Sandtray Play in Education: A Teacher's Guide

Sandtray Play in Education: A Teacher's Guide


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This is a manual for training teachers in the Sandtray Play in Education method. It introduces a holistic approach to childhood education that returns the child's natural medium of creative play to the learning environment. Sadly, most approaches to contemporary childhood education are not successful in teaching children the riches of language and numbers and the capacities to think, inquire and create. We are failing our children by not designing educational curricula that is appropriate to the learning styles of children.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780996837804
Publisher: Temenos Press
Publication date: 04/01/2016
Pages: 166
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Barbara Turner, PhD, is a psychotherapist specializing in Jungian Sandplay Therapy. Dr. Turner has made extensive inquiry in the the Sandplay therapy method and has authored a number of books on the subject, including the well-known, Handbook of Sandplay Therapy. Dr. Turner teaches Sandplay psychotherapy to mental health clinicians around the world. Kristín Unnsteinsdottír, PhD, works as the Learning Specialist at a small grammar school in Reykjavik, Iceland, where she helps children with their learning difficulties.

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Sandtray Play in Education

By Kristín Unnsteinsdóttir, Barbara A. Turner

Temenos Press

Copyright © 2016 Temenos Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9968378-0-4


Beginnings of Sandtray Play

Sandtray Play is an educational tool that involves students making miniature worlds with a variety of small figures in trays of sand just large enough to fill the field of vision. Upon completion of the world, the child is invited to tell a story about what they have created. A practitioner certified in Sandtray Play in Education works individually with students in small groups at a time.

Sandtray Play in Education owes its beginnings to what is known as Jungian Sandplay Therapy. This is a highly effective and powerful form of psychotherapy. It is used by well-trained Sandplay therapists around the world. Sandplay was originally developed by Dora M. Kalff, a Jungian analyst living in Küsnacht, Switzerland, nearby the home of renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung. In fact, it was Carl Jung's challenge to Dora Kalff to find a way to do analysis with children that eventually led to the development of Sandplay. Jungian Sandplay therapy is Barbara's specialty. She studied with Dora Kalff, has written extensively about the subject and trains therapists around the world.

What we do in Sandtray Play in Education is not Sandplay therapy. Rather, we use the tools of the Sandplay method for creative play in the school setting. These items include a small tray of sand and miniature figures. Many years ago, Kristín learned about Sandplay and experimented with the possibility of using miniature worlds in the special education setting. She says, "I started with one tray, but extended that to five when a bigger classroom came along. Five trays is the maximum number I could comfortably fit into the learning center. My collection was also small to begin with, but I have gradually added figures over time. After putting the tools together I invited my students to play in the sand and make whatever they like. When they finished, I asked if they would like to tell a story about it."

Kristín soon discovered that her students loved to play in the sand and to build little worlds. "When I added my appreciation of storytelling to the process, I realized that I had discovered a form of creative expression that has proved to enhance children's learning and emotional-behavioral development." After a great deal of development and research, Kristín gave this method a name, Sandtray Play in Education. Although it would not exist without its roots in Sandplay, Sandtray Play stands on its own as a separate method of working with children in education and is distinct from Sandplay therapy. Sandtray Play gives children the opportunity to work with and unburden the stresses that wear on them. It also redirects these energies toward a creative purpose that strengthens self-image. This release of tension, characteristic of all creative play, inevitably has a positive influence on a child's ability to learn.

Kristín's experience with Sandtray Play revealed many benefits that support children's learning. Children with attention deficit become calmer when they put their hands in the sand. In addition, the limitless variety of possibilities for creative expression offered by the collection of small figures sharpens their focus. Sandtray Play also works to motivate the listless child with the sensory stimuli of putting their hands in the sand along with the colorful variety of figures to play with.

Barbara and Kristín are eager to share Sandtray Play in the hope that its benefits may be experienced by countless school children around the world.

The Research Study

The efficacy of Sandtray Play in Education is well-documented in Sandplay and Storytelling: The Impact of Imaginative Thinking on Children's Learning and Development, a book co-authored by Barbara and Kristín, which describes the research study Kristín did with a group of 19 children over a four year period. In addition the study appears in the journal, The Arts in Psychotherapy. All together there were seven girls and twelve boys, at the rate of four to six children per year.

The rationale of the study was based on the assumption that creative imagination is a powerful tool in the process of learning and emotional-behavioral development. This assumption is grounded in a large body of research on the importance of play in child development and learning. At the beginning and at the end of each of the four school years, the school psychologist and Kristín administered a battery of standardized tests and scales. These included the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – WISC; The Achenbach Scale, Child Behavior Checklist - CBCL; and the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Rating Scale IV. The CBCL and the ADHD Rating Scales rely on parent and teacher reports. Two self-assessment scales were also used. These are BECK's Youth Inventories of Emotional and Social Impairment, and subsequently Ouvinen and Stam's scale of self-image, I Think I Am.

Of the test instruments the WISC is the most statistically reliable. The parent, teacher, and child report scales depend on subjective accounts and observations, yet they do provide information of value. Following their experience with Sandtray Play in Education, results of the parent, teacher, and child report scales and the WISC showed several cases of significant or considerable improvements of the children in different skills. Results also indicated that the children had progressed towards a more integrated mental functioning. It may be argued that by addressing their inner conflicts and coming to terms with their emotions through their creative play they advanced in their development.

All of the participating students had disabilities such as poor reading skills or attention and/or emotional problems. Even so, 8 of the 19 participants made significant improvement in one of the fields measured. In the study there is a particularly striking result regarding the field of perception, where 16 out of the 19 pupils made improvement. This is very interesting and gives us to consider the correlation between strength in perception and reading difficulties. 14 participants scored an average (100) or better in perception on the posttest. 11 of them suffered from considerable reading difficulty, and of these 6 were diagnosed with dyslexia. This affirmative correlation is in accordance with the study of Howard, Japikse and Eden, whose research revealed that, while dyslexics are impaired on implicit higher-order sequence learning, they are actually enhanced on implicit spatial context learning.

This study was a small sample of 19 children. Yet, the results undeniably emphasize the value of giving children activities like Sandtray Play and storytelling. In doing so we welcome and respectfully connect with their inner worlds and emotions, while supporting them in the process of learning and maturing.

Through a grant from the European Union Programme for Education, Erasmus+ for Projects with Multiple Beneficiaries, Kristín is replicating this study with colleagues from Romania and Ireland who are now using Sandtray Play with the school children in their care. As well as engaging in the study to measure the effectiveness of Sandtray Play in Education, these teachers will introduce the work to other teachers in their regions.


Objectives of Sandtray Play and Story Making

The purposes for offering the children the opportunity to play in the sand and tell stories are many, as we shall see in the following.


Creativity is probably the strongest asset a child has in his or her education and development. Without stimulating the creative impulse, there simply is no access to new possibilities. Learning is about the discovery of new potentials in thinking, spatial and musical understanding, verbal-linguistic skills, awareness of self and others, and motor capacities – the entire range of human intelligence. The formless nature of the sand and the wide variety of miniature figures in Sandtray Play evoke creative possibilities the moment the child engages with the materials. Each little gesture in the sand is something new that he or she has created. Slowly, as the sand takes shape and the child begins to add figures, a fully original world begins to form. Even when a child knows what he or she wants to make in the sand tray, what results is new and different. Creativity is built into the process. An educational study done in Spain by Catherine L'Ecuyer examined the role of wonder in learning. The study revealed that wonder is the basis of a child's motivation and action. Interestingly she found that beauty triggers this wonder. The Sandtray Play room is bright and beautiful with all of its figures displayed openly on the shelves and the sand calls out to be touched, shaped and moved, providing the very conditions that stimulate creative learning.

When we look more closely at creativity and its role in learning, we discover that it involves an interactive process between two fundamentally different types of thinking. Researchers have entertained dual forms of thinking for many years. Freud developed the concepts of primary and secondary process thinking and Piaget defined two forms of thought as intelligent and autistic. Early in Carl Jung's career, he observed two distinct types of thinking taking place in the psychotic patients under his care. He described these as directed thinking and undirected, or fantasy thinking. Jung noticed that these are two separate and equally valuable modes of perception. Jung described directed thinking as a conscious phenomenon. He said that fantasy thinking is closer to the deepest archetypal layers of the psyche and is either only partially conscious or entirely unconscious.

Jung observed that directed thinking involves the conscious use of language and rational concepts and is based on references to outer reality. It is essentially rational and communicative. It is an instrument of culture and it is the language of the intellect, of science and common sense.

On the other hand, Jung saw that fantasy thinking takes place in images, emotions and intuitions. Images can be single or work as groups in thematic forms. The rules of logic and physics do not apply in fantasy thinking, nor do moral precepts.

Creativity is characterized by a receptive openness to undirected thought. Colin Martindale, University of Maine professor of psychology, claimed that the major theories about creative process all involve some variation of the principle that creativity is an oscillation between directed and undirected modes of thinking.

Matti Bergström, Finnish professor of physiology, arrived at a similar conclusion concerning creativity. He stated that the human brain has the capacity to draw relationships between materials of different origins. On one hand there is material that comes from the environment that is processed by the cerebral cortex. This is rational mental processing that is characterized by rules and reasoning. On the other hand there is material that has its origins within the individual. For example, material that is rooted in the brain stem that can be characterized by chaos, such as uncontrolled impulses.

The relationship between these opposing types of mental activity occurs in the midbrain and gives rise to an entirely new mental product that is not a derivative of its component parts. Very importantly, Bergström found that this creative assimilation is facilitated foremost during play, in dreams, and while reading or listening to fairy tales or myths. Singer and Elkind commented that imaginary play is the source of creative imagination, supporting children in the development of their cognitive skills, narrative abilities, as well as capacities for social connection.

Play is an inherent aspect of Sandtray Play. The child engages in undirected play, running his or her hands through the sand, forming new lands, islands, designs, etc. The child's deeper, unconscious processes shape the sand and select the combination of figures that will become his or her unique world. The child's undirected thought interacts with the concrete figures and sand to form a creative synthesis. No one can predict what the Sandtray Play will look like before it is made. It is always a creative surprise.

Not only must the children be free to do whatever they need to, they must also be safe. Barbara stresses that Dora Kalff talked about what she called the free and protected space. Kalff emphasized that the freedom to play and explore, combined with a secure sense of safety are essential conditions for healing and development to occur. The Sandtray Play is safe, as the children understand the limits in the room. The tray itself is safe, because it is a delimited, contained space that fills the field of vision. It does not extend forever in all directions, but forms a specific place for the work to be held. And, just as in Sandplay therapy, it is the quality of the presence of the Sandtray Play practitioner that ultimately determines if the process is safe. We will examine this important aspect of Sandtray Play later in our discussion of procedures. At this point, however, it is critical to understand that the practitioner must be able to emotionally and psychologically hold the children's work in a stable manner. Remember, what is emerging for the children is brand new. There can be some anxiety or uncertainties about exploring these new abilities in themselves. With the practitioner's ability to maintain a stable, accepting presence, the children intuitively understand that what they have done is valuable.

Stress and Confusion

In Sandtray Play and storytelling, children are able to release tension and play out events or issues that trouble them. We are not intending here to move out of education and into the domain of psychotherapeutic uses of the sand tray and figures. Rather children's creative play is naturally the means by which they manage tensions and clarify things that have confused them. Sandplay therapist and writer, Markell, observed that creative play provides children an opportunity to work with the difficult experiences they encounter every day. In addition, creative play is a primary vehicle through which children resolve the often worrisome or overwhelming feelings that attend their normal growth and development.

When children tackle stressful feelings that burden them in their creative play an oscillation is created between different regions of the brain. This initiates understanding and resolves tensions, resulting in a stronger self-image.

In Sandtray Play the child's confusion and tension becomes concrete as a three-dimensional picture. It is no longer invisible and unknown, but is present and tangible. It is now dealt with in a concrete image-based way. We do not mean to imply that the child necessarily understands or knows what is going on in his Sandtray Play. Rather, whatever it might be is no longer lurking in the shadows of the inner world. It becomes openly present and the child is better able to handle it and deal with it through symbolic play.

The safe holding presence of the teacher helps the child develop greater self-regulation skills and facilitates his or her tolerance of these experiences. As with Dora Kalff's free and protected space, well-known advocate of humanistic psychology, Carl Rogers, made the argument that a warm and supportive environment free from pressure fosters and activates the individual's tendency to actualize.

Play Therapist, Ann Cattanach, pointed out that another important consideration in the stress release found in creative play, is to give the children the time they need to stay with their sadness and pain and not to be impatient for happy endings or comfortable resolutions. The German analytical psychologist, Hans Dieckmann, observed that from childhood human beings have a need to confront the cruelty and horror in the world. This applies to both outer world experiences and in intrapsychic processes. He emphasized that on our way to becoming conscious humans we must be able to meet these dark forces, come to terms with them and withstand them. I can think of no better way to do this than in the symbolic play of Sandtray Play.

Original Perception and Expression

The story the child may choose to tell about his or her creation in the sand tray stimulates novel perception and strengthens language skills. While creating the sand world, the child often begins to make connections between the figures, the scene that emerges and the possible reasons for the characters' interactions. Sometimes the child will talk out loud, creating a story line as he or she builds the tray. Other times this is a silent, inner dialog that the child relates after the tray is completed. In both cases the pupil develops and exercises original perception. The Sandtray Play world is unique and demands its own narrative, a thread of reasoning, however fanciful, that explains its existence. It is something new, not a simple repetition of what the child already knows or has experienced. Even when a child intentionally creates an account of a recent family outing, for example, or a movie he or she has seen, it will always contain new, original material.

Working with the hands in the sand has a direct neurological impact on language centers in the brain, reinforcing language comprehension, verbal expression and story making. All of these abilities help build stronger reading skills. Neurologist Frank Wilson observed that there are neurological links between the use of the hands and language development. He further stated that the use of the hands to satisfy our needs through movement and manipulation is directly linked to the development of our meaning systems. The application of these findings in Sandtray Play is significant. Not only does the movement of the hands in the sand and with the figures activate and facilitate development in the brain's language centers, it also functions to develop and strengthen meaning and purpose in the individual's life. This increases language skills, as well as a sense of purpose and belonging.


Excerpted from Sandtray Play in Education by Kristín Unnsteinsdóttir, Barbara A. Turner. Copyright © 2016 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.

Table of Contents


A Word to Our Readers,
Prologue – Kristín Unnsteinsdóttir,
The Purpose of Sandtray Play – Why to Do It – Book I,
Chapter 1. Beginnings of Sandtray Play,
Chapter 2. Objectives of Sandtray Play and Story Making,
Chapter 3. Sandtray Play Creations and Stories,
Chapter 4. Storytelling,
Chapter 5. How Sandtray Play Works,
The Procedures – How to do It – Book II,
Chapter 6. Setting up the Room – Trays, Sand, Tables, Collection, Camera and Sandtray Play Practitioner,
The Practice of Sandtray Play – What to Do – Book III,
Chapter 7. The Sandtray Play Session,
Chapter 8. Sandtray Play and Theme Projects,
Chapter 9. Directed Exercises with Sand and Miniatures,
Chapter 10. Knowing When to Refer a Child for Psychotherapy,
Conclusion – Barbara A. Turner,
Resources for Sandtray Play,

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