anything in the world from houses to jewels) in the sand to represent your world as the client. With little ones, they do this without instruction because they have the natural protection of the umbrella of play. Kids gravitate towards the sand almost every session and adults find it is a way to access feelings and thoughts they were not able to put into words previously.


Who is it for? What problems does it treat?

Sandtray therapy is for every age. The beauty is that it will work with a three year old and a ninety three year old.

The brain will get accomplish what it needs through the tools of the sand and miniatures and the safe environment the therapist provides. It has been shown to be effective with a wide range of diagnoses and issues, from learning problems and behavior difficulties to dementia.


What happens during a sandtray therapy session?

Sandtray sessions look very different with different ages. With children who have not developed abstract thought yet, they play in the sand and tell stories about what is happening, which may or not be related to what is literally happening in their world. It may look on the outside that the child is “just playing” but the brain is working hard to integrate all of the feelings and thoughts that are coming together through the story telling in the sand tray. All of the five senses are used which promotes integration of the brain. The more integration you get the higher level of insight, morality, and empathy. My job in the sandtray session with a child is to reflect what is happening in the sandtray and hold the safe space so that whatever comes out in the sandtray is understood and validated.


With teenagers and adults, the sandtray process tends to be much more static. When they are directed to make a tray representing their world, they will place objects representing parts of their life, both real and metaphorical. For example, the miniature of the two-faced man may represent an ex-husband or a boss.

Through the making of the tray and the use of their hands, the right brain is accessed, which is the part of the brain where our feelings, emotions, early memories and trauma lie. Through the processing or telling the story of the sandtray, the client is able to access those parts of the right brain that may have not been assessable just through talk therapy. The interweaving of both parts of the brain is the power behind the sandtray. I’ve seen one sandtray session equal three to four regular talk therapy session in terms of progress for the client.

What does brain integration mean?

Brain integration happens when the different parts of the brain are all used at the same time. Before the brain is integrated, the different parts of the brain are all doing their assigned functions without really communicating with each other. When the whole brain communicates, then integration occurs. The more information that is shared between the different parts of the brain, the greater the integration. The greater the integration, the greater the chance for the higher level skills to develop, such as empathy, insight and morality. Before the brain is able to integrate through methods such as sandtray, it is like putting together a puzzle with only half of the picture available. You can put the puzzle together, but only with the parts that you have available

How do you explain sandtray therapy to parents? To your clients?

With parents or clients who may be skeptical of sandtray, I explain it in terms of neuroscience- how using objects can help us access parts of our stories that we may not be aware of or just aren’t ready to face. I explain that it is a tool that also helps me as a therapist to more fully understand the client’s world and gain a better perspective on how I can help.

For children, very little explanation is needed. They usually just say, “Sand!” and start putting miniatures in the sand tray.


Are there special training or certification a sand tray therapist goes through?

Currently, no special certifications are legally required to do sandtray therapy. In spite of this, it is only ethical to use techniques and tools we have been trained in as therapists. I recommend at least a two day experiential training in sandtray to obtain a good understanding of not only the what of sandtray but really the WHY as well. I’ve seen the power of sandtray be able to heal others; however, its power can also be dangerous if not used properly. I’ve heard stories from other therapists of those who have actually caused harm and even suicidal behaviors from not understanding the power of the sandtray. Some things are repressed because they are scary, so once the sandtray reveals these, we as therapists need to be able to handle what comes up through the sandtray.

To help with training therapists in the sandtray method with quality, brain-informed trainings, I am launching a new training program, the Southern Sandtray Institute. Trainings will be conducted in a step-up format ensuring that the basics are learned well before advanced content is given. The certification of Registered Integrative Sandtray Therapist (RIST) will also be provided to those who choose to do advanced trainings and individual case consultations.


If I’m a parent of a child or a potential client interested in sand tray How do I find a counselor who does that?


If you are interested in your child using sandtray therapy, look for a play therapist. Almost all play therapists use sandtray therapy in their work. If you are an adult or teenager looking for a therapist who uses sandtray, ask any potential therapists if they use any experiential therapies. Most therapists who are into sandtray will have this featured on their website. Most who do one training fall in the love with the method and will feature it as a specialized technique.

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For More Information about Amy and her Counseling Services Visit True Hope Counseling

Amy is launching a new sandtray training company coming October 8, 2014. For more information about training visit Southern Sandtray I can’t wait to see it!

What’s your experience with sandtray therapy? Tell about your experience in the comments below ↓

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