Dora Maria Kalff, Biography of a Jungian Heiress

Dora María Kalff was a renowned psychologist. Her central technique was based on the creation of a non-verbal space that allows the free expression of the unconscious.
Dora Maria Kalff, Biography of a Jungian Heiress

Last update: 31 May, 2022

Dora Maria Kalff was a Jungian psychologist who became world-famous for her famous sandplay therapy. This is a tool that’s been used for more than 60 years in therapy to work with unconscious conflicts.

The work of Dora Maria Kalff has been used particularly in the treatment of children but is also applicable to adults. She based her work on the analytical psychology of Carl Jung. She also borrowed some elements from Margarita Lowenfeld, a well-known child psychiatrist.

The technique devised by Dora Maria Kalff requires that the person applying it be a doctor or psychologist. In addition, in all cases, whoever intends to apply sandplay therapy must first go through the therapeutic process themselves.

Sandplay is the method I use in therapy with both children and adults to access the contents of the unconscious. As its name suggests, it consists of playing in a specially proportioned wooden box… […] The figures that they can choose must offer, as completely as possible, a representative sample of all the animate and inanimate beings that we can find in the external world as well as in the internal imaginative world… ”.

-Dora Maria Kalff-

The life of Dora Maria Kalff

Dora Maria Kalff was born in Switzerland on December 21, 1904. She grew up in a small town called Richterswil, about 20 kilometers from Zurich. She was a fragile child and for this reason, was able to share very little with other children. Consequently, she became somewhat withdrawn but developed a good inner perspective.

Her teachers always considered her to be an exceptional student. Several of them encouraged her to study languages. Thus, she learned Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. Later, she graduated as a philosopher in London.

At the age of 45, she met Carl Jung and his wife Emma. Both figures really impressed her. This ended up motivating her to study analytical psychology at the Küsnacht Institute.

In her training, she focused primarily on the language of the unconscious. The Jungs noted early on that she had a natural ability to deal with children. For this reason, they suggested that she direct her activity toward working with the little ones, which she loved.

A solid formation

Dora Maria Kalff trained for six years at the Küsnacht Institute. In 1954, she attended a lecture by Margarita Lowenfeld. The lecture concerned a therapeutic tool devised by her, known as the World Technique. Using this tool, she helped children to express themselves using miniature figures in a sandbox.

After learning about this type of therapy, Dora decided to study with Lowenfeld at the Institute of Child Psychology, founded in London in 1928. There, she was also able to meet prominent figures such as D.W. Winnicott and M. Fordham.

When she returned to Switzerland, she began to develop her famous sandplay therapy. She considered that there was a clear correspondence between what the children did with the figurines in the sandboxes and the concepts raised by Carl Jung regarding individuation. Thus, and with Lowenfeld’s endorsement, she designed her own technique.

During this time, she also had an interesting rapprochement with various Eastern teachers of spirituality. In particular, she came close to the ideas of Zen Master, Daisetz Suzuki. She also interacted with several Japanese teachers. Her experiences were subsequently embodied in her sandplay therapy.

Boy playing with a sandbox
Through sandplay therapy, the patient expresses their internal symbolic world.

The sandbox

The sandbox, as such, is a simple tool. It’s simply a tray full of sand. The patient can choose from a large number of small objects and figures, so as to create a representation that makes sense to them. The scenes they form are similar to those that appear in dreams. In other words, with breaks in formal logic.

The role of the therapist is to witness the exercise that’s done with the hands, but also the mind and spirit. They shouldn’t intervene or interpret what the patient is doing. In fact, they should only respond to comments that the patient makes spontaneously. Gradually, it becomes clear whether analysis and interpretation are required or not.

On August 13, 1985, the International Society for SandPlay Therapy was created, on the initiative of Dora Maria Kalff. It’s the premier center in the world for training in sandplay therapy and condenses her main contributions to the field. She died in Switzerland in 1990. However, her legacy has spread worldwide and sandplay therapy is now even used throughout the East.

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  • Yamanaka, Y. (2016). Dora Maria Kalff and Me Special Memory. Archives of Sandplay Therapy, 29(1), 117-120.