stories in the sand

one of the key features in N’s new playhouse is her sandtray. in basic terms, it’s a sandbox that is only big enough for toys and figurines; however, historically and therapeutically, it is so much more.

sandplay therapy was developed in the 1920s by margaret lowenfeld, md. knowing that children begin gathering information from their birth, before language developed, she believed playing in the sand taps into a child’s non-linear thinking process and represent thought, movement, and sensory experiences.

there are standard sizes and heights for sandtrays in the world of sandtray/sandplay therapy. i have a standard one for my therapy office (whenever i begin seeing clients again…) however, for the one we created in N’s playhouse, i just filled a stray wooden drawer with safe sand. (yes, i would recommend splurging on a 60lb box of safe sand, as it is free of carcinogens and silica dust, and those bags at toys r’us are not. plus, it feels goooood.) the standard ones are usually at a height where an adult client could use them while standing. i just put N’s drawer on on old coffee table we got off of freecycle. coffee tables are perfect play table height, but with more surface area than the kid tables you can buy. given that we just use a wooden drawer, we are not introducing water into our sandtray. (N has a water and sand table that is separate and okay for this sort of water play.)

to be fancy, i mod podged some cut pieces of N’s art work onto the front of the drawer. i was hoping to find a cool, rustic drawer, but this one was so basic and boring that it needed some jazzing up. N loves checking out the little images on it, too.

when she’s not playing, i place a board atop the sandtray. even though it’s in a sheltered space, i want to try to avoid little critters getting into the sand. also, i gave her a flat piece of cardboard (piece of a shipping box) and showed her how to smooth out the sand with it. her first reaction? “it’s just like a zamboni!” she looooves to zamboni her sandtray now. hee hee.

combining sand, toys, and water to create stories within a tray can mirror the child’s world. lowenfeld believes it is important to provide a variety of figurines for play in order to represent various archetypes — different sizes represent giant and small relationships, and different ages, races, sexes of people should be available for the child to choose from. queens, kings, armies, mothers, fathers, doctors, teachers, famous people, fairies, animals, plants, jewelry can all play a role in the stories that emerge. i was lucky enough to inherit some great sandtray figures from a jungian therapist colleague, but i am willing to bet that your kids’ toy bins are ripe with the perfect figurines.

natural objects (shells, gemstones, branches) are key parts of storytelling in a sandtray.

you can aid your child in creating environments by providing pieces of playgrounds, buildings, houses, fences, vehicles, picnic baskets, etc.

i’m in the process of figuring out a better way to display figurines for sandplay where N can have access to them visually, without having to think too hard or search too long for which ones to grab. curio shelves? hmm… right now i have the baskets you see above with natural materials and scenery atop the coffee table, beside the sandtray. then i put two plastic drawers below the coffee table/sandtray, separating the people figures from the animal figures.

sometimes how a child plays in the sandtray is more revealing than the scenes they create. pay attention to whether figures are overloaded into the tray or if they are placed strategically. every sandtray is unique to its creator, and begs for a story to be told. if your child is anything like N, s/he has vivid dreams s/he likes to tell, and the sandtray is an ideal environment to set up and reenact dream scenarios. while i completely realize you are not doing therapy with your child(ren) here, sensory experiences such as sandtray can be deeply healing to the psyche… and also incredibly fun!

i am dying to visit the sandtray room just north of san francisco, and just might go this weekend! (<—seriously, check the photo in that link – how cool!) i am excited to see the many zillions of sandtray set-ups and play that emerge in our playhouse!

i cannot peel her away!





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  • shannon

    I love this! We have a regular sand pit outside but it is too cold and rainy to use it right now. What a great idea of putting her art images as decorations. I think this may be my weekend activity! Thanks for sharing.

  • Emily

    Jen!!!! You are truly sooo awesome!! This is so amazing.

  • jen

    i have to report that i went the the healing arts center in stinson beach, ca where they have that incredible sandtray room — amazingly inspiring! if you’re ever up near sausalito, take the winding and scenic drive on highway 1 over there and enjoooooy.

  • jen

    and on a larger scale:

    woah! lovely!

  • Oh Wow! This is great! Have to give it a shot at home!