Sandplay: A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche

Sandplay: A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche

5.0 1
by Dora M. Kalff

View All Available Formats & Editions

This seminal text by the founder of sandplay therapy offers clinicians and students a foundational account of the workings and practice of this therapy. Through simple but elegant narratives of actual casework, Kalff articulates her theoretical understanding of how sandplay therapy heals and transforms the psyche. Dr. Martin Kalff, the author’s son, provides…  See more details below


This seminal text by the founder of sandplay therapy offers clinicians and students a foundational account of the workings and practice of this therapy. Through simple but elegant narratives of actual casework, Kalff articulates her theoretical understanding of how sandplay therapy heals and transforms the psyche. Dr. Martin Kalff, the author’s son, provides a new introduction in which he shares original historical material about his mother and her development of the sandplay therapy method. A comprehensive index and tables of illustrations and references are included for ease of study and understanding.

Product Details

Temenos Press
Publication date:
The Sandplay Classics series
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Sales rank:
File size:
4 MB

Read an Excerpt


A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche

By Dora M. Kalff, Barbara A. Turner

Temenos Press

Copyright © 2012 Temenos Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9860111-0-8


SANDPLAY: A Pathway to the Psyche

In my sandplay work with children and adolescents, I have observed evidence of the individuation process, as described by C.G. Jung. In the material that follows, I would like to illustrate these findings with several case stories of development that occurred in my playroom. First, however, a few clarifications are necessary.

My observations agree with Jung's theory that that the Self directs the process of psychic development from the time of birth. The Self, according to Jung, "... designates the whole range of psychic phenomena in man. It expresses the unity of the personality as a whole." The Self consists of both the conscious and unconscious components of the psyche. Man is born as a totality which, according to Erich Neumann, is kept preserved for the time being within the mother's Self. When all of the requirements of the newborn infant, such as appeasement of hunger, shelter from cold, etc., are met by the bodily mother, the child experiences an unconditional security and a sense of safety through motherly love. We call this first phase the mother-child unity.

After one year, the Self of the child--the center of his psychic totality--separates itself from the Self of the mother. In the second phase, the child experiences more and more security in the relationship to the mother through her caresses and displays of tenderness. A relationship of trust grows out of this experience.

The security that results from this primary relationship is the basis of the third phase. During this phase, which begins around the end of the second year of life and at the beginning of the third, the center of the Self is stabilized in the unconscious of the child and begins to manifest itself in symbols of wholeness. During this time the child plays, draws, paints or speaks in symbols of wholeness. The child uses the same ancient language of symbols that adult man has used, consciously or unconsciously, to express his wholeness throughout the ages and in all cultures. These symbols are either human figures of godly content, like the figures of Christ, Mary, Buddha, etc., or they are of a geometric or numerical nature, such as the circle or the square. We accept the validity of these symbols of the wholeness of the human psyche, because they have occurred everywhere without exception from the earliest times of man. Jung observed that the circle, particularly as a symbol of perfection and of perfect being, is a well-known expression of God, of heaven, the sun, the soul, and of the ideal of man [Illustrations 1, 2, 3 and 4]. The square, my experience has shown, appears when wholeness is developing.

I have observed that in psychic development, the entity of four appears either before the symbol of the circle or in connection with the circle [Illustrations 5, 6 and 7].

My ideas were confirmed a few years ago in San Francisco when I saw Rhoda Kellogg's collection of children's artwork. During her many years as director of a nursery school, she collected thousands of drawings and finger paintings by children from two to four years of age. An enormous number of these pictures showed the familiar well-known symbols of wholeness.

Such symbols appear not only in drawings and paintings of children, but also in their verbal communication. A three-year-old boy asked me one day, "If it is true that the earth is round and that God can see everybody, does that mean He is like a circle?" Over each of his drawings, on the upper side of the picture, he drew a blue line from one end to the other. When I asked what the lines meant, he answered that it was God. These lines, each a very small part of an enormous circle, told of his conception.

Another boy of about the same age once discovered some tin figures on my piano. He positioned them to form a full circle. He left the room for a while, and when he came back, he brought a small, white porcelain dove and put it behind a photograph that was on the piano. When I asked him what the dove was doing in this hiding place, he answered, "We can't see God either."

Through such statements from children we can see the numinous content of the symbol. The circle is not only a geometrical form; it is also a symbol that brings to light something which lives invisibly in man. Symbols speak for the inner, energy-laden pictures of the innate potentials of the human being which, when they are manifested, continue to influence the development of man. These symbols of numinous or religious content tell of an inner drive for spiritual order that allows relationship to the deity. This spiritual order gives man an inner security and insures for him, among other things, the development of his inherent personality.

I want to emphasize that the manifestation of the Self, this inner order, this pattern of wholeness, is the most important moment in the development of the personality. Psychotherapeutic work has proven that healthy development of the ego can take place only as a result of the successful manifestation of the Self. The Self may manifest as a dream symbol or as a depiction in the sandbox. Such a manifestation of the Self seems to guarantee the development and consolidation of the personality.

* * *

Symbols speak for the inner, energy-laden pictures of the innate potentials of the human being which, when they are manifested, continue to influence the development of man.

* * *

On the other hand, in the case of weak or neurotic ego development, I assume with certainty that the manifestation of the Self through symbol has failed to appear. This may happen because the necessary motherly protection has not been given, or because the Self manifestation has been critically disturbed by external influences such as war, illness, or lack of understanding from the environment during the child's early development. Therefore, I aim to give the child's Self the possibility of constellating and manifesting in therapy. Through the transference I try to protect it and to stabilize the relationship between the Self and the ego. This is possible within the psychotherapeutic relationship because it corresponds to the natural tendency of the psyche to constellate itself when a free and sheltered space is created. This free space occurs in the therapeutic setting when the therapist is fully able to accept the child so that the therapist, as a person, is as much a part of everything going on in the room as is the child himself. When a child feels that he is not alone, not only in his distress but also in his happiness, he then feels free and protected in all his expressions. This relationship of confidence is of great importance, for in some instances, the first phase of psychic development, the mother-child unity, can be restored. This psychic situation can establish an inner peace that contains the potential for development of the total personality. This includes its intellectual and spiritual aspects.

It is the role of the therapist to perceive these possibilities and, like the guardian of a precious treasure, protect them in their development. For the child, the therapist represents the protector, the space, the freedom and at the same time, the boundaries. The unique occurrence of each phase of development is of great consequence, because the transformations of psychic energy necessary for the individual can occur only within these parameters.

Gerhard Tersteegen, a 17th-Century mystic and pastor, lived by the following principle: "Whoever deals with souls must be like a nursemaid who leads the child by a halter and who only protects it from dangers and falls, but otherwise must allow the child to go its own way." It seems to me that he was saying that no unambiguous theories exist for the cure of souls. One must recognize the uniqueness of each person so that with the help of wise guidance, free development of individuality can be assured.

Development under the care of a therapist can be compared to the goal set by Pestalozzi in his work on education, How Gertrud Teaches Her Children. Pestalozzi said that it is through genuine love by the mother that the child finds his way to inner unity and thus gains access to the divine.

According to my experience, a healthy ego can develop only in the condition of the child's total security. In the case of a weak ego I must assume that the manifestation of the Self as a symbol, which is normally observed between the ages of two to three years, has not taken place. Amazingly enough, I have found that where the symbolic manifestation of the Self was not made possible during childhood, it can often be recovered to a certain degree in therapy. This recovery can occur at any stage of life.

Jung himself says:

In my experience it is of considerable practical importance that the symbols aiming at wholeness should be correctly understood by the doctor. They are the remedy with whose help neurotic dissociations can be repaired, by restoring to the conscious mind a spirit and an attitude which from time immemorial have been felt as solving and healing in their effects. They are répresentations collectives which facilitate the much-needed union of conscious and unconscious. This union cannot be accomplished either intellectually or in a purely practical sense, because in the former case the instincts rebel and in the latter case reason and morality. Every dissociation that falls within the category of the psychogenic neuroses is due to a conflict of this kind, and the conflict can only be resolved through the symbol.

In this sense, we can also understand Bachofen when he writes: "That is precisely the great dignity of the symbol, that it allows, and even stimulates, different degrees of comprehension, and leads from the truths of the physical life to those of a higher spiritual order." The symbol embodies the image of a psychic content that transcends consciousness and points to the eternal foundation of our nature given us by God. Once recognized and experienced, it leads man to the authentic dignity of his existence as a human being.

The symbol plays a great role in sandplay therapy, which I have expanded from the Lowenfeld World Technique. I use a sand box with dimensions 28.5 x 19.5 x 3 inches. This size confines the player's imagination and thus acts as a regulating, protecting factor.

Hundreds of small figures of every conceivable type are provided. The child arranges any figures he chooses in the sand. The sand picture that is produced by the child can be understood as a three-dimensional representation of some aspect of his psychic situation. An unconscious problem is played out in the sand box, just like a drama. The conflict is transferred from the inner world to the outer world and is made visible. This game of fantasy influences the dynamics of the unconscious in the child and thus moves his psyche.

The analyst interprets for himself the symbols emerging in the course of a series of sand pictures. The therapist's understanding of the problem that emerges in the picture often promotes an atmosphere of trust between the analyst and the child. This trust is like the original mother-child unity and exerts a healing influence. It is not necessary to communicate the therapist's insights to the child in words, as we are dealing with the experience of the symbol in the free and sheltered space. Under certain circumstances however, the pictures are interpreted to the child in an easily understandable way that is connected with his life situation. With the help of the exterior picture, the inner problem becomes visible and brings about the next step in development. In this process, new energies are freed that lead to the formation of healthy ego development.

In addition, the details and composition of the pictures give the therapist an indication of the path to follow in the treatment. Frequently the initial picture gives information about the situation. Hidden in the symbols it may contain the path to the goal of the realization of the Self. An eight-year-old boy has represented the normal development of these energies very nicely in a sand picture [Illustration 8]. In the upper right side of the picture the Self is embodied in the good shepherd with the sheep. Dark foreign powers (Moroccans) in orderly rows move toward the space that can be regarded as representing the boy's inner peace. The powers are armed. The boy remarked, however, "Actually they wouldn't need to be armed," sensing he could cope with them. My experience in sandplay coincides with Erich Neumann's theory of the stages of ego-development. These are: 1) the animal, vegetative stage; 2) the fighting stage; and 3) the adaptation to the collective. In the first phase, the ego expresses itself chiefly in pictures where animals and vegetation predominate. The next stage brings battles that appear again and again, especially during puberty. By now, the child is so strengthened that he can take upon himself the battle with external influences and is able to come to grips with them. Finally, he is admitted to the environment as a person and becomes a member of the collective.

While studying Chinese thought, I came across a diagram that seems to correspond to our viewpoint [Illustration 9]. It is the diagram of Chou Tun Yi, a philosopher of the Sung period, who lived around the year 1000 ce.

The beginning of all things is shown in a circle, in which I see an analogy to the Self at birth. A second circle shows the interfusing action of yin and yang that produces the five elements. I am inclined to relate this circle to what I have said about the manifestation of the Self. It contains the germ of those energies that lead to the formation of the ego and the development of personality [Illustrations 10 and 11]. Just as the five elements arise from this constellation, the personality develops around the centering point of the ego. I equate this step with development in the first half of life. Also, in our tradition, five is the number of the natural man [Illustrations 12 and 13]. Here, man is pictured as a pentagram with his head and outstretched arms and legs. He is a microcosm in the macrocosm. The third circle could be compared with the manifestation of the Self in the individuation process during the second half of life. In the fourth circle, I see the ending as opposed to the beginning. Here I see the end of the movement that leads from life to death. Following the law of transformation, on which the diagram is based, death, just like the sacrifice of a psychic situation lived to its conclusion, holds the germ of new life.

These images may show us that in all traditions, our lives correspond to a physical and psychic flow that can be looked on as the basis of individual development. Therefore, it seems to me that our therapeutic efforts with the child and adolescent will do justice only as seen from this view.

The children who come to me for treatment suffer mostly from lack of inner security. They have no feeling of belonging. Something prevents the normal growth that is necessary for their inner balance. This may be an unfavorable home or a situation outside the home. Because of this, I believe that it is very important not to separate the place of my practice from the environment and atmosphere of my home. [Illustrations 14a and 14b]. When my heavy entrance door closes (my house was first constructed in 1485), the child enters an old, paneled room in which a magnificent tile stove is quite prominent. It is easy to climb a few built-in steps leading to the top of the stove. The child can now do what he feels like doing. He is allowed to sit or lie on the stove. He can look down on the room or out through the window, where he can watch the birds that play and bathe in the little fountain in my garden. He can look at some picture books or read magazines. He may also feel encouraged to investigate the unusual objects and pictures in my old house. My home's irregular order of rooms and staircases heightens its interest. Small children often love to play hide-and-seek, while the older ones sometimes become adventurous and look for hidden treasures. If possible, I give them free range of the house. Often I take them to the basement, where they investigate the meter-thick walls to see if there are subterranean passages. We may go to the immense attic, with its secret double floors that invite them to explore. The children are always looking for something hidden, a treasure which they would like to find in themselves that they have so far been unable to discover.

My house was constructed hundreds of years ago on rock. Its rooms were not built and shaped with a yardstick and compass, but grew according to a natural law. This house offers an atmosphere that corresponds to the natural temperament of young people. Moreover, the child comes upon a world that is completely open to him, and where he is totally welcomed and accepted. As he enters the playroom where the sand tray is waiting, the chain of tension that perhaps arose by wondering, "What will I find, what will I have to do?" is broken.


Excerpted from Sandplay by Dora M. Kalff, Barbara A. Turner. Copyright © 2012 Temenos Press. Excerpted by permission of Temenos Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Sandplay: A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
bethh1902 More than 1 year ago
If your interested in Sandplay therapy, this book is a must read.