Counselling in Oxfordshire

Bill Imlah :: Counselling in Oxfordshire

Blog » How I work with sandplay

9 Apr 2014

“image and meaning are identical; and as the first takes shape, so the latter becomes clear “ (Jung 1927:402)

Sandplay is one of the ways that we can working symbolically in therapy. If our setting has the facilities to support it*, I might invite you to create a scene in a sand tray, using a set of objects available for doing so, and sculpting the sand too if you wanted.

I wouldn't normally give you more information than that, except maybe to help you feel supported if you're unsure about the exercise, eg. “maybe something that expresses how you feel”.

Sandplay can sometimes lead to an immediate expression of problems freed from verbal defences, which the person has difficulty expressing verbally or even being aware of. There is a sense in which messages can come out “under the radar”, and once out there, the person has the choice to notice the symbolism, or not.

I find it helpful to comment only on the scene at the level of what I see in the sand and how it feels to me at that level (not an interpretation). I might say “that figure looks angry to me” or “it feels quite quite ominous” but not “Does that represent your father?”.

Its possible that I might have insights into what you might be expressing, and that could inform what I say, but I'd normally express that in terms of the scene portrayed, not any underlying interpretation.

The particular objects chosen and their configuration will have personal meaning to the person which I might be unaware of, and which even they may be unaware of.

I might have a hunch that about things that may be symbolised by the scene, but I'd not usually suggest that to you, as it may overlay my own preconceptions on the scene and may sabotage what is emerging, which neither of us may be fully aware of. How I reflect on it afterwards will be led by you, as I'm aiming to encouraging exploration of your own insights rather than trying to impose my own views.

Some people may be very aware of the symbolic aspect and talk about that, and that can give me an opportunity to point out aspects of the symbolism that they haven’t noticed consciously but may be expressing from an unconscious level. Eg. Client: “I can’t find someone to represent my dad, but this one has a uniform so that’s the closest I can get to it.” Me: “It looks very angry – it’s scowling and waving it’s arms.”

Some sand trays are waterproof and painted blue on the bottom half to more easily symbolise watery areas. Water may be provided to make the sand more sculptable, if desired, but I usually avoid that for practical reasons  - the sandplay apparatus can easily get mouldy or unhygenic.

A typical sand-tray size might be 50 x 60 x 10 cm, half filled with sand. The dimensions aren't critical except that the scene should be able to be seen without shifting eye focus, and should feel boundaried to the person – a safe space to play out the scene in. Sand for sandplay can be purchased from children’s play shops.

Sand play typically take 20-40 mins to complete, with the sandplay therapist making available perhaps in the order of 1000 objects, to make sure there's a rich enough choice the support its exploration. Ryce-Menuhin (1992) suggests some types of object that can be useful:

  • human, animal and mineral life
  • buildings for all purposes and from as many cultures as possible
  • prehistoric and fantasy animals
  • cultural, historic and symbolic figures worldwide
  • vehicles of land, sea and air

I'd never touch, or dismantle the scene in the person's presence, and normally wait till they have gone, or invite them to do it themselves.

sand trays

From the perspective of Jungian sandplay, I'd be looking at the scene from the point of view of whether the material being expressed is coming from:

  • The conscious part of the mind
  • The personal unconscious
  • The collective unconscious

(There are some suggest ways of doing this in the literature, but I'll omit those from this posting to avoid the risk of clients becoming self-conscious about it).  

“The archetypal possesses an invariable core of meaning that determines its manner of appearing always only in principle, never concretely”. (Jung 1939:79 quoted in Ryce-Menuhin 1992:16)

To be able to recognise material from the collective unconscious it is important to become familiar with archetypal and mythic imagery – the sort of images and symbols that tend to be found in mythology and fairy-tales the world over – and to develop a sense of archetypal or typical meanings for such symbols, and the various forms that an archetype tends to be expressed concretely.

It helps to remember that symbolism is “loaded” with meaning and that a single element of the symbolic scene may have many meanings to the person at the same time, so I'm wary of thinking in terms of having “got” what it means and then switching off to further insights via that symbolic level of communication.

* Sandplay facilities aren't currently available at my central Oxford practice.


Jung, Carl 1939 Translation of "Die Psychologischen Aspekten des Mutterachetypus", Eranos Jahrbuch 8: 79-91, Zurich:Eranos

Jung, Carl 1972 The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, vol 8, London:Routledge

Ryce-Menuhin J. 1992 Jungian Sandplay: The Wonderful Therapy, London:Routledge

Images used in this blog.