Sandplay: how and why it works

an article by Maeve Dooley

(This article was first published in Inside Out, volume 79 under the title 'Sandplay and the Half Second of Psychotherapy'. Inside Out is the professional journal of the Irish Association for Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy

Sandplay or Jungian Sandplay?

Sandplay can sound like an everyday term that simply implies playing with sand. When the term is used to refer to a method of psychotherapy it is often met by curious, puzzled expressions and the question ‘what is Sandplay?’ or the comment ‘oh you work with children’. The word ‘Sandplay’ was coined for therapeutic use in the late 1950s by the founder of Jungian Sandplay, Dora Kalff. She used this term to distinguish her method from the sand tray methods of others, including the ‘World Technique’ of Margaret Lowenfeld. While many people now use the term for various therapeutic approaches that use sand as a medium, Kalff’s method focuses specifically on the application of Jungian psychology and symbolic expression. As a result, this method is frequently referred to as ‘Jungian Sandplay’. Dora Kalff (1980) also emphasised the importance of what she termed the ‘free and protected space’ of the therapeutic environment and the non-verbal expression within this method. For ease of reading, all references to ‘Sandplay’ in this article are specifically referring to ‘Jungian Sandplay’.

Adults and Sandplay

While Sandplay began as a therapeutic approach for children, Kalff soon found that parents, having witnessed the positive therapeutic effects on their children, began to ask about it for themselves. The method was consequently offered to adults, and much of its growth and development since these early years has emerged through process work with adults. That said, it is true that adults can feel a little uncomfortable and strange when asked to consider playing with sand in a psychotherapeutic context. It can seem childish and frivolous, and some people find it difficult to imagine how it can possibly help them to address serious and difficult issues. Adults who hold greater value towards focused, cognitive approaches in their lives may be particularly reticent and perhaps even sceptical about this largely non-verbal process. On the other hand, adults can also be cautious or fearful about what might be unexpectedly revealed in their trays. Sandplay is a method that can provide connection to otherwise inaccessible parts of one’s experience. Through its non-verbal, symbolic and sensory forms, it supports the processing and interpretation of material and experience that cannot yet be expressed in words. For adults this concept and idea can be intriguing and may help to overcome hesitation.

Jungian Sandplay, which was initially developed as a therapeutic technique in the late 1950s, braved its way to become a world renowned non-verbal method of psychotherapy by the 1980s. Until recent years there was a dearth of detail to fully describe how and why it works, despite its clear theoretical basis, methodology and illustrated efficacy. Findings emerging from neuroscience through the last two decades are now helping us establish a biological framework to explain the therapeutic effectiveness of this intriguing method. We can now glimpse the likely ‘mechanism’ in terms of brain processing behind its success with trauma experience, developmental growth and the deep resonance it can affect for clients. A slight cautionary note here is encapsulated in the following quote, “Neuroscience is exciting in how it is helping us understand some of what is going on but, we need to remember, it is at its best some of the answer but not all” (Peyton, 2015: 66).

The half-second of psychotherapy

For the purposes of this article the word ‘trauma’ is used to refer to any adverse life experience that has a negative, lasting effect upon self and psyche (Siegel & Solomon, 2013).

From the work of neuroscience, we have learned that the effects of trauma, inclusive of any experience that injures psychological integrity, are largely processed and held within implicit (known but non-conscious) memory to conserve and protect our survival and ability to continue functioning (here we may begin to understand the likely mechanism behind experiences of dissociation, among others). Details connected with trauma and developmental injury may or may not be available to recall, be seen as unremarkable, ‘just something that happened’, or viewed with relief and pride that one survived, etc. We are however, often left with consequences and strain that may emerge through presenting symptoms, defensive strategies, various energy drains (emotionally, mentally and physically), etc. and the effect this has on our lives.

From scientific studies we now know that when faced with any experience or event, it is the more instinctual and survival orientated lower brain region that reacts and responds first and fastest. In evolutionary terms it evolved earliest (also replicated in how the brain develops in gestation). It has been illustrated that this region reacts at least 0.5 of a second faster than our ‘thinking’ brain (Cozolino, 2016). The ‘thinking’ brain is a general term that refers to the later evolving structures of the cerebral cortex (the prefrontal cortex in particular) located in the upper area of the brain. It is within such structures that we coordinate attention, cognition and affective functioning and organise our experience in space and time (Cozolino, 2014). Given that this involves more complex processing than sensory, motor and emotional information, it therefore requires and takes more time. This time difference is sometimes referred to as ‘the half-second of psychotherapy’.

In other words, by the time we become consciously aware of an experience, it has already been processed many times, activated memories and initiated complex patterns of behaviour. Primary examples of this are attachment schema and transference, where the brain uses past relationships to shape our perception of the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others. The greater the distortions, however, the more difficult it is to successfully love and work (Cozolino, 2016). This is one of the reasons why early learning has such a powerful influence on us throughout our lives – an influence that we can find difficult to access and understand. Psychotherapy is an opportunity to do some mental time travel to process at a different level, what we integrated as young children and to learn about the enduring effects that this may have had on us.

More findings from neuroscience

Research findings have shown that the human brain is particularly responsive to fear and that it holds a negative bias, which is active from at least eight months in gestation onwards. This negative bias is an evolutionary survival adaptation, as those who spot danger and respond quickly, survive. It is a developmental disposition that has thus predominated through our evolutionary journey. Negative assumption supports quick activation of the fear system which may result in life or death, e.g., if a person sees an object on the ground and assumes it to be a snake this immediately activates the fear response systems and instinctive self-protective action. If the object is later discovered to be a stick, there is no harm done, if it is a snake then quick action has perhaps saved their life. You may know it when driving and meeting an emergency, as it gets your foot on the brake before you will have had time to ‘think’ to put your foot on the brake. This is a great resource to us, but what about experiences that have imprinted instant and non-conscious fear response activations born of trauma experience and unmet need? The initial fast responding activation does not discern between appropriate and inappropriate response imprinting. We therefore need to find ways to address non-conscious activations that have formed to protect us from psychological wounding, but may also be impeding ongoing internal development.

The executive centre for the processing of fear in the brain is an area called the amygdala which is also, very significantly, “a central component in the development of our attachment and social status schema, our ability to regulate our emotions and our sense of self-worth” (Cozolino, 2016: 8). Active from pre-birth, it takes two decades or more for the cortical networks that will come to be able to regulate the amygdala, to develop. Given that ‘neurons that fire together wire together’ we are likely to develop many deeply embedded fear based, self-protective, learned response patterns in early life. When linguistic language and conscious understanding are not involved in the creation of such response patterns, then it is difficult or impossible for full resolution to occur through linguistic language alone. “Misattuned parents, brutal social systems, war, and prejudice can have a tremendous impact on early brain development. For most of us, these memories remain forever inaccessible to conscious consideration or modification.” (Cozolino, 2016: 9). The reason for our struggle often remains buried in the networks of implicit memory, inaccessible to conscious reflection. It is here that we can see the importance of psychotherapeutic approaches that offer sensory and symbolic expression, as they circumvent verbal dependence and its limitations. Such methods can provide us with the opportunity to create a narrative that associates these early experiences with ways in which our brains and minds have distorted our current lives.

The need for methods that can work with ‘right brain’ and implicit memory

The human brain is divided into two hemispheres linked via the corpus callosum. The hemispheres are known to process material in different ways with the left cerebral hemisphere specialising in processing material in a sequential and logical manner and the right cerebral hemisphere processing information in a symbolic, sensory and intuitive way. All experience from pre-birth to at least eighteen months post-birth is processed through the earlier developing right brain as left brain functions such as language have not yet developed. Our earliest and most fundamental frames are therefore stored non-verbally. In addition, throughout our lives we have ‘unspeakable’ experiences, events and encounters that are beyond words or that we don’t get to put into words. While sometimes such experiences may not seem traumatic they may have traumatic effect.

While the increasing inhibitory ability of the left hemisphere has led to greater cognitive abilities, it also resulted in a capacity to separate mind, body and emotions. … Thus we have found that with specialisation and increasingly complex functioning, the “healthy” brain has become vulnerable to the types of dissociation we see in psychological disturbance.

(Cozolino, 2014: 63)

The word ‘unspeakable’ as used here, describes experiences that have been ‘too much’ in some way and have been processed and assimilated at least in part by our non-conscious, non-linguistic systems. They are likely to have been dealt with, contained and framed within that first ‘half second’ and may not have entered conscious awareness. By the time the complex web of neural pathways of the cortical brain and in particular the pre-frontal cortex have fired, such difficult experiences may already have been secreted away to implicit memory in order to best protect psychological survival, leaving only fragments to be deciphered. As in the anecdotal story of the Army Commander who issued the order ‘send reinforcements, we are going to advance’ through a chain of command which was consequently delivered as ‘send three and four pence, we’re going to a dance’ – when messaging is poorly or only partly understood, response can be very much at odds with source and true need. In this way our fractured processing of trauma can have a profound impact, skewing our perception and understanding of the external world and the shaping of our own internal worlds and responses.

To add to the difficulty, it is estimated that 90% of the information the ‘thinking’ brain uses to assess experience comes from internal sources, be that memory, emotions, sensory feedback or other. This means that assessment, judgement and evaluation can be highly biased, and interpreted through existing flawed perception and understanding. “Perhaps most significant, the right brain responds to negative emotional stimuli prior to conscious awareness. Thus unconscious emotional processing based on past experiences invisibly guides our thoughts, feelings and behaviours” (Cozolino, 2014: 60). This may contribute to reinforcement of neural firing patterns within the brain, further embedding misattuned patterns of perception, behaviour, feeling and future responding. Our survival system takes priority and is unconcerned with the impact on our greater developmental needs, just as the Emergency Room is unconcerned with deeper psychological impact of injury. In many cases this leads to a more profound adaptation in defensive structures and the creation of new and more limited belief systems, attitudes, perceptions and emotional censoring. While this is the brain doing its optimum to protect physical and psychological survival, it is all too often at a cost to our individual developmental well-being and potential.

Processing of material from the lower brain areas where implicit memory is stored, has been shown to emerge largely through right brain activation. The emerging picture from research is one of right-hemisphere and subcortical dominance in the bottom up processing of social and emotional material” (Cozolino, 2014: 73). Therefore, to effectively access implicit memory we need methods that work through right brain activating, non-verbal, sensory and symbolic expression. Using such methods can invite and support potential meaning into conscious awareness. This allows for more complete integration and therapeutic outcomes that are profound and deep reaching. Focusing within the non-verbal realms of the humanistic and integrative approach such as the therapeutic relational experience, emotional and sensory expression, imagery, etc., help to support and hold this much needed connection to deeper self-integration. There is, however, a need to consider methods that may take this further.

Sandplay as a non-verbal, sensory and symbolic therapeutic method

Sandplay, or to be more specific Jungian Sandplay, is a symbolic form of processing in a sensory way. The following gives a brief outline of the method:


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.

(Gogarty, 2016)


The sand and the objects are representational forms which will attract instinctive unconscious resonance for the client who engages in Sandplay. While it is natural to experience some self-conscious distraction initially, this generally dissipates as the client begins to notice their own internal sensory and affect responses. Perhaps the most common surprise for adults who engage in this process is expressed in wonderings like ‘how can such a simple object/image evoke so much?’ however it is not the object or image that has ‘evoked’, but its place as a catalyst and container for symbolic processing within the right brain. The object or image supports a safe holding focus for this symbolising function, enabling non-conscious processing of implicit memory through right-brain activation. The ‘safe and protected space’, the non-verbal symbolic form of expression and the absence of interpretation or unnecessary comment from the attuned therapist, protect the client from cues that might activate the fear system and close off needed access to work with implicitly held experience.Neuroscience research indicates that the non-verbal, sensory and image-forming language of Sandplay offers a channel through which connections can be made with implicit experience. This then creates possibility for greater integration and embodiment, freeing the way for further internal development. In a well held environment, any cues that might engage self-protective ‘censoring’ are quietened. When clients use Sandplay within a ‘free and protected’ therapeutic environment it allows cortical functioning to process more fully from both internal and external perspectives, facilitating a more completed resolution and integration of difficult experience. Research findings indicate that over time and with this deeply intensive level of processing, neural firing patterns can be positively changed. This is evidenced by the changing experience and perceptions which clients later come to describe.

The Sandplay process facilitates a three-dimensional tangible expression of potential unconscious contents in a safe and protected space. It allows the client to be both with and separate from, participant and witness, to their own worlds. The creation of images in Sandplay facilitates the symbolic processing of figures and landscapes from inner and outer experiences. The process supports the client in materialising and mediating between these two worlds in a non-verbal creativity that is conducive to right brain activation. Sandplay therapy also provides conditions for a womblike incubatory period that facilitates the development of undeveloped parts of self. This facilitates the resolution of trauma experience and enables clearer more congruent connection to the individual’s sense of self – or in the language of Jungian psychology, ‘individuation’.

Innate dispositional tendencies toward growth, healing, and self-righting lie wired deep within our brains and bodies, pressing towards expression when circumstances are right. … Transformance and resistance are always present in the psyche, their balance at any given moment reflecting the relative balance of safety to threat in the patient’s in-the-moment experience.

(Fosha, 2013: 142)

Practising Sandplay

Sandplay can seem like a simple method by appearance and playful presentation, however, this belies an underlying complexity. While we can clinically link the science with the method, this is at its best some of the answer but not all” (Peyton, 2015: 66). The effectiveness of Sandplay greatly depends on the ability and competency of the therapist and their skilful holding and understanding of the internal processes at play.


Mitchel and Friedman talk about how:


It is essential that the sandplay process and the therapist are allied with and supportive of the healing energies of the Self, rather than the ego desires of the therapist or client. When the therapist moves into the cognitive realm too quickly by verbally analysing the tray or giving verbal directions to the client to move miniatures or create or amplify a particular scene these are ego driven activities that interfere with the client’s internal process. These kinds of directions occur in response to the therapist’s anxiety that a miniature (representing an aspect of the client’s psyche) is in jeopardy, discomfort with shadow material, or fear of the unknown. When the therapist does not trust the process and instead imposes his or her need to bypass difficult issues in favour of momentarily cheerful resolution, the client’s natural internal process is at risk of being compromised.

(Schaefer, 2003: 206)

Estelle Weinrib (1983) spoke of the naivety of some therapists who consider that the practice of Sandplay merely requires the addition of a sand tray to their practice:

It would be an unfortunate misunderstanding to believe all one needs is a tray with some sand, a collection of small objects, and a dictionary of symbols. Just companioning a patient while he makes pictures will not accomplish much nor will interpreting pictures as if they were dreams.

 (Weinrib, 1983: 29)

The silent respectful acceptance of the images created during the Sandplay process allows the client to feel increasingly safe and free. As this happens, the images seem to come less from the ego and personal unconscious, and more from the deeper levels of the human psyche, or the collective unconscious. “Right brain functions often appear to parallel Freud’s notion of the unconscious. … The phenomenon of projection and transference – central to Freud’s case for the existence and influence of the unconscious – are generated within these same neural networks” (Cozolino, 2014: 60-61). If, as Jung believed, the human psyche has the ability to regulate its own path towards wholeness, healing then comes from this deep level of the psyche rather than from outside (Jung, 1968). In order to establish the kind of ‘free and protected space’ that supports this depth processing, the therapist needs to possess an openness that can only be developed through encountering their own dark and unknown sides. In addition, since the Sandplay process expresses itself in a symbolic language, therapists need to have a profound knowledge of the language of symbols - as expressed in religions, myths, fairy tales, literature, art, etc. The effectiveness of the process will also depend on the therapist having experienced symbols and their efficacy within a personal maturation process through their own depth work.

Aware that the integrity of the method needed to be protected to ensure the continuing development of its deep psychotherapeutic efficacy, Dora Kalff established the International Society for Sandplay Therapy (ISST) in 1985. ISST has a number of National Society members one of which is the British and Irish Society for Sandplay (BISS). BISS offers a professional training programme and path to full ISST membership as a Jungian Sandplay therapist. For more information see

Maeve Dooley is a psychotherapist, Jungian sandplay therapist and clinical supervisor in private practice in Drogheda, Co Louth. She can be contacted at [email protected]



Cozolino, L. (2014). The Neuroscience of human relationships: attachment and the developing social brain (2nd ed). New York: W. W. Norton and Company Inc.

Cozolino, L. (2016). Why therapy works: using our minds to change our brains. New York: W. W. Norton and Company Inc.

Fosha, D. (2013). “Turbocharging” the affects of innate healing and redressing the evolutionary tilt. In D. Siegel and M. Solomon (Eds). Healing moments in psychotherapy (pp 129-168). New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Gogarty, H. (2016). Jungian Sandplay – What is it? Retrieved from  18th May 2016.

Jung, C. G. (1968). Man and his symbols. New York: Dell Publishing.

Kalff, D. (1980). Sandplay: A psychotherapeutic approach to the psyche, Boston: Sigo Press.

Peyton, M. (2015). Book review: Psychiatry in context: Experience, Meaning and Communities. Inside Out, 77, 63.

Rogers Mitchell, R. & Friedman H. (2003). Using Sandplay in Therapy with Adults. In C. Schaefer (Ed.), Play therapy with adults (pp 195-217). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Siegel, D. & Solomon, M. (Eds.). (2013). Healing moments in psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Weinrib, E. (1983). Images of the self: Sandplay therapy process, Boston: Sigo Press. Place of publication?

Additional Reading

Frazetto, G. (2014). How we feel: what neuroscience can and can’t tell us about our emotions. New York: Doubleday.