Using the Sand Tray to Detect Family Roles

Here’s another interesting article submitted by reader Martha Nodar on the subject of sand tray therapy. Ms. Nodar earned a gift certificate to for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

Bradshaw (1988) argues families are systems with systemic needs which are typically fulfilled, mostly unconsciously, by family members. These family members may become unwitting participants drawn into the family drama. In dysfunctional families triangles are common because they serve the purpose of providing a relief to the drama. In such cases, children and adolescents may unconsciously adopt roles within their family in order to survive their environment and help bring some balance to the scene. For instance, a so-called difficult child may be unconsciously acting-out the unspoken tensions within the parental dyad (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Fairy tales have a way of representing these family dynamics in a way that is both nonthreatening and entertaining. Sandtray also provides a safe forum to give a voice to the unspoken.

Sandtray and Fairy Tales

Lowenfeld (1993) suggests children see the world around them as “stories” that can be represented in the “tray” (p. 16). Lowenfeld argues fairy tales are an effective way to access two worlds at the same time—a fantasy world and one’s internal world through the use of metaphors. Drawn by her experience, Lowenfeld contends that children may enjoy fairy tales because “the rules of life within it are magical and different altogether from those at home” (p. 16). Fairy tales serve a purpose in cognitive and emotional development by giving children an opportunity to make sense of their world. Below is a sandtray activity that may be used with fairy tales designed to help the play therapist uncover the roles children or adolescents and their families may be playing within their family system.

Detecting Family Roles in the Sand (sand tray activity)


  • Have the sandplayers first choose one of their favorite fairy tales and select miniatures to represent the story. Any fairy tale may be represented
  • The above image represents the Cinderella story. Cinderella is portrayed to the right. She was the daughter of a loving father and later became a congenial stepdaughter despite the way she was treated. A female sandplayer who may have adopted the Good Daughter role may identify with Cinderella
  • A father and a young daughter are featured in the center of the tray symbolizing the relationship Cinderella had with her loving father, but also symbolizing the safety children feel when they grow up in a nurturing environment. Sandplayers who have or wish they had such a relationship may identify with this miniature
  • The birds surrounding Cinderella and the Prince symbolize friends and companions. There may be sandplayers who may identify with the Friend or Companion role to a sibling or even to a parent. A male sandplayer may identify with the role of the Rescuer within the family and may be drawn to the Prince miniature
  • The Queen miniature symbolizes the evil stepmother. She is surrounded by two leopards, one on each side representing her two daughters, Cinderella’s stepsisters. Sandplayers may perceive themselves or someone in their family to be playing the role of the Queen or Leopard
  • Ask the sandplayers: “What do you know or remember from reading about this character?” How the fairy tale actually unfolds is not as important as how the sandplayer may recall or experience the story
  • Give sandplayers the choice of representing themselves in the scene by either:
    • Adopting the role of one of the miniatures already in the scene, or
    • By bringing a new miniature into the tray. Then ask; “What would this character do or not do?” Stay with the metaphors
  • Has the story changed? What role is the sandplayer now playing? What could be deciphered by the location and sequence of the miniatures?
  • Let us assume the sandplayer might have brought wild animals fighting with each other into the fairy tale activity. In such case, Homeyer and Sweeney (2011) suggest this may qualify as “An Aggressive World,” (p. 41), which may illustrate the sandplayer’s internal fear to expressing anger within his or her family system
  • Give the sandplayer the option to remove any or all of the miniatures from the scene. Homeyer and Sweeney (2011) argue a sandtray is considered an “Empty World” if two thirds or more of the tray has no miniatures” (p. 40). Children who grow up in dysfunctional families where they may feel unheard may come to adopt the role of the Lost Child (Bradshaw, 1988). A Lost Child is likely to create an Empty World sandtray to reflect his or her role in the family


Each family has its own traditions, language, culture and routine. The different roles family members may adopt are unconsciously created and implicitly manifested to maintain the status quo and hence, protect an innate and universal fear of abandonment from one’s tribe. The problem with adapting a role is that the role may not be consistent with one’s real Self, but rather a modified self that may have been acquired out of a need to survive one’s environment. Sandtray therapists may become the sandplayer’s fellow traveler, sharing the tools to cope with life’s circumstances and for developing a differentiated Self from those tied to the family system. The goal is not to detach from the family, but to detach from participating in the family drama by refusing to play the roles dictated by a closed family system. Sandplay is a therapeutic tool ideal for symbolic archetypical journeys through the safety of metaphors.


Bradshaw, J. (1988). Healing the shame that binds you. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Homeyer, L., & Sweeney, D. (2011). Sandtray therapy (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kerr, M., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Lowenfeld, M. (1993). Understanding children’s sandplay: Lowenfeld’s world technique. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Sussex Academic Press.

Snow White: An Archetypal Journey

Here’s a very interesting article submitted by reader Martha Nodar on the subject of archetypes. Ms. Nodar earned a gift certificate to for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

Snow White: An Archetypal Journey

         Once upon a time, Jung (1953) argued that archetypes are shared universal and implicit patterns of behavior which reside in the collective unconscious. For instance, the Child archetype is innate in every psyche (Myss, 2001) and almost needs no explanation. Fear of rejection is a characteristic associated with this archetype and it is frequently explored in fairy tales such as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—the story of a princess rejected by her family who is thrown into a journey of survival, both literally and metaphorically. Jung emphasizes it is important to understand the meaning of the symbolism behind the archetype. In other words, what does it mean to have the Child archetype and how does the fear of rejection is likely to manifest symbolically in one’s life as the result?

Child-Orphan Archetype

        While Jung (1953) focused on a few major archetypes, Myss (2001), a Jungian analyst, has expanded Jung’s repertoire to cover different dimensions of the major archetypes Jung suggested. She contends that although humans share four major symbolic archetypes in their collective unconscious (Child, Victim, Saboteur, and Prostitute) (Myss, 2001), there is usually one archetype that seems to be more prominent in an individual’s psyche. For instance, in the case of Snow White, Myss (2001) proposes, the princess embodies the Child-Orphan archetype (a dimension of the Child archetype), which includes those who feel “they are not part of their family. . . [and yet, oftentimes]. . . succeed at finding a path of survival [after] having won a battle with a dark force” (p. 372). Snow White’s dark force is her wicked stepmother who wants to see her dead. Consistent with Myss’ arguments, one of the characteristics associated with the Child-Orphan archetype is the ability to build a network of friends—illustrated in the story through the princess’ relationship with the dwarfs and Prince Charming. One of the aspects of the shadow side of this archetype is the extent to which one may be vulnerable to be indiscriminately trusting of others who may have a hidden agenda. This dynamic is symbolized in the fairy tale when the princess trusts the disguised wicked stepmother and eats the poisoned apple.

Check out the full article here: Snow White

An Affordable Way to Find Items for Your Sand Tray

This article was submitted by Karen Carnabucci, MSS, LCSW, LISW-S.

Are you a sand tray psychotherapist?

Sand tray items can get a little pricy, and rummage sales, yard sales and thrift shops are a good way to find items for your sand tray shelves. I recently found this conglomeration of items at the local Zen center’s annual fundraising center, with the total receipt at just over $5.

Here are lots of other places that I’ve found items for sand tray for low cost or no cost:

  • Stones, seashells and softly worn glass from the beach.
  • Fortune cookie fortunes.
  • Pine cones of various sizes — watch while walking your neighborhood or at the local park.
  • Junk drawer (variety of marbles, small items, lost Legos, old keys, mismatched playing cards and the like).
  • Kitchen drawer (small baskets, small scoops, plastic containers, bottle caps, plastic spoons, Popsicle sticks).
  • Jewelry drawer (look for odd earrings, old pendants, etc., such as hearts, stars and other symbolic items).
  • Sewing kit (old thimbles and darning eggs, buttons).
  • Holiday ornaments and decor that you no longer use (use all or part of item). These might include faux evergreens (take apart to 2-inch lengths to use as bushes), plastic or other kinds of Easter eggs, angel ornaments and Halloween items.
  • Paper umbrellas and plastic picks, saved from tropical drinks, plus chopsticks.
  • Small plastic babies, baskets and other cute party favors from baby and wedding showers.
  • Clearance shelves and racks at department stores, variety stores, rock and gem shops, hobby stores, novelty shops and other shops.
  • “Free” box at yard sales.
  • Small bowl of pennies.
  • Check with children who you know, who outgrow their small toys and other little objects.

The money that you save can be spent for small figures that you do not have at online sand tray stores like Child Therapy Toys.

“The Animal in Us”: Sandtray Activity for Preschool through First Grade Students

This contribution is from Martha Nodar, who earned a 25 dollar gift certificate to Learn how you can do the same!

The Animal In Us is suitable for children ages 2-7 and uses a traditional sand tray, and figurines that most sand play therapists already have.

• Start the activity by asking the child to select an animal to represent him/herself in the sand tray.

• Next, ask the child:

o What animal would you pick to represent your Mom, Dad, siblings?

o Avoid asking “why.” Instead, ask: “What made you select this animal to represent your Dad?” Give the child an opportunity to say he/she didn’t know and accept the answer.

• Animals can be used to represent our primitive emotions while offering a fun and safe way to involve children in expressing themselves. The goal in doing this activity is for children in this age group to express the feelings and thoughts they may have, but may be too young to have the cognitive ability to express.

• For example, children in this age group may not feel safe expressing having witnessed their parents’ anger. But, it is likely they will feel it is fun to compare their parents with miniature animals, especially after they have also compared themselves to an animal.

• It is not likely a child in this age group will say “My parents were screaming at each other last night and it scared me.” Instead, they may be more willing to illustrate it in the sand by representing their parents with aggressive animals, such as lions, tigers, bears, or alligators.

• The idea of beginning the activity by asking the child to pick an animal to represent him/herself is based on several reasons: to ease the child into the activity, and to help the child get comfortable with using animals to represent people in the family. Because of children’s cognitive development before age 7, it is not likely we would be able to fully extract and interpret the meaning in their traits. But, the activity offers a glimpse into how the child may perceive him/herself within the family system.

• For instance, does the child perceive him/herself as a bird (in a cage) and his parents as cats or tigers? Does the child bury his representational animal in the sand? Stay with the metaphor to make it safe for the child to begin expressing him/herself. There is no need to “fix” anything; just listen and pay attention to the body language.

Examining Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children

This great research paper on separation anxiety comes from Martha Nodar. Martha received a gift certificate to for her submission. (And so can you!)

Some young children show signs of anxiety when separated from their parents for any period of time.  Mohacsy (1976) argues that children go through a process of slowly separating from their mother or primary caregiver, and begin to form their own individual self beginning approximately around “five months” and completing the process by “the third year of life” (p. 501).  Perez-Olivas, Stevenson, and Hadwin (2008) argue that separation anxiety disorder is one of the most common childhood disorders, particularly in children who are younger than 12 years old.  As described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR, 2000), Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) (309.21) refers to pervasive and intense feelings of anxiety experienced as the result of being away from a familiar and primary caregiver especially after the third birthday.  

In most cases, the attached caregiver is the mother (Allen, Blatter-Meunier, Ursprung, & Schneider, 2010).  In order for the level of anxiety—as the result of the separation from the mother—to be categorized as a disorder, the manifested symptoms must meet certain criteria: feelings of anxiety must be above and beyond what is expected for the child’s developmental age, and must result in significant academic, social, and occupational impairment (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). Children who suffer from SAD are often diagnosed by health care practitioners when their behaviors start hindering their cognitive, social and academic skills.  It is worth mentioning that typically, children who are diagnosed with SAD as their primary disorder fall within the range of normative cognitive abilities.  Some children with special needs may have symptoms in similarity with SAD as the result of the comorbidity with their primary diagnosis, but SAD is not their primary diagnosis.  Multiple empirical studies have found a high correlation between a child’s development of SAD and maternal anxiety.  

How SAD Manifests

Manifestations of SAD in children younger than 16 years old may include an excessive insistence in knowing where the caregiver might be; constantly making telephone calls trying to get in touch with the attached important figure, and preoccupations with thoughts of death, accidents or illness of the caregiver and the idea that they may never see that person again (Dallaire & Weinraub, 2005).  Children who suffer from SAD may also worry about what possible harm may come to them in the absence of their mothers. Depending on their age and development, symptoms of SAD may manifest through the children’s inability to play in a room by themselves, avoiding visiting friends, struggling to focus on anything else, having nightmares, difficulty either falling or staying asleep, stomach problems such as nausea and vomiting, and having palpitations at the thought of being away from their mothers (Allen et al., 2010).  Although for many children these feelings of intense anxiety may start subsiding after they turn three years-old, for others, the intensity of the separation may continue or even worsen through the years (Dallaire & Weinraub, 2005).  These feelings may manifest in different ways depending on age, personality and circumstances bringing the scholars to research what may be the etiology of SAD.

Etiology of SAD

Recent research points to the notion that SAD may be triggered by a sequence of events that may begin during fetal development. Development refers to those changes occurring in collaboration with both heredity (nature) and the environment (nurture) (Santrock, 2011).  Fetal development involves changes that may happen to the fetus in the womb—which is considered part of the environment. Maternal stress during pregnancy, such as worrying about caring for a child, or having second thoughts about becoming a parent,  experiencing feelings of inadequacy about raising children, or apprehension about the relationship mothers may have with the father of their babies, are all environmental factors that may play a role in fetal development (Santrock, 2011).  In agreement with Santrock (2011), Lavallee et al. (2011) emphasizes that “maternal stress seems to influence . . . hormonal reactions and blood flow to the uterus influencing the development of the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis in the fetus” (p. 355). 

Considered a major part of the neuroendocrine system, the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis is responsible for producing hormones, which are carried into the blood stream (Carlson, 2004).  The HPA axis facilitates a flow of communication and feedback between the hypothalamus (a structure in the brain responsible for stimulating hormones) and the pituitary gland (responsible for releasing hormones). The hypothalamus produces corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) and delivers it to the adrenal glands where it is metabolized and secreted into the blood stream as cortisol, which helps the body adapt to stress (Carlson, 2004). These actions occur in consonance as the brain’s prevailing function is to balance itself.  

An over production of cortisol (by the adrenal glands) due to stress would inhibit both the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland from producing hormones. This means, the body’s natural resources (homeostasis) would be highly compromised. In other words, the extensive exposure to stress may render an individual’s nervous system inadequately prepared to cope with stress long term (Lavalle et al., 2011). A fetus consistently exposed to the over secretion of stress hormones as described above is more likely to be born with a susceptible nervous system. This is what it is called genetic predisposition, which begins in the womb and is impacted by the mother’s own level of anxiety during pregnancy (D’Amato et al., 2011; Lavallee et al., 2011).  Based on this data, D’ Amato et al. (2011) claim that the mother’s own anxiety is likely to play a major role in her children developing symptoms of separation anxiety. 

Arising from a similar paradigm, Perez-Olivas et al. (2008) claim that neuroticism (a personality trait), may be the mediating variable underpinning the mothers’ unconscious (out of conscious awareness) motivation to enhance their children’s propensity toward separation anxiety. Neuroticism shows up as emotional instability in interpersonal relations (Perez-Olivas et al., 2008). Feelings of shame, anxiety, guilt, low self-esteem typically accompany neuroticism.   In a move to seek evidence for their theories, Perez-Olivas et al. conducted an empirical, quantitative study in Britain with 129 children between six and 14 years of age and their mothers. Whereas the Revised Child Anxiety and Depression Scales-Child Version (2000) was the tool these researchers used with the children to assess symptoms of depression consistent with the DSM-IV-TR, the Five Minute Speech Sample was the tool applied to mothers to assess maternal over involvement and “self-sacrificing/over-protective behaviors” (Perez-Olivas, et al., 2008, p. 512).  Drawing from their findings, Perez-Olivas concluded that mothers with a propensity toward neuroticism also have a tendency toward anxiety—a major component of neuroticism.  Motivated to seek relief for their anxiety, mothers with this propensity tend to be overprotective of their children.  Overprotection “has been associated with enhanced levels of childhood separation anxiety” (Perez-Olivas et al., 2008, p. 510). 

Augmenting Perez-Olivas et al.’s (2008) arguments, Mills et al. (2007) propose that parental overprotection is not a sign of nurturing, but rather shows a tendency toward exerting psychological control over the children, which seems to be triggered by the parents’ own psychological instability.  It is important to distinguish between parental concern that falls within the normative range, and compensatory dysfunctional behavior, which is focused on the parents and attempts to mitigate the parent’s anxiety.  Parental overprotection is about protecting the parents from feelings of inadequacy, not about protecting the children (Mills et al., 2007).  By excessively worrying about their children’s safety (outside the normative range) the parents may be trying to cope with their own feelings of shame by shifting focus to their children (Mills et al., 2007).

Bradshaw (1988) defines this type of shame as “toxic shame” and suggests that toxic shame may be the cardinal feature of pathological behavior (p. 10).  Parents functioning within a toxic-shame framework are likely to view their children’s imperfections as a reflection on themselves and may unconsciously resent them as the result (Mills et al., 2007). Although some fathers may also overprotect their children, mothers are the most likely parents with that tendency.  Freud (1965), the founder of child psychoanalysis, emphasizes that “some mothers assign to the child a role in their own pathology and relate to the child on this basis, not on the basis of the child’s real needs” (p. 47).

Maternal Overprotection

In agreement with Freud (1965) and Mills et al. (2007), Levy (1943) argues that parental overprotection is most likely a futile attempt at protecting the parent from feelings of shame and guilt.  Levy’s operational definition of maternal overprotection includes the mother’s excessive interaction with her child to the point of preventing the child from developing as an independent person while trying to keep the child in an infantile state for as long as possible.  Levy categorizes a mother’s tendency toward overprotection of her child as falling under the realm of obsessional neurosis. Obsessional neurosis was a term first used by Freud (1926) early in his career.  Admitting being somewhat mystified by it, Freud suggests that the goal of obsessional neurosis is to ultimately prevent conscious awareness of unacceptable thoughts related to the past in a futile attempt to avoid or mitigate feelings of anxiety.    

In concert with Freud (1926) and while studying the mothers’ own histories and family of origin, Levy (1943) detected negligence, lack of emotional support and nurturing deficits in the way these mothers were raised themselves. These findings led Levy to suggest the probability of a multigenerational impact of insecure attachment in the family system of overprotective mothers. In other words, the mother’s tendency toward overprotection of her child may have begun long before the mother became pregnant with her child. Some researchers such as Dallaire and Weinraub (2005) argue that “Bowlby’s theory of attachment provides a theoretical framework to understand the etiology of separation anxiety” (p. 394).  

Bowlby’s (1969) attachment theory may shed light on the multigenerational effect of compromised attachment suggested by Levy (1943), and Dallaire and Weinraub (2005).  Dallaire and Weinraub assert that the type of attachment (secure vs. insecure) within the parent-child dyad is a good indicator of whether or not there is a presence of SAD observed in the children’s behavior. Attachment refers to the emotional bond infants tend to develop with their primary caregivers, which may have a tendency toward secure or insecure with both dynamics existing on a continuum (Bowlby, 1969).  Insecure attachment may include anxious, avoidant, and ambivalent bonding for the most part.  Insecure attachment manifests itself as either absent or inconsistent emotional availability to significant others in one’s life most of the time (Bowlby, 1969).  

Driven to investigate the probability that a child may develop SAD as the result of an insecurely-attached parent-child dyad, Dallaire and Weinraub (2005) led a longitudinal, quantitative, empirical study in an effort to isolate the predictors of SAD by the time the child is six years old and ready to start school. Dellaire and Weinraub recruited 95 participants of diverse ethnic and educational backgrounds including Caucasian, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans mothers who had just given birth.  Their study began when the children were one month old followed by a regular schedule until the children were six years old.  As a corollary, in addition to observations in the children’s and mothers’ natural environment, the researchers used the Strange Situation procedure (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970) with the mothers.  Mothers of infants completed the Infant Temperatment Questionnaire.  The Child Puppet Interview was used with the children when they reached the age of six years old.   

Based on the results, Dallaire and Weinraub (2005) concluded that “infant-mother attachment insecurity during infancy predicted elevated levels of separation anxiety at age 6 years” (p. 403).  Furthermore, these researchers contend that their findings are “consistent with the literature linking” SAD in children with unresponsive childcare from the primary caregiver (Dallaire & Weinraub, 2005, p. 404).  Unresponsive childcare means the caregivers fail to appropriately and consistently meet the children’s needs most of the time (Bowlby, 1969). This data is significant because most children start attending school when they are six years old.  Refusing to go to school may become problematic and thus, may prompt parents to bring the child to a healthcare practitioner for assessment unaware of their own role in their child’s separation anxiety disorder.

Assessing/Diagnosing SAD

There are a number of instruments used to assess SAD, such as the Multidimensional Anxiety Scale for Children; the Screen for Child-Related Anxiety Disorders, the National Institute of Mental Health Diagnostic Interview for Children and Youth, and the Revised Child Anxiety and Depression Scales-child version. These tools are self-reports given to children in an attempt to assess the presence, degree, and intensity of the minors’ anxiety level as the result of being separated from their primarily attached caregivers. When children are too young to answer the questionnaire, the parents are then given the Revised Child Anxiety and Depression Scales-parent version to answer questions on behalf of their children.  

Striving to gain a better understanding of the children’s phenomenological response to the separation from their mothers, Allen et al. (2010) designed an anxiety daily diary for children over eight years old called Separation Anxiety Daily Diary-children version which assesses whether the children’s SAD may be triggered by the parent-child separation.  To test the efficacy of this instrument, Allen et al. (2010) conducted an empirical, quantitative study using descriptive data with 58 European children ages ranging from seven to 14 years old.  Allen et al. were eager to implement this tool to compensate for what they believe to be a low agreement rate between the older children’s self-reports on separation and anxiety and their mothers’ self-reports on their perception of their children’s separation anxiety.  Freud (1965) emphasizes on the importance of assessing both the mother and her child to discern the mother’s “pathogenic influence on the child” (p. 46).  Allen et al. concluded based on their findings, that for the most part, the children’s compliance with their daily diaries was high enough for the data to be useful to their hypothesis, which shows a correlation between the mothers’ anxiety and their children’s propensity toward SAD.  Once an assessment has been completed, the next step is usually intervention.


For the treatment of SAD to have an opportunity to be successful it must encompass treating both the primary caregiver who tends to be the mother, and her children.  Freud (1926) argues that the first line of treatment for modifying adult personality traits, such as neuroticism must involve a psychoanalysis-based intervention.  Psychoanalysis is a type of insight-oriented therapy grounded in intellectual understanding and emotional acceptance.  Furthermore, the prevailing agenda of psychoanalysis is to bring the unconscious material to conscious awareness, which is expected to produce resistance in clients. Resistance is particularly expected from those who engage in toxic-shame.

Freud (1926) argues that “resistance presupposes. . . anticathexis” (p. 83).  This means that resistance is rooted in the individual’s investment of psychic energy in self-serving biases, such as self-deceptions.  Self-deceptions are the basis of a client’s defense system, which may be activated to preclude early experiences from reaching consciousness (Freud, 1926).  Parents may be motivated to keep themselves from learning the role they may be playing in their children’s SAD.  Treating the child’s SAD and the parent’s propensity toward anxiety and self-deception may also include sandplay therapy as a complement to psychoanalytic-based treatment.

Sandplay Therapy

Compelled to find a way to address the human tendency toward self-deception, Jung (1954) introduced the creative arts into his practice in an effort to by-pass the propensity of clients to self-edit their stories. A form of creative arts that is gaining momentum both with children as well as with adults is sandplay.  Coined by Jungian analyst Kalff (1980), sandplay is a form of play therapy using a tray with sand and analyzing the play under Jung’s (1954) theories.  Sandplay may be used with adults and children six years old and older.  Sandplay is nondirective, intuitive, metaphorical, and focuses on the sandplayer’s internal processes which are believed to be enacted in the sand (Bradway & McCoard, 1997).  

Sandplay therapy involves the sandplayer creating a scene in the sand and having the opportunity to express feelings about the scene. Depending on the miniatures used, the location of the figurines, and the sandplayer’s nonverbal communication, the counselor may begin to form conjectures in regard to what may be happening in the sandplayer’s internal world.  Bradway and McCoard (1997) argue that the entire tray represents the sandplayer’s unconscious. The sand itself represents a safe haven and facilitates the process (Bradway & McCoard, 1997).  Bradway and McCoard (1997) submit that children, especially boys who are between six and eight years old tend to use animals, especially prehistoric animals, such as dinosaurs, in their trays.  Riveting with metaphors, a crocodile, for example, when placed in close proximity to another, more gentle miniature representing the child, may symbolize a child’s perception of a devouring mother (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1969).  Any depicted towers in the sand may represent anger (Bradway & McCoard, 1997).  It is worth noting that while Sandplay and Sandtray may be used interchangeably, there are important differences. Sandplay was developed by Kalff (1971), and Sandtray was developed by Lowenfeld (1939). Sandplay is based on Jungian’s theories. Sandtray may be used applying  Jung’s approach, and also the humanistic, and the cognitive –behavioral approaches, or an eclectic integration.     


Empirical data presented herewith points to the notion that mothers who engage in overprotection may feel inadequate for reasons of their own that date back to their own childhood in their family of origin.  Intervention offers parents an opportunity to consciously acknowledge and begin to heal their early wounds. Findings presented in this paper have implications for marriage and family counselors. It is incumbent upon these counselors to dig deep into the parent-child dyad and not simply accept what they may find at the surface—the presenting problem may be a disguise of the real problem in the family.  


Ainsworth, M., & Bell, S.  (1970).  Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation.  Child development, 41, 49-67.

Allen, J., Blatter-Meunier, J., Ursprung, A., Schneider, S. (2010).  The separation anxiety daily diary: Child version: Feasibility and psychometric properties.  Child  Psychiatry and Human Development, 41(6), 649-662.

American Psychiatric Association (2000).  Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th edition, text revision. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 121-124.

Bowlby, J.  (1969).  Attachment and loss.  Vol. 1: Attachment (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bradshaw, J.  (1988).  Healing the shame that binds you.  Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Bradway, K., & McCoard, B.  (1997).  Sandplay – silent workshop of the psyche.  New York, NY: Rutledge.

Carlson, N.  (2004).  Physiology of behavior (8th ed.).  Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Chevalier, J., & Gheerbrant, A.  (1969).  Dictionary of symbols.  Buchanan-Brown, J. (trans.) (1994).   New York, NY:  Penguin Books.

D’ Amato, F., Zenettini, C., Lampis, V., Coccurello, R., Pascussi, T., Ventura, R., Puglisi-Allegra, S., Spatola, C., Pesenti-Gritti, P., Oddi, D., Moles, A., & Battaglia, M. (2011). Unstable maternal environment, separation anxiety, and heightened CO2 sensitivity Induced by gene-by-environment interplay.  PLoS One, 6 (4), 1-11.

Dallaire, D. H., & Weinraub, M.  (2005).  Predicting children’s separation anxiety at age 6: The contributions of infant-mother attachment security, maternal sensitivity, and maternal    separation anxiety.  Attachment & Human Development, 7 (4), 393-408.

Freud, A.  (1965).  Normality and pathology in childhood:  Assessments of development. New York, NY: International Universities Press.

Freud, S.  (1926). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety.  Strachey, J. (Ed.) (1959).  New York, NY:  W.W. Norton & Co.

Homeyer, L., & Sweeney, D.  (2011). Sandtray therapy: A practical manual (2nd ed.).  New    York, NY: Rutledge

Jung, C.  (1954).  The archetypes and the collective unconscious.  Hull, R.F. (trans.) (1976). New York, NY: Penguin Books.

A Penny For Your Thoughts

This excellent intervention idea comes from Joan Forest, LICSW. Joan received a gift certificate to for her submission. (And so can you!)

Here is a play therapy mode that I stumbled across by accident. Actually, it has been shown to me by children, over and over again. I had a stack of pennies on my desk, I don’t even remember why, and a boy asked if he could use them in the sand tray. He made up a game in which we took turns hiding the pennies in the sand and the other person would find them. This was in his first session, when we were just getting to know one another. Later on, he engaged in expressive play, using miniatures to create scenes in the sand, but at times when he wanted to relax and be comforted, he would want to play the pennies game. I work with a lot of traumatized children who, when they are not yet ready to engage in expressive play, enjoy hiding the pennies in the sand. I never suggest it, I just keep the stack of pennies in plain view and they come up with the idea. It appeals to children who are in a regressed state due to trauma, as it is a variation of peek a boo. They love it when I act surprised at the finding of each penny.

Highly recommended Jungian Play Therapy/Sand Play training (that you don’t have to leave the house for)

Those looking for a thorough and instructive overview of Jungian Play Therapy and Sand Play should look no further than Dr. Eric J. Green’s DVD Jungian Play Therapy and Sand Play with Children: Myth, Mandala, and Meaning. Having attended many workshops and training seminars on the subject, I must say this 80-minute video was as informative as any (and it didn’t require any long-distance travel!). It delves into the theoretical mechanics of this nonverbal psychotherapy and illustrates the important techniques needed for strengthening emotional connections. The case demonstrations are well chosen and eye-opening, as children use myths, mandalas, and other expressive tools to reveal their psychological development. Dr. Green does an excellent job of conveying the true value and depth of this valuable healing tool. 

Unfortunately the video doesn’t address every practitioner’s burning question: Is it “Sandplay” one-word, or “Sand Play” two-words? But, still, I highly recommend it!

No sand tray? No problem!

One of our readers has submitted this great idea for creating a sand tray alternative. Thanks, Lisa! Submit your own ideas or play therapy articles to receive gift certificates at ChildTherapyToys.

One thing therapists can do, even with the help of their child clients, is make colored rice for a rice bin instead of a sand tray by using white rice, vinegar, and food coloring. The kid can help “make” the colored rice in session (make sure ziploc bag is sealed well). Combine all colors in a bin, and use as alternative to sand. Easier to sweep or vacuum up than sand is! Kids love it!

-1 tsp vinegar

-1 cup raw white rice

-5 (or more) drops of desired food coloring

Place in baggie, shake so that color spreads, allow to dry for 48 hours or bake in the oven for 45 mins at 200 degrees.

Hope other therapists can use this! I LOVE it, as do my clients!