Jungian Sandplay - What is it?

An Article by Dr. Helen Gogarty


Jungian Sandplay was developed in Switzerland by Dora Kalff, a pupil of Jung in the 1940s. In 1962 Kalff began to train therapists, mostly Jungian Analysts in America.

She taught that the Sandtray, the objects and the therapeutic holding provide a ‘free and protected space' within which self healing can take place. The healing is guided by the child's psyche, rather than by the therapist. This is in line with Jungian depth psychology. Through the work of Kalff and the early group of Jungian Analysts in America, Sandplay has now spread throughout the world from Japan to Brazil. It is especially strong in America, Europe and Japan.

How it Works

Sandplay allows the psyche to speak, it is a ‘healing process' (Bradway, 1997). The therapeutic approach is not to interpret, but rather to value and hold the image the child or adult creates from a universe of possible objects - to express a feeling state. For this reason, all Sandplay therapists must understand the psyche both objectively and subjectively.

Subjectively they must have ‘lived' a therapeutic process so as to experience the healing aspect and potential of the psyche. The Jungian International Sandplay Society, based in Zurich, therefore requires that all therapists must undergo a therapeutic Sandplay process before commencing formal training. In terms of objective knowledge, all Sandplay therapists certified by ISST must also undergo a programme of post-graduate training in Jungian psychology leading from Traineeship to Membership and finally Teaching Membership.

Sandplay is based on Jung's idea that the psyche has a self-healing capacity that can find its voice through symbolism. The Sandplay process speaks in the language of dreams and the unconscious. It also speaks in the language of childhood, which is play and active imagination. While Freud saw symbolism as a product of defensive pathological processes, Jung saw it as a natural function of the psyche's quest for meaning, balance, self-completion, and the self-correcting and self-healing capacity inherent in human nature. According to Stewart (2001) symbolic development in childhood has five stages:

  1. Infancy - Waking Dream
  2. Early Childhood - Pretend / Make believe
  3. Preschool - Imaginary companion
  4. Middle Childhood - Social Realm
  5. Adolescence - Cultural Attitude

The Process

Symbolic play does not require the child or adult to have any skill compared with, for example painting or drawing. Instead, hundreds of objects representing all aspects of life, humans, animals, trees, natural objects, fantasy objects, mythology, religion and spirituality are laid out on shelves. The only skill required is to use the objects and to allow the active imagination to speak and tell its story. The process is non-verbal but may include verbal interactions if the client wishes.

Two sandtrays are provided, one contains dry sand, the other wet (damp) sand. The sandtray is painted blue to represent the sky or water, which facilitates the creative imagination. The Sandtray is designed and sized so that the eye can accommodate all that it contains without changing or moving focus i.e.  the image created is held within a single field of vision. The child or adult is not told what to create, he or she is simply invited to make an image in the sand if they so wish.

Afterwards the therapist looks at the image and asks the child / adult if he / she wishes to say anything or name the sand picture. Some children may tell a story about their creation. Their comments or story are written down so they can be re-told to the child later. Others may prefer to say nothing and allow the image to be held silently. Finally the Therapist takes careful slides and photographs of the sand picture. These are kept, filed and dated. An average process is about 20 sandplay sessions. However there may be many sessions where a sandplay does not happen.

Children or adults may talk, draw, or do other kinds of play such as floor play, doll play, doll's house play, story telling, dressing up or games. All of these activities facilitate the development of the imagination. Where children or adults are severely traumatised or have serious attachment disorders, a process may take longer - between two to four years. Some therapists working with traumatised children or adults have found that  fortnightly sessions provide an appropriate space for unconscious processing and integration to take place. When the process is complete, or sometimes before, the child or adult may wish to have a photographic review, where they look at their work in conjunction with their therapist. This may help the child / adult to move on in his / her process.

Sandplay is suitable for children or adults and the process is similar. It can be used for children from four years old and with adults of any age.

Sandplay is suitable for a wide range of difficulties. It has been used successfully in the treatment of:

  • Emotional difficulties
  • Attachment disorders
  • Unresolved trauma
  • Anorexia and eating difficulties

It was not considered appropriate for the treatment of psychosis; however psychologists and psychotherapists in Israel are now claiming some success with Sandplay in this field.

What it Does

Sandplay allows faulty internal working models or maps of attachment to be changed and healed over time. In Jungian language these are known as negative maternal and paternal complexes. In Jungian psychology, a complex is normative, not pathological. It consists of actual experiences, memories and / or fantasies surrounded by accompanying affects. Although complexes are normative, in that everyone has them, they can take on negative qualities and can become too powerful when balanced against the conscious ego. They can also be denied and become dissociated.

When affect is characterised by anger and aggression that is expressed or acted out in real life, relationships may be damaged. Sandplay allows  a safe kind of projection to take place - so that affects are projected, using objects, within the ‘free and protected space’ of the sandtray, instead of in the outer world. They can then be reabsorbed by the psyche in a way that facilitate emotional growth. When children / adults can externalise affects through symbolism, they are less likely to be acted out. Emotions which are denied or which flood the psyche can be expressed and / or contained in Sandplay. Sandplay therefore facilitates the expression and resolution of what are called ‘unconscious complexes' in Jungian psychology. The most important complexes are the parental ones which are shaped by the experiences of childhood. These have some similarities to Bowlby's working models of attachment.

In terms of negative parental complexes, Jung stated that the psyche can respond to these in two ways; through resistance or over-identification. These two responses may be likened to the insecure attachment classifications of ambivalence and avoidance.  Affects which surround a complex, particularly a trauma complex, when projected on to the outer world  may cause relationships to break down.

Children who have experienced adoption, foster care or residential care often display, through symbolic expression, evidence of an unusual complex. This complex centres around experiences of danger and rescue, including fantasies and memories which surround the experience, together with accompanying affects. It is likely that attempts will be made to resolve the complex or bring it to consciousness through Sandplay. In this way the critical experience of moving families will be symbolised in an attempt and resolve the issue as to whether a rescue has truly taken place.  If the ‘rescue' is blocked in either the inner or the outer world - energy flow will be impeded and affect will either be projected and externalised. Affect may also be internalised and cause inner pain and a high degree of anxiety. Changes in the outer world may be necessary when children are in danger. However rescue may not be realised by the child for some time after the event has happened.  When therapy is being considered for children or adults a permanent secure base must be available. Sandplay helps the primitive part of the reptilian brain to ‘speak' to the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain, because images which may emerge from the fear system are ‘seen' by the higher parts of the brain and can then be integrated over time.

In Sandplay children can re-make and re-organise:

  1. Maternal complex around attachment.
  2. Paternal complex around attachment.
  3. Danger / Rescue Complex.
  4. Internal architecture around the Secure Base.

A Sandplay process undertaken within  a Jungian framework is a journey  towards self knowledge.  Unresolved grief may reveal itself and be enabled to move towards resolution. Difficult experiences may be explored in such a way that leads to a realisation that they are over. Treasures may be found in the inner world that can be incorporated into one’s life in a new way. It is a journey that requires courage, however, the holding and containment provided by the Sandtray, the room and the therapist creates a safe space for freedom of expression and exploration. We invite you to consider it as a creative way of working therapeutically with clients of all ages.

H. Gogarty, Ph.D, BISS / ISST.

Helen is a qualified Jungian Sandplay Therapist and a member of both the British and Irish Sandplay Society and the International Society for Sandplay Therapy based in Zurich, Switzerland. She has carried out extensive research in the area of multiple attachment and her work as a Sandplay Therapist has largely been focused on developmental trauma, particularly with children.