Creating Labyrinths In The Sand

Here’s another great intervention idea submitted by reader Martha Nodar. Ms. Nodar earned a gift certificate to for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

A respite to a world saturated in technology, the labyrinth offers a chance to literally stop and listen to one’s inner voice. Whether walking the labyrinth, building one in the sand, or drawing it in a piece of paper, the action requires concentration on the task at hand, which may be a welcome relief. Labyrinth scholars suggest we begin walking or building a labyrinth with the intention of gaining self-knowledge, but not to expect an answer. Rather than begin the journey with an expectation, they encourage us to embrace and honor the entire experience. Based on the idea that most, if not all children enjoy connecting the dots, the activity featured above lends itself to tapping into a child’s creative imagination. Chances are they may want to engage in the activity again and again. It is after all by accessing the Creative Self, that we find our coping skills to a hurried world. Life is a maze—the labyrinth helps us cope with it.

Creating a Labyrinth in Five Steps (An activity for school-age children)

  • Step one: Draw two lines crossing each other in the center—one vertical and one horizontal. Draw a dot in the middle of each of the quadrants
  • Step two: Next, connect dot in the upper left quadrant to the top of the vertical line
  • Step three: Next, go around the opposite side and connect dot in the upper right quadrant to the left end of the horizontal line
  • Step four: Next, go around the opposite side and connect dot in the lower left quadrant to the right end of the horizontal line
  • Step five: Final step—go all the way around to the opposite side and connect dot in the lower right quadrant to the lower end of the vertical line

This is what the final labyrinth drawing may look like on paper:

image001This is what the final labyrinth may look like by using beads in a small sand tray:


Accessing the Creative Self

Labyrinths are universal round patterns of pathways that tend to attract people of all ages. They have been around since ancient time and are believed to represent one’s metaphorical spiritual journey (Bigard, 2009). Labyrinths may be represented in drawings, depicted in a sandy beach, or built in a small sand tray. McCullough (2004) emphasizes the labyrinth is a symbol of integration with “a single circuitous path that leads uninterrupted to a center” (p. 3). Bigard (2009) points out the difference between labyrinths and mazes. Whereas a maze invites one to lose oneself, the labyrinth offers “orientation and a means to find oneself” (Bigard, 2009, p. 138). Walking the labyrinth for meditative purposes has become very popular in recent years. Although there are a variety of labyrinth styles, the two most common are the Chartress-style labyrinth patterned after the one in the Chartress Cathedral in France, and the Classic Cretan-style.

image003Chartress-style Labyrinth


Classic Cretan-style Labyrinth

Artress (2000), a world-wide labyrinth expert, came up with the idea of building a labyrinth in a sand tray as yet another option for walking the labyrinth metaphorically. Artress contends that the labyrinth pattern serves as a guide to self-reflection by awakening parts of the Self that might have been previously unacknowledged. Arising from a similar paradigm, Bigard (2009) believes the spirals in the labyrinth represent “growth and transformation” while the circle in which the spirals reside symbolizes “unity and wholeness” (p. 138). McCullough (2004) suggests that a simplistic, modified variation of the Classic Cretan style labyrinth.

(View full article with references here: A Labyrinth in the Sand-1.)

ChildTherapyToys has two great labyrinth items in stock. We have glass stones and marbles for creating labyrinths in the sand…

…as well as a lovely, handmade labyrinth that can be used as a sand tray miniature, a great example of what a labyrinth looks like, or you can just keep it on your desk as a relaxation device.

Alexis and the Thumball: A Story About A Girl Who Did Not Want To Be In Therapy

Eleven year old Alexis had been to therapy many times for her disruptive behavior. Her parents and teachers were unhappy with her and it was her experience that they were ALWAYS mad at her. She did not want to be in therapy, and had made it clear to her parents and to me during the initial visit, that she had no intention of talking or cooperating with therapy.

At the beginning of the second session I checked in with Alexis and she assured me that she still did not want to come to counseling. While I was talking to Alexis I held a Thumball in my hand. I asked her how hard she had tried to convince her parents not to bring her back, and what she had said to them. I asked if there was anything I could do to convince her parents not to bring her back. Apparently there was! Just tell them there was nothing wrong with her.

I reminded Alexis that one of her parent’s concerns was that she had difficulty listening the first time. “How have you done this week, listening the first time?” Alexis assured me that she had done very well, and I suggested she wouldn’t be in therapy very long if that was the case.

image_0Alexis appeared to notice that she was engaging with me, and withdrew. She became a little quieter and the look on her face was somewhat angry. So, I changed the subject and asked her if she knew what a Thumball was? After she replied that she did not, I threw it to her, and immediately asked her to throw it back. This happened fairly quickly so Alexis didn’t have time to think about whether or not she was going to cooperate, and she threw it back. I responded to the first panel. I tossed it to her and she responded. After a few minutes I suggested that since we were stuck here for 45 minutes perhaps we could do something else. I suggested we could continue to talk, play in the playroom, do a sand tray, or play a game. She chose to play a game.

Like all good stories, this story should have a lesson or a moral. Something we can learn from it. First, let’s consider what this story tells us about play. According to the United Kingdom’s Children’s Play Information Service:

  • Play includes a range of self-chosen activities, undertaken for their own interest, enjoyment and the satisfaction that results for children;
  • Very young children, even babies, show playful behavior when they explore sound and simple actions and experiment with objects of interest;
  • Play activities are not essential to meet basic physical survival needs. But play does seem to support children’s emotional well-being as well as a wide range of learning within their whole development;
  • Children can play alone, but often they play with other children and with familiar adults. Even very young children engage in simple give-and-take or copying games with their peers, older siblings or with adults;
  • A playful quality in activities is shown by the exercise of choice, enjoyable repetition and invitation to others to join the play.

So, once Alexis and I threw the ball back and forth, we were engaged in play, a game of catch. However, play as it is engaged in by play therapists is not just a behavior or an activity. It is not just something done with toys in the playroom. The therapist’s attitude of playfulness is important in bringing play into the session and engaging the child. I was playful in my approach to discussing Alexis’ lack of desire to be in the session, but still respected what she had to say and her desire to not participate in therapy. I held a ball in my hand, which implies that play may occur.


If I held a book, or an axe, something different would have been implied.

The game of catch has likely been with us since humans discovered they could pick something up and throw it, and most children know that you throw the ball back after you throw it to them. So play is both an attitude of playfulness, and an activity.

Winnicott argued that playing is a necessary part of working with children. “Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play. (Winnicott, D.W., 1968)

Play is the most developmentally appropriate way for children to build relationships with adults. Through play children develop critical thinking skills, impulse control, process stressful experiences, and learn social skills.

How does play become Play Therapy? I would argue that the moment Alexis catches the ball, our engagement is deepened and is becoming therapeutic, and we are engaging in Play Therapy. How is that play therapy? Alexis is now having fun with an adult who is enjoying her, liking her, and listening to her. And she’s not being required to talk about what a bad kid she is, so now she can relax a little. As an adult who is also a therapist I bring an expectation and desire to promote change, or resolve difficulties, in a particular way. And this is communicated through my attitude and communication style, and supported by my training, understanding of the problem, and intervention techniques.

Unlike her experience in any of her previous sessions, Alexis’ mood is now elevated and improved as she engages in a playful activity. At her next session, her parents quietly whispered to the therapist as he brought Alexis back to her session, “she didn’t complain once about coming back to therapy.”

Dragons and Fairies Meet in the Sand

Here’s an excellent article submitted by reader Martha Nodar. Ms. Nodar earned a gift certificate to for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

Dragons and Fairies: Healing Metaphors

Dragons and fairies are magical, mythological figures which may be used in sandplay as metaphors to represent a sandplayer’s world. Bradway and McCoard (1997) argue that sandplay is about reconciling opposite dynamics, such as a dissonance between feelings or thoughts and behavior. It is through the use of symbols and metaphors that sandplayers may begin to access the material hidden in their unconscious. Sandplay allows for a visual representation of might have been concealed from conscious awareness. Miniature dragons and fairies may provide sandplay therapists with a snapshot into the sandplayer’s psyche, such as deep feelings of loss.



Fairies symbolize creatures of transformation who “reveal themselves intermittently” which “might also be said of the manifestations of the unconscious (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1969, p. 370). Unconscious material is typically pushed out of conscious awareness through ego defenses such as denial and repression (Freud, 1966). According to mythology, fairies appear most of the time in the forest. Trees embody many natural, protective elements and also represent the part of the Self that yearns for emotional and physical security (Kalff, 1980). Both the darkness of the forest and the deep roots of the trees symbolize the material believed to be grounded in the unconscious (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1969). Chevalier and Gheerbrant (1969) propose that within the realm of psychological development, fairies may represent one’s striving for self-acceptance.


While fairies may be considered a metaphorical bridge between the conscious and the unconscious parts of the psyche, dragons symbolize “the ancient animal nature of the unconscious” (Howe, 2012, p. 344), such as unconscious motivations and reactions. Moreover, Chevalier and Gheerbrant (1969) point to the notion that dragons illustrate the struggles of inner conflicts that most, if not all humans tend to experience, such as wishes that may conflict with one another. With that in mind, Howe (2012) posits that dragons may not only be metaphorically found in the external world as in the case of abusive relationships or bully classmates, but may also be carried internally within one’s psyche, such as in the form of persistent self-reproaches, depression or distorted self-image. Fincher (2009) argues it is important to become aware of the impact the dragon archetype might have in one’s life and suggests the idea of taming the dragon by raising awareness of its existence within oneself. Sandplay paves the way for discovering one’s metaphorical dragon whether it may be external or internal, then, name it and tame it (Fincher, 2009) as the case may be.  

Discovering the Dragon (sandplay activity):


  • Acquire a collection of miniature dragons of different type (wings, no wings, two heads), different color (blue, red, purple) and different size
  • Have the sandplayer select a dragon or draw/color a dragon, then place the drawing in the sand
  • Stay with the metaphor and ask the sandplayer: “If this dragon could speak what would it say?” Observe the sandplayer’s bodily reaction and self-descriptive narrative as he or she gives voice to the dragon
  • Witness the process as the sandplayer decides whether the dragon will be involved with other miniatures, other dragons, and to what extent. Notice the location and size of the other miniatures in relation to the dragon. Is there more than one dragon in the scene?

Stevenson (1994) submits that the color, size, and number of dragons in the scene are important symbolic frames of reference for the sandplay therapist. Stevenson champions drawing and coloring the dragon “as the picture becomes a lens through which the individual can get a new look to the problem” (p. 225). Furthermore, Stevenson argues that dragons are symbols “that represent strong polarities: authority/chaos, wisdom/ignorance, insight/deception, fire/water” (p. 222). Sandplay is the ideal medium through which to explore and eventually reconcile such polarities. That was the case with Randy, a first-grader who used play-fire, water, and dragons in the sand to reconcile his need to have friends versus his unconscious drive to bully them (Howe, 2012).

Randy’s Case:

In her 2012 article, Howe details Randy’s transformation. Randy was a six year-old boy who was brought to play therapy by his parents to treat his tendency for bullying his classmates and disrespecting his teachers. Randy had been placed in the middle of a bitter divorce between his parents since he was a toddler and his acting out came to resemble what he unconsciously perceived to be the dragons in his life (his parents). Randy internalized and adopted the dragon archetype and in turn behaved as a dragon toward his teachers and classmates. Randy’s case illustrates how children may learn to bully from the way they may respond to their own family-of-origin. Howe (2012) refers to the “emotional poverty of hostility” (p. 345) to describe Randy’s isolation from his peers triggered by his bullying. Although Randy wanted to have friends, he was unconsciously driven to act out the rage he felt as the result of his perceived loss of nurturance from his family.

Howe (2012) submits that when one is literally hijacked by anger (which was the case with Randy), it is nearly impossible to consciously recognize at that very moment that one is being driven by one’s unconscious drive to retaliate. Howe approached Randy’s case as a case of wounds that had to be acknowledged to facilitate the healing process. Randy suffered from the loss of emotional nurturance from his parents and the loss of friendship from his peers. Howe determined that Randy’s emotional wounds triggered by his parents’ battles with each other had been buried in Randy’s hostility. Through multiple and consecutive sandplay sessions where miniature figures (dragons and humans) were engaged in horrific battles, Randy was able to visualize and externalize his internal world. Howe was also successful in increasing Randy’s parents’ awareness about their role in Randy’s acting out. With the help of Howe and sandplay therapy, Randy was able to transform acting out into sanding out.


In the world of sandplay, fairies are believed to be symbolic traveling companions into the unconscious and dragons may represent the material found in the shadow side. Bringing dragons and fairies together in the sand is likely to be symbolic of a need to reconcile polarities—the desire and the simultaneous fear to learn about oneself. Randy’s parents had been unaware of how their shadow side had taken over their actions and how it was affecting their son. As it is typically the case, Randy was too young to recognize the role of his family dynamics. With every study we learn more about the potential of sandplay as a medium to provide a safe and protected space under which to express indescribable feelings of loss. Randy’s parents were also experiencing losses—the loss of their marriage and the loss of being spouses to each other. Life is about grieving and managing losses. No one leaves this world without experiencing loss. Sandplay metaphors may act as healing agents in the grieving process.


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

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

Fincher, S. (2009). The mandala workbook: A creative guide for self-exploration, balance, and     well-being. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

Freud, A. (1966). The Ego and the mechanisms of defense (rev. edition). Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Howe, L. (2012). War of the ancient dragon: The transformation of violence in sandplay. Psychological Perspectives, 55, 342-359.

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

Stevenson, R. (1994). Dragons as amulets, dragons as talismans, dragons as counselors. Death Studies, 18, 219-228.

Welcome to our new home!

Welcome to the new home of MyPlayTherapyPage! Our previous hosting company discontinued their services and we had to pack up our posts and relocate. We are in the process of transferring material from the old home to our new digs and appreciate your patience. Stay tuned for lots of great, new play therapy content!

Eleven Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Children & Adolescents

The “Action Signs” Project is a new tool kit to help identify children with mental health disorders. Approximately fifty percent of serious mental health conditions manifest themselves by the age of fourteen and as many as one in ten youngsters has a serious mental health condition that impairs their functioning in either home or school or in the community.  Family practice doctors and pediatricians are in an ideal position to identify these children, and the eleven signs identified in The “Action Signs” Project can be extremely useful.

The “Action Signs” Project  tool kit that was recently released by the REACH institute and was funded by The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The authors of the tool kit spent the last ten years sifting through studies and interviewed more than 6,000 families and children in an effort to identify the most efficient and simplest method for identifying the most serious mental health disorders.

The researchers identified eleven signs that require immediate action. They include severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships, intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities, sadness that lasts more than two weeks, or sudden and overwhelming fear brought on for no apparent reason.

Dr. Peter Jensen, a Mayo professor of psychiatry, was the principal investigator on this study. He noted that there is frequently a disconnect that occurs between what a child says and how a parent interprets that message.  For example, four to five percent of parents respond “yes” when asked if their child has “ever talked about wanting to kill himself or made a plan to do so?”  But then, when a follow up question is asked, “Has he seen anyone for that,’ they’ll say ‘no’ two out of three times,” Jensen said in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio.  Jensen said part of the problem is that parents don’t always recognize when the threats or behaviors their children display aren’t normal.

The 11 action steps listed in The “Action Signs” Project are designed to make these situations very clear. For example a child who has severe Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is described in these 17 words: “extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still that puts you in physical danger or causes school failure”.

It should be noted that that the eleven action signs won’t be able to identify every child with a mental health problem. The developers of the tool kit suggest the tool kit will identify at least half of the children who are currently undiagnosed.

These are the eleven signs:

  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks.
  • Seriously trying to harm or kill yourself, or making plans to do so.
  • Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing.
  • Involvement in many fights, using a weapon, or wanting to badly hurt others.
  • Severe out-of-control behavior that can hurt yourself or others.
  • Not eating, throwing up, or using laxatives to make yourself lose weight.
  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of your daily activities.
  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still that puts you in physical danger or causes school failure.
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol.
  • Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships.

Fishing for Feelings Card Game

Here’s another great therapy idea from one of our readers. Thank you to Robin Whisnant for submitting. Submit your own ideas or play therapy articles to receive gift certificates at ChildTherapyToys.

Materials needed:
-Children’s fishing pole (available at department store) or pole with string attached
-magnet (available from a craft store)
-Feelings Cards (available from

-Attach magnet to the end of the fishing line, and paper clips to the Feelings Cards.

The object of the game is to pick up as many feelings as you can with the fishing pole. The client removes each feeling caught and talks about a time they had that feeling. Therapists can play and model for the client. This is an especially fun game for groups. Group members can form teams and work together. This game promotes sharing, healthy competition, team work, appropriate expression of affect, and development of a feelings vocabulary. Fishing for Feelings is suitable for kids and teens, in individual sessions or in group. Fishing is a great family activity, and there are many children who have never been fishing before. This idea can be shared with parents who might be inspired to take their child fishing!

What is Sand Tray Therapy?

Throughout history, sand has been used as an essential ingredient in the construction of the world around us. Brick, glass, and concrete would not exist without sand and, thusly, neither would our modern framework as we know it. In a similar, more figurative sense, sand tray therapy uses sand to create a physical, symbolic model of an individual’s inner worlds and exclusive realities—or, perhaps more appropriately, their personal, psychological infrastructure. By using the sand tray as the canvas and a large assortment of miniature sand tray objects as the medium, sand tray therapy allows a burdened or distraught person to express him or herself in a way that is therapeutic for the individual and interpretable by the sand tray therapy practitioner. As simple as this process might seem, sand tray therapy intervention has been practiced, studied, and diversified for over seventy years and involves many different components and theories.

Sand tray therapy (also known as sandplay or The World Technique) was developed by Dr. Margaret Lowenfeld during the 1920s. Working as a pediatrician, she observed the importance of children’s play as a therapeutic device, as well as a window into their cognitive and psychological functioning. Applying this theory to child therapy, it was discovered that providing children with the tools to express themselves in their own unique way and learning to interpret the language of play can illuminate a great deal of important information about the child. When combined with the almost inexplicable soothing effects of sand, sand tray therapy was born as an innovative method of both healing and expression.

The physical tools involved in sand tray therapy (aside from sand) are a tabletop sand tray, a water source, and a large, assorted array of miniatures that can be manipulated by the sand tray participant inside the sand tray. A sand tray typically measures four-feet by three-feet, making it no larger than the sand tray therapy participant’s field of vision. Examples of sand tray miniatures include animals, people, furniture, vehicles, food, buildings, and so forth. The amount and variety of sand tray miniatures provided can correlate with the sand tray participant’s options for expression and, therefore, with the effectiveness of the sand tray therapy. Though all of these sand tray supplies are essential to the sand tray process, the most vital components of successful sand tray therapy relate to the technique of the sand tray therapist.

As with many other methods of play therapy, sand tray therapy must be conducted in a non-invasive manner. Since the goal of the sand tray therapist is to illicit and assess the true meanings of the world created in the sand tray, the participant must feel completely uninhibited and free to express him or herself in whatever way their feelings dictate. Sand tray therapy does involve interaction between therapist and participant, but in a non-authoritative environment. The sand tray therapist invites the participant to tell a story or, perhaps, recreate a memory with the sand tray miniatures on the landscape of the sand tray. The specific choices and manipulations of the objects must be acutely observed by the sand tray therapist and explored through careful inquiry. Discussing the participant’s sand tray world can lead to revelations about struggles or anxieties, in-depth self-exploration, the development of strong coping skills, and, ultimately, a profound healing experience.

Though sand tray therapy was originally developed as a method of helping children articulate their emotions and experiences, it has since been embraced as a mode of expression and coping for adults, as well. The combination of exercising one’s creativity, shrinking complex realities down to a manageable size, and finding enjoyment in the process is what makes sand tray therapy unique. As this method is continually researched and practiced, it becomes increasingly useful in a wide variety of situations.