And the most popular toy of the year goes to . . .

And the most popular toy of the year goes to . . .


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During my graduate courses, I was instantly drawn to play therapy. I had done so much extensive research on play therapy, at one point my professor begged me to write a research paper on something other than play therapy . . . it was hard to do . . . I couldn’t even do it . . . . and instead wrote a paper about how to use play therapy with middle and high school students. During this research report, I continued to read the effectiveness of using sand trays to help older students depict stories/situations in their lives metaphorically.

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At this point in my career, I was only working with elementary students and was bummed, thinking sand trays would only be useful with older students. But I was destined to make it work . . .

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This year when 6 perfectly sized sandtrays and accompanied toys fell into my hands, I was ready to let just about anyone play in the sand. Before beginning it with any of my younger students, I did some research as to how best structure a session in the sand tray. I found a wealth of information on, including a procedure manual.

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During my information gathering, I realized how wonderful this approach would be for my students who are less verbal, or who like to place me in “jail” and tell me I can’t talk.

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Sandtrays are a great way to be fully present in the sessions while the student quietly works in the sand. encourages the counselor to stay quiet, yet engaged in the session as the student builds their world or a story in the tray. Many times the student will talk about what figurines he is placing in the sand or the ones he is looking for. During this time, I quietly sit or reflect on the figurines he is picking out. At this time, recommends that you hold back interpretations or guided interventions with the student. This way, the student has an opportunity to experience the sand tray and work through the story on an unconscious level without being influenced by the counselor. I guess we almost want them to get lost in the moment, in their “sand world.”

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Sandplay is based on a nonverbal connection and therefore makes it just as an effective means of expression for younger students as free or structured play. This is obviously only my opinion, but based on what I’ve seen in the past 8 weeks of using sand tray with ages 3 – 7, the students are drawn to these trays and figurines. I would say it is, hands down, the most popular toy in my room . . . and I have every play therapy toy you can imagine.
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For beginners,‘s procedure manual lays out steps for your initial and follow up sessions. They even include what should be documented after the session and how to record which figurines are used. I always take a picture of the tray, print it out, and place it with my notes. I really like to compare the figurines used from session to session.
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This is obviously only a very brief and one sided blog post about sand tray. But given small school counseling rooms and tight budgets, sand trays might be the best option for you if you are also interested in incorporating play into your individual and group sessions. It is (in my opinion) well worth the research to see if it is a method/technique that might work for you.
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Here’s a little snippet of my group sand tray sessions. 
I have 5 boxes of toys for them of choose figurines out of (I know this isn’t ideal. You should have them placed on a shelf so that no digging is required. This just wasn’t feasible in my room.).
          1. Vehicles
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          2. People
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          3. Animals
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          4. Random Box of Accessories
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P.S. They think that cassette tape is a cell phone.

5. Nature

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I set up my sand trays to look like this:

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And when they build together it looks a little like this:

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And yes that child is building with handcuffs on . . .
Who else uses sand trays in their school counseling programs? Anyone know of a great book to read regarding sand trays?

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