Encourage Learning Through Playing in the Sand!

Little girl playing happily in a sand box

Encourage Learning Through Playing in the Sand!

While young children don’t always have the ability to fully interpret and articulate their emotions, playing comes naturally to almost every child. That’s one reason why play therapy is effective in helping children express themselves and work through their feelings when they are unable to talk about what is troubling them. Sandplay is one popular technique of play therapy that can often be therapeutic for children with or without a therapist’s interpretations.

Playing in sand is a naturally soothing experience for many children all around the world. Children play in sand on the shores of oceans, lakes and rivers– building sandcastles, digging holes and the like. From a therapy perspective, sandplay is a kinetic activity that can be calming when a child is upset, and it is a very powerful technique for helping children (and even adults) express and work through frustrations and difficult issues. 

How does sandplay work?

Sandplay therapy utilizes a tray or a box filled with sand, which may be dry, wet, or a type of sand that can be molded into shapes. There is usually a collection of miniatures available for a child to bring into the sandtray, allowing him to act out his inner world. A therapist that’s trained in sandtray and sandplay therapy observes the child’s play and detects themes about what the child is experiencing inside. A child’s inner world might consist of fearful thoughts and beliefs that are causing him anxiety. In the sandtray, through sandplay, children are able to play through those fears without any need for verbal or cognitive expression or understanding.

Imagine a 4-year-old boy whose family home caught fire. He may be having trouble sleeping, but won’t talk about it with his parents. In the sandtray, he may play out his experience with the fire with miniature people, a house, a fire fighter, a firetruck and an ambulance. He may set up the same scene session after session, until one day he decides he is done and begins playing with something else in the room. His parents will likely notice his fear of bedtime has resolved itself as a result.

Using Sandplay At Home

While it is important that play therapists using this technique have been properly trained, parents can certainly create a sandbox for the back yard or a sandtray at home as a place children can choose to play on their own.

  • Indoor/Outdoor fun: You can create a sandtray for your child to play with inside if the weather is bad, or outside if it’s nice out! For young children, I suggest placing sand in a plastic tub with high sides on top of a vinyl tablecloth that can catch any sand that spills.
  • Scooping tools: Parents can re-purpose plastic scoops, spoons, cups and bins for scooping and pouring. I also recommend every sandbox have a collection of funnels, as children love to watch sand pour through!
  • Add water: Switch up the texture of the sand by adding water to give your child a different sensory experience.
  • Keep it clean: Be sure to periodically change out or sterilize sand. To sterilize sand, fill a glass, ceramic or metal pan 2-4 inches deep with sand, cover it with foil, and bake it at 180 degrees for 30 minutes.

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