9 Apr 2010 |  for counsellors | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

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

Sandplay is a way of working symbolically with the client. The therapist invites the client to create a scene in the sand tray, using the objects available for doing so and sculpting the sand too if they want.

The therapist need not give the client more information than that, but might do, to help the client feel ‘held’ if they are 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 client 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 client has the choice to notice the symbolism, or not.

When working with the client, it can help to comment only on the scene at the level of what you see in the sand and how it feels to you at that level (not an interpretation). You might say “that figure looks angry to me” or “it feels quite quite ominous” but not “Does that represent your father?”.

Insights you might have into what the client is expressing might inform what you say, but what you say is usually best expressed in terms of the scene portrayed, not your underlying interpretation.

Remember that these objects and their configuration will have personal meaning to the client which you may be unaware of, and which they may also be unaware of.

You may be aware of things that may be symbolised by the scene, but it's not always a good idea to suggest that to the client, or you may overlay your own preconceptions on the scene and may sabotage what is emerging, which neither of you may be aware of. How you reflect on it with the client afterwards will be client-led if you are encouraging client insight rather than imposing yours.

Some clients may be very aware of the symbolic aspect and talk about that, and that can give you 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.” Counsellor: “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 watch out not to let your sandplay apparatus get mouldy or unhygenic).

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

A typical sand play might 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

It's advisable to never touch, or dismantle the scene in the client's presence. Better to wait till they have gone, or invite them to do it themselves.

sand trays

In Jungian sandplay, the therapist may 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

Some practitioners claim that more deliberate scene-creation tends to happen in the “ top half” of scene (i.e. the part furthest from the client) and that the less deliberate – “bottom half” of scene (i.e. the part nearest the client and perhaps most easily overlooked by them visually).

    “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 client at the same time, so beware of thinking in terms of having “got” what it means and then switching off to further insights via that symbolic level of communication.


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

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