Check out these fun, effective, and affordable ways to use sand tray therapy in-person and via telehealth.
Some might say sand tray therapy was one of the greatest inventions in play therapy, if not therapy period. It offers endless options for role play, Jungian therapy, child and teen therapy, and even adult and couples therapy.
Sand tray therapy is an umbrella term for therapy techniques that use a tabletop sandbox and miniature figures that clients can arrange into patterns and scenes. The miniatures, meant to be symbolic, allow children, as well as adults, to express themselves visually.
If you’re new to sand tray, or have used it for years, this list can help inspire you to make more use of this versatile tool. Along with therapeutic techniques, options are included for more affordable tray options, hygienic alternatives to the traditional setup, and even a teletherapy adaptation!
Why sand tray?
Background of sand tray therapy and sandplay
Ideas for sand tray therapy
Paper sand tray miniatures
Sand tray therapy via telehealth
How to set up a home sand tray
Why Sand Tray?
I used to keep a gratuitously large tabletop sand tray in my therapy office. A one-year-old could have crawled up there and used it as a regular sandbox, with a bucket and pail and all.
Despite its size (I included a pic below!) you’d think it would have attracted my younger clients, up to age 10 or so, the most.
I was surprised to find that it wasn’t necessarily the younger kids who liked it the best. It was my teenagers who would make a beeline for it every session.
It seemed to take the pressure off of face-to-face conversations. We often discussed boys, parents, and sometimes even trauma while they created their own worlds and watched the sand fall between their fingers.
Then you-know-what hit, and like many therapists I closed my office and went entirely to telehealth. By that time I wasn’t doing as much work with kids, but I’ve still regretted not being able to do as much play and sand tray work via Zoom and such.
For over a year, I tried to figure out how sand tray could be done via telehealth. I’ve finally found an option in cheap and easy home trays and paper miniatures, which you can learn more about here. Otherwise, keep reading for more on this idea, along with others!
History of sand tray therapy and sandplay
First, a little background for those who are new to this modality. The idea of sandplay therapy came originally from pediatrician Margaret Lowenfield, and psychotherapist Dora Kalff. Lowenfield came up with the idea of the smaller sandbox and use of symbolic miniatures as a tool to work with children (Roesler, 2019).
Children instinctually created a scene, or “world” each time they used the tray. So, she began calling it the World Technique.
Kallf took it from there and continued to develop the method, combining psychodynamic and Jungian principles. She suggested that the limitations of the sand box provided security, which allowed a child to externalize internal experiences (Kallf, 1966).
The trays are analyzed over time, allowing therapists to watch the changes and progression in the child’s psychological development.
The method went on to be called sandplay, or sand tray therapy. Now the tool is used with both children and adults, including to treat complex issues such as trauma from sexual abuse and behavioral issues (Tornero & Kapella, 2017; Roessler, 2019).
Today many sandplay therapists note there’s a difference between sandplay and sand tray therapy. Sandplay is more closely related to the original intention of Kallf’s work, while sand tray is a flexible use of the tray in play and expressive therapies. Sand tray is also sometimes used as a general term to describe multiple uses of this tool.
If you’re new to the method, multiple associations, institutes, and colleges offer various versions of sand tray and sandplay training. There are also various private and public courses online that can get you started.
Ideas for Sand Tray Therapy
Meanwhile, here are several ideas and prompts you can use in your own work with clients.
1. Offer free range play
I most often used in-person sand tray as an open play option. As I mentioned, my teenagers found it a soothing activity, and it helped facilitate our conversations.
Younger children would use it as well, of course, and I also offered it structure-free for them.
With teens, it was typically a relaxing activity, akin to a fidget toy, that helped make our conversations more natural. Younger kids would sometimes need a bit more encouragement and reassurance that it was okay to play.
Over time as my clients became more comfortable with seeing the tray in my office, it would become a staple part of their therapy and support whatever goals we were working on. On a few occasions I had adults use it, although this happened less than I would have liked!
2. Provide tray prompts
Another common use of sand tray is to ask clients to respond to prompts or questions. The idea isn’t to stay rigid to the topic, but to inspire a starting point. Here are some examples of prompts you could try:
What’s something that happened at school this week?
Depict a feeling you’ve had today
How did it feel when your boss treated you that way?
What is it like when you’re at your house?
Use the miniatures to show how you feel right now
3. Try paper miniatures
Remember that epiphany I mentioned? This was it. I design multiple therapy games and activities, and one of my games includes stand-up paper characters, sort of like paper dolls.
One day I wondered if these little guys could be used as miniatures, inside sand and out … and it worked!
I’ve gone on to create an entire printable paper sand tray kit. It’s turned out to have multiple possible uses, including:
An affordable sand tray startup option
A way to supplement your collection when you can’t find the characters you need, such as appearances, cultures, genders, and more
A way to add in difficult-to-find symbolic items, such as religious images or feelings-related miniatures
A way for kids, teens, and families to create a sand tray and miniature set up at home for $5 to $10, or even for free with what’s on hand
A way to set up individual hygienic sand tray kits
A way to create travel sand trays that clients can keep or you can manage
A way to do sand tray without the sand (if you don’t find that sacreligious!)
Doubles as puppets, role-play, and therapeutic art activities
You can certainly create your own paper miniatures at home, and if you’d like to try my kit you can check it out here. It includes the stand-up models, dozens of people and symbols, and tips and instructions to set up individual kits. Visit here to learn more.
4. Use family sand trays
Finding activities for family therapy, especially with younger kids that don’t verbalize as much, can be a challenge. Sand tray prompts are a great idea. They can also help with bonding if you’re working on reunification.
Prompts can be as simple as “create a tray together,” or “make a scene you want to show to Mom and tell her about it.” You can also use it for genograms or shared trauma depictions (great for TF-CBT which we’ll get to in a bit).
5. Offer couples sand trays
Looking for a unique couples activity option? Couples can create trays based on conflict, feelings, or communication challenges. It can also be a couple-building activity, challenging the two to work together.
6. Create vision board sand trays
Vision board trays can be a great manifesting tool, even if you or your clients don’t believe in the metaphysical version. It can work similar to vision boards and might be an easier way to express wants, hopes, and goals than writing or drawing.
7. Suggest it for trauma narratives
One of the most tangible uses of sand tray may be the trauma narrative. This is a part of trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, or TF-CBT. Clients, typically kids and teens, create some sort of story or depiction of their trauma.
With sand tray clients can set up various scenes of the before, during, and after phases of the trauma. If you’re missing pieces, this would be a chance to hunt for more, create your own, or use printable options.
It may also be compatible with adult therapies that involve visually depicting memories, traumas, or feelings relating to trauma.
8. Practice relaxation exercises
In my practice, one of the unexpected uses of sand tray turned out to be relaxation. Teens in particular would pick up the sand and feel and watch it slip between their fingers. It could be either a mindless activity, such as using a fidget toy, or a mindful activity, where we intentionally notice that experience.
9. Try it as a communication aid
Many clients, such as those who are neurodivergent, may have trouble expressing thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Enter sand tray! It’s a great alternative to talk therapy or writing, but can portray just as many ideas.
10. Add it to somatic activities
If you do a lot of somatic work with clients, sand tray can be a great supplement. It’s a primal tool, meant to depict the earth, sky, and water. Some of my clients would hold their hand inside the sand and notice or describe how it felt.
You can incorporate it into somatic experiencing, to supplement EMDR, and more. For example, if you’re using the “superhero” self activity, clients can choose a miniature to represent their strong, inner power.
11. Soothe overstimulation
For clients who need a break from overstimulation, such as highly sensitive people (HSP), or those with ASD, sand tray may help. Many of my clients would steer towards the physical sensations of the sand, even holding their face to it at times. Starting with a clean, smoothed tray can be a good place to start.
Looking for more ideas and steps to beginning sand tray therapy? Check out our paper miniature kit here!
12. Include it in telehealth
With some planning and flexibility, you can use sand tray via telehealth. Clients can set up small home sand trays for free or just a few dollars. You can then assign sand tray worlds as homework, or work with it during sessions.
A client might complete a tray and then lift it up to show you onscreen. Or, they can send an image of their world. You can also assign a prompt each week for them to work with, and then process the image during the next session.
To help clients create an instant full miniature set, we’ve created a paper miniature set with more than 100 minis! Check out the kit here.
How to set up a home therapeutic sand tray
Here are the basic steps I recommend for helping clients set up a home tray. You can also use these steps to create individual trays for in-person clients.
Find a shallow container, such as an old baking pan, a plastic food container, or a shoebox. Dollar Tree sells the perfect shallow baking pans (you can see them in the images here).
Fill the container halfway full with sugar, salt, or actual sand. (Go for cheap dollar-store options!)
Send your client our paper miniature PDF ahead of time and have them print the pages they’d like to use. Instructions are included for how to cut out and easily assemble the miniatures.
Encourage your client to add their own items, symbols, small toys, etc., to round out the tray set.
Use sand tray therapy or sandplay prompts as you normally would.
The client can periodically lift up the tray to show you, or if you want to get fancy you can have them arrange their camera or tilt a laptop screen for a better view.
Process the tray world. If you’re new to sand tray, consider prompts such as, “Can you tell me about this?” or “I’m curious about this area of your world.”
Also consider assigning trays as homework. Clients might complete one tray during the week, or even one tray a day and take images for the next session.
The sky's (and sand's) the limit!
Sand tray encourages creativity for clients, and it can do the same for sand tray therapists! I created the paper miniature set based on ideas of Jung, symbology, day-to-day life, and trauma histories that I’ve commonly come across.
To check it out and get more tips, visit our store to see the sand tray kit.
Kallf,D., 1966, The Archetype as a Healing Factor, Psychologia.
Tornera & Kapella, 2017, Change during Psychotherapy through Sand Play Tray in Children That Have Been Sexually Abused. Frontiers in Psychology.
Roesler, 2019. Sandplay therapy: An overview of theory, applications and evidence base. The Arts in Psychotherapy.