Sandtray: Getting through Hard Times with Imagination and Play

a few favorite sandtray figures

a few favorite sandtray figures

A dear friend wrote me a letter after she read my last blog. Along with her usual wise reflections, she said, “…yesterday’s blog is so lonely–for Vic, for your brother–and filled with the stress of your Mother-in-law’s care and your own Meniere’s Disease. How that presses upon you!”

“Presses upon…”

The image of being pressed upon made me weep. It’s true–and I’m not the only one. It also made me remember the many healing tools I’ve gathered and my basic trust that hard times teach important soul lessons.

In the late 1960s, I began my lifetime study of Carl Jung‘s psychology. I looked into dreams, archetypal structures of the psyche, and mythology. I was graced with a gifted teacher, a husband, and a community that loved Jung, psychology, and philosophy. I began building my how-to-get-through-hard-stuff “toolbox” then. From meditation and mythology to philosophy and a reverence for nature. From dream exploration and Active Imagination to painting and ritual.

Sandtray and I first met in 1993.

Sandtray, wikipedia

Sandtray, wikipedia

At the time, I struggled with a difficult decision about work. A friend and Jungian therapist suggested I see someone who practiced sandtray (or sandplay) since dreams and discussion weren’t clarifying the issues.

Sandtray, 2016

Sandtray, 2016

“Sandplay is hands on psychological work. It is a powerful therapeutic technique that facilitates the psyche’s natural capacity for healing. In a “free and protected” space provided by the analyst, a client creates a concrete manifestation of his or her imaginal world using sand, water, and miniature objects.” Harriet S. Friedman, M.A., M.F.T., J.A.

On appointment day, I walked up a narrow stairs to the second floor office. The therapist ushered me into a room with large windows and a bookcase filled with small figures. There were miniature angels and monsters, children and old people, animals and stones, houses and trees.

After briefly discussing my conflict, she motioned me toward a shallow wooden tray filled with sand and suggested I choose a figure or two from the shelves. I smoothed the sand with my hands and added miniatures to form a circle of protective figures. Inner turmoil settled as I played in silence. I felt like a trusting child hanging out in a backyard sandbox.sandbox

In a short time, the therapist began discussing what I’d created. Something in me pulled back from an overlay of interpretation. I needed the tactile and sensory, not more ideas.

I thanked the therapist for introducing me to sandtray but didn’t make a second appointment. Instead, I went shopping.

DSC00104-001 DSC00109-001







At the hardware store, I bought a bag of white sand and a wide shallow container. I visited the Woolworth’s craft department for the first time since I was a kid and found tiny naked babies and shiny glass stars. At toy stores, I looked for miniature elephants, farm animals, toy snakes, and fairytale characters like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I gathered acorns and shalestone on walks and bought bright tumbled stones. I unpacked miniature tractors and matchbox cars saved from when my sons were young.

Showing the figures to Ariel and Lauren in 1994

Showing the figures to Ariel and Lauren in 1994

As my collection grew, I bought a few fishing and craft storage containers so I could find a particular red glass star or Great Mother figure. My shopping spree cost less than two visits with the therapist. (I’m not suggesting therapists aren’t important. I see a Jungian dream therapist.)

As I played in my sandbox, I developed a certain style. I loved protective figures such as angels and also animals that had appeared in dreams. I also like creating harmonious, balanced mandala-like patterns, especially when my world lacked equilibrium.

Since I wasn’t confined to a set time, I could work/play with one sandtray for days or weeks, until the initial issue shifted or resolved. Like Active Imagination and painting, sandtray calmed and clarified psychological turmoil. Like ritual, it brought quiet and a sense of protection.

Creating a sandtray, 1992

Creating a sandtray, 1993

My friend’s letter inspired me to start a new sandtray about my mother-in-law. Her loving words shifted my attention from conceptual exploration to imagination and the feeling of being “pressed upon.” I can’t change the outer situation, but hope to transform my emotional response.


Do you have playful ways to calm and heal yourself or your family? I think of the jigsaw puzzle I did with my sick brother, the joy of creating sand sculpture at the beach, or my sons playing with miniature toys when they were children. If you’re curious about techniques for inner exploration, you might also enjoy Active Imagination: Facing the Inner Critic or this post about painting my dreams.


  1. Intriguing, Elaine. Your illustration with the sand box reminded me of the quote “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Neither is logical or verbal, but sensory and tactile, what the body and soul yearn for.

    I play best with grandchildren or my wee ones at church. Last Sunday morning the two-year-olds and I had fun pouring water into a tub with “snow” flakes which expanded into small drifts. They squished the fake snow, let it fall from their fingers, and made a wonder-full mess. I loved it too. Keyword for me in this case: imPRESSionable!

    • This post took so much time, Marian. I knew I wanted to write about sandtray, but how to do that so it mattered to anyone else? It’s such a subjective and child-like experience. In the end, I settled with “good enough” and posted. In the mid 1990s, I always had a sandtray going. I’ve done more dreamwork and painting and fewer sandtrays since, but all my toys are out again. (I love sharing them with kids.) You may have noticed the connections between sandtray and the altars I make. Altars must be the continuing link, although they tend to be simpler without the constant change.

      Yes, sensory, tactile, and wordless. I hope you got into those snow drifts, too.

      • There’s a video of the little folks during their play/work on my Facebook page posted Sunday. The interactions were wordless except when my partner blurted out, “Don’t hit her!”

        Your sand tray post with the altar link is a success in my view. 🙂

        • I’ll look for that video, Marian. Sometimes one sand tray character says, “Don’t hit me!” to the other. Imagination is magic. Thanks for encouraging me.

  2. This reminds me of my years with a Jungian analyst in Johannesburg and the few sessions we had with the sand tray. I have photographs of my arrangements somewhere – I’ll look them out. I certainly found them healing, in that this was hands on work, reminding me of Jung’s (paraphrased) statement that what the head or ego can’t work out, the hands certainly can. Like painting, or fashioning something with clay, letting the ego take a back seat. Jigsaw puzzles too – where the family partakes also.

    That’s a lovely idea about a new sand tray about your mother-in-law.

    Thanks Elaine for this inspiring post.

    • Thanks for your reflections, Susan. It makes me happy that you’ve experienced sandtray, too. I remembered the Jung quote from Memories, Dreams, and Reflections and found it or a similar one: “Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” ~Carl Jung I wish I’d thought of that quote before posting this–so maybe I’ll have to do a second post on sandtray using the quote.

      How I labored to discuss sandtray and make it meaningful to readers not familiar with it. Yes, it’s a lot like playing with clay or painting for the pure joy of color. Sandtray also reminds me of the many stone benches, tables, cairns, and imaginative structures my son built in our forest–and the art work of Andy Goldsworthy. Humans like to create with their hands.

  3. Dear Elaine, When you speak of your life and the beautiful relationships you’ve encountered with Vic, Andrew, Jung, family, friends, community, and all the people you’ve worked with, your words polish my heart, as your thread of love grows long and strong. Such treasure in one’s life, and the richness of many souls connecting. A necklace of loving prayer beads, each as sacred as the next.

    Jeanie’s latest article makes me reflect on how, when a body is thrown into turmoil, the other domains of mind, spirit and soul help out by guiding us intuitively, and instinctively to other healing tools and soul lessons. For me, (all) play is time outside of time, as we follow the thread through the labyrinth of our lives, until mysteriously grief transforms, and the “pressing upon” lifts, and lessens.

    “I can’t change the outer situation, but hope to transform my emotional response.” That’s so wonderfully expressed, such deep karmic wisdom. Blessings always, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. I love the image of the prayer beads, each leading to and as sacred as the next. I’ve had and still have a bountiful life. In recent years because of hearing loss, I can’t attend workshops. Marion Woodman’s workshops included painting, creating with hands, mask making, and/or movement as well as work with ideas and mythology. I loved the mix. On my own now, I need to dust off the tools I’ve already gathered. Since I’ve changed, they’ll reveal new things and also give more energy to the playful child within. It’s one way to bring a little peace into my life and so into the world. Blessings to you, too.

  4. I’ve never had the opportunity to do sandtray work, Elaine, but it sounds like you’ve gone about it in the best way. i once did a mandala workshop and felt limited by the lack of time to really create something for myself. I now use mandala often in my painting and visual journal. lt helps me to loosen up my brain and body, and lets me play the way I want to.

    • Thanks for your comment, Joan. Sandtray and mandala work take me to a similar place, although mandalas (for me) tend to create harmony without illustrating the disharmony. Sometimes my sandtrays are chaotic and full of turmoil. I’m sorry to say that when I’ve felt particularly under fire (like when Vic was going through chemotherapy), I had sharpshooters on top of hills (remember those GI Joe figures that were once popular with kids?) pointing their weapons at someone or something trying to hide. I tried to let the uncomfortable chaos unfold and then construct a containing mandala around it to remind myself that there is a higher and more harmonious perspective.

  5. “I needed the tactile … not more ideas.” Sometimes we have to set our minds aside, and let our hearts speak. Your “good enough” was enough to spur my imagination. Thank you, Elaine.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Mark. I hope it’s enough to encourage others to explore inner worlds in new ways. There are so many modalities available to us, but it’s human to resist the small things that help in challenging times. We have to believe they could help in order to try.

  6. I got to meet Lauren Artress when she attended a writer’s retreat at the Fetzer Institute, Elaine. And just this week I unearthed the sand tray that I was given by my friend Faith Gabelnick.

    Your post comes at just the kairos moment, and your use of special objects inspires me. I want to play with my sand tray too.

    May your imagination free you from oppression and help you to see the big impression your lovely words and images make on others.

    • Laughing, Shirley. I thought I was the only one! Sandtray lovers, sandtray teachers, people who love labyrinths or playing with color reveal their secret passions. I do have special objects–a few were gifts but many I bought for myself. Sometimes a miniature with no particular significance becomes a special protector, as with a white bear who showed up in a dream a few years ago. I happened to already have the right bear I’d bought in a toy store years before. I love angels and elephants, wise women and black dogs, but also wise men, children, prophets, Buddhas, and bulls. I like landscape possibilities, too, and those chintzy glass stars and one glass moon. At the moment I’m building a sturdy wall between my mother-in-law and me. I will never desert her, but I can create a protective barrier in the imagination.

      Thank you for the last paragraph, Shirley, and for seeing through me. I’m a mix of out there and insecure about sharing my secrets. What do I have to lose?

  7. I love the idea of a little sandbox with miniature figures. Especially if it sat on a nearby counter, ready to be played with at any point in the day. I was also wondering how your mother-in-law might take to something like this. Kind of like an interactive altar.

    • An interactive altar. I like that, Robin. Virginia can’t see well enough to do this, but it’s a good idea. I have my set up in a small room off my bedroom where I see it and can move things around for 5 minutes or 50 minutes. We’ve all done this therapy at the beach, in sand boxes, playing with miniatures when our kids were little (matchbox cars and GI Joe are part of my “collection”). I never imagined myself as a collector of miniatures, but that’s what happened.

  8. You always have such wonderful methods of dealing with your feelings Elaine, from your altars and rituals to sandplay, I find them all fascinating. I don’t think my outlets are as creative as yours, working with angels and sage and candles, but they work for me. Sandplay does sound intriguing though. I’m glad these practices are all helpful in your healing journey. 🙂

    • Sounds like you’re on your way with angels, sage, and candles. From my perspective, sand isn’t essential. A cloth would work, too, or the floor. We all have small things to play with around our house or stones we’ve brought in from outside. For me, it’s about centering and I often bring a specific issue to the sandtray.

      Last night, I found out that one of Virginia’s two living sisters died yesterday. It was sudden, but she was ~94. The youngest of the three living sisters. So now there are two–98 and almost 101. We’re sure to have a dramatic day.

      • Wow, talk about longevity! Wishing you peace once again my friend. It sounds like once again you’re going to have your hands full.

  9. I’ve been slowly doing this, building a collection of things. My dad made me a zen garden tray about ten years ago and I use that.
    It helps. but I have to allow myself to play, and that’s the hardest thing of all.

    • When I saw your photograph on FB, I didn’t know your wooden box was called a Zen garden tray. Nice dad! I know about allowing and not allowing ourselves play time. I always think I have better things to do, but find that a little play time brings better ideas and more focus for work. Not sure I’ll ever be fully convinced, but I put the sandtray and containers of miniatures in an obvious place to remind myself to keep at it. I’m working on (playing with) a new sandtray now.

  10. What a great alternative to more traditional tools of expression (i.e., writing, sketching). I like your do-it-yourself approach to building the sandbox and that you developed a style. Thank you for sharing this method. I’m intrigued!

    • Thanks for your visit and comment, Monica. Sandtray is fun to set up. After getting the sandbox and a few figures, it requires little of us, so it’s perfect when I feel stuck and down. Also good when all the conceptual work leads to nothing and I need a fresh start or new view. Every kid knows the power of a sandbox, so here’s to the kid in us!

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