Sandtray in the Schools: Structured and Unstructured Interventions

Before I can begin to talk about sandtrays, I must first warn you that I am indeed spending my Thanksgiving vacation in sunny Arizona. So, I have been spending my days listening to Christmas music and laying by the pool. Anyways, I’m going to do double duty here by sharing my knowledge from my conference AND sharing my photos from this great vacation all in one post, now that’s multi-tasking!

Sandtrays in the School

Here’s a quick little overview: Sandtray is a form of play therapy that involves using miniatures in sand to portray and process through interpersonal issues in a nonverbal way. Sandtray is great to use with boys (ages 9-13) who have trouble expressing themselves verbally. Sandtray, just like play therapy, allows students to use objects rather than words to portray their feelings, thoughts, and problems. The outcome picture or enactment will be a metaphor for what the child is experiencing.

Sandtray helps children focus on self-awareness and experiencing (not just expressing) emotions. The process of living out a story in the sandtray helps children reconnect to whom they really are, rather than who they think they should be.

Dr. Steve Armstrong presented not just 1 but 2 techniques for using sandtray with students, structured and unstructured.


Counselor will plan and initiate structured sandtray. The counselor knows what she would like to work on with the child and guides the creation of the picture within the sandtray to help make this point. There are 5 steps when using structured sandtray practices.

1. Prior to Session:  Collect specific sandtray miniatures, display the miniatures on a shelf or in a bin for the child to sort through (many times the counselor will limit the amount of miniatures during structured sandtray)

2. Beginning of the Session: This is great for schools because structured sandtray is normally allotted 30-35 minutes, a perfect session time for school interventions. Prompt the child, “I would like you to create a scene in your life the way that it is now.”

3. Scene Creation Phase: Here is where you begin to limit the amount of miniatures used. Sit facing the student and engage in his actions through your own body language. Yet, structured sandtray does not necessitate a response from the counselor unless the student talks directly to you.

4. Processing Phase: Explore what is happening in the scene. Use play therapy responses to probe the child. During the conference Dr. Armstrong showed a video where the counselor used the empty chair method with the little boy, probing him to use one toy to talk to the other one as if it was his father. This stage can be intimidating for a child, especially a boy, so probe, but don’t pressure.

5. Post Session: Take a picture of the sandtray, ALWAYS! Never dismantle the sandtray in front of the child, unless they wish to put the toys away.


This is quite simply understood, but not simply done. Unstructured sandtray follows many of the same guidelines as play therapy. The child will initiate the play, with NO directions given from the counselor. Instead the counselor will play an active role by using play therapy responses to the child’s creation and expression.

I could truly go on and on about this session. As a play therapist enthusiast, I found this to be one of my favorite sessions during those two days. In fact, if you are looking to get me a Christmas present I would like a sandtray and miniatures please!

If you are interested in learning more about this technique, Dr. Armstrong recommended reading:

Sandtray Therapy: A Practical Manual, 2nd Edition. (Homeyer & Sweeney, 2011)

Sandtray Therapy: A Humanistic Approach (Armstrong, 2008)

And if you want you can get these for me for Christmas also, I would not turn them down. Okay, I’m just joking, but seriously get them for yourself because I know I will be!

P.S. Google search sandtray and multiple images will come up so you can see some products/ what to expect.


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