The sandbox technique

The sandbox technique
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Written by María Hoyos

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Most of the time we go to the psychologist already with an idea in our head of what’s causing us so much pain. Other times we’re having problems identifying what’s bothering us, and the psychologist has to use different techniques to sift through and find that problem.

Among these techniques is the sandbox technique. The sandbox technique is a method frequently used in children’s psychology since children often have difficulty expressing their thoughts and feelings.

Dora Maria Kalff created the sandbox technique, originally called sandplay, and based her technique off of the analytical psychology of Carl Gustav Jung and the word of child psychiatrist Margarita Lowenfeld. This technique is mainly used to access information that a patient might not be aware of.

What is the sandbox technique?

In order for psychologists to access content in our brains that we’re not aware of, the psychologist fills a blue wooden or plastic box with sand. The patient places different figures in the box. These figures represent elements or characters, real or fake, that the patient must place however they want.

Some of these figures include people, animals, plants, buildings, means of transports, signs or natural divider such as rocks and wood, sci-fi elements, and movie characters.

girl playing sandbox

During this process the therapist is supposed to limit their words and avoid giving any help. After the patient is done placing their items the therapist supposed to take a picture of the scene and analyze it later, outside of that session.

The results from this process are varied, and there are many interpretations that can come of one sandbox session. For example, if we find single characters in the box, this may tell us that the patient is lonely or feeling abandonment. On the other hand, if the patient creates a violent scene, that can indicate that the patient is feeling desolate.

Which patients should receive sandbox therapy?

Despite the fact that therapists generally use sandbox therapy in child psychology, the sandbox technique can be applied at any age. It’s very useful when a patient is having difficulty talking about their emotions. This technique is perfect for patients who have suffered some type of trauma, such as mental or physical abuse. Sandbox therapy is also useful for people who have dealt with extreme grief or have emotional or behavioral disorders.

Children are in the middle of developing their emotions. Their emotions are complex and often times they don’t know how to fully express their full range. That’s why therapists frequently use sandbox therapy in schools. Psychologists also use it to evaluate disorders related to language, self-esteem, interpersonal relationship, bullying, or family problems.

How useful is the sandbox technique?

The idea of the sandbox brings back a part of our young lives and the mental development that took place during that time: a game. This creative sandbox game explores the patient’s archetypal patterns. The very actions required of the game require visualization and personal choice, which activates our inner psychology.

building in the sandbox

The therapist takes photographs of the sandbox after the patient has completed placing the items. Then, the therapist analyzes that photograph to find different mental patterns in the patent’s subconscious. This is an interesting technique because it moves away from the linguistic plane. In many occasions, the patient, particularly children, aren’t able to verbalize the trauma they experienced. Therefore, even though the patient isn’t able to talk about their experiences, the psychologist is still able to see what’s going on in their mind.

This type of technique is extremely useful. It creates an environment free from stress so that the patient feels comfortable. In the same way, the creative game helps to release tension and creates therapy to be a place of respect. It becomes a place of freedom for the patient to express themselves. 

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.