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  • Writer's pictureFiona Holiday

Falling Through Fingers - How Sand Tells Stories in Play Therapy

Do you remember the sensation of sand trickling through your fingers? The wonder of watching the grains fall like rain, disappear through cracks, create mountains?

Now imagine the grains of sand are your story.

Where do they fall? What landscapes do they make?

The sand tray is a key part of the play therapist's toolkit. Ideally it is rectangular, with a blue lining. For in Jungian terms, blue is the colour of the unconscious: it is the sky or the ocean, apparently without boundary.

The well-equipped therapist will have a range of objects for a client to use in the sand: natural and man-made, buildings, vehicles, animals, fantasy creatures, religious symbols... and once chosen, these objects become symbols. Items which have resonance or meaning for the child in some way.

The tray above once contained a perfect canvas of smooth sand, until the story unfolded. The meaning of the tray to the creator is what matters. It is not the place of the play therapist to interpret - the child is the meaning maker. It is our role to bear witness and to hold the almost-sacred space.

The sand gives us insight in to the inner world: some clients struggle to keep the sand within the boundary to begin with - they overflow, feel chaotic and unconfined - but with time, this resolves and order is restored. Others use the sand as a game of hide and seek - reluctant to be seen whilst being desperate to be found.

The stories that unfold, of conflict, disorder, capture, release, home and adventure, allow the playing out of experiences that are too big to talk about. Events that are too horrifying to revisit, except in the safety of the metaphor, can be processed.

As weeks pass, different worlds come and go. Sometimes there are shadows of former stories, sometimes I am invited in to co-create. Often, there is a point at which the worlds resolve into balance and the grains settle. It is as if the elusive threads of meaning organise themselves and become a story that makes sense to the child.

In play therapy, the use of sand enables a child to hold a story in their cupped hands, with the power to choose how it unfolds. That's a gift we all deserve.

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