Sandtray Therapy Unlocks Austin's Inner Child

Playing in the sand and creating a world

Sandtray therapists Karen Burke (l) and Katherine Granberry (Photos by John Anderson)

I sat back on the white couch in Matthew Litschi's small office. In a calm voice, he asked me to take notice of my body, of the ins and outs of my breath. Once I've centered, I'm invited to put my hands in the tray.

I made figure eights in the bright white sand in the container. It felt delicate between my fingers. I played with the sand for a while, until Litschi directed me to look at the figurines on the shelves. Notice which ones you're drawn to, he said. I placed a casket, a cross, fake cigarettes, a warthog, a bear, and an iron door in the basket he gave me. If I want, he said, I could manipulate the sand with combs, brushes, and painters' knives – staples of sandtray therapy. I could even use water to flood the tray, its blue backdrop simulating the sea.

This is how Litschi starts his sandtray therapy sessions at his space on East Seventh and Concho streets. He first works to relax the client. He wants them out of their heads and in an introspective state. Then, once they're ready, he'll introduce the tray, where they'll build a diorama of their life out of sand, water, art supplies, and figurines. The scenes they create may sometimes make sense, he said. Other times, they won't at all. "The important part is creating the tray, creating the world," said Litschi. "That part is transformational."

The history of sandtray therapy dates back more than 100 years, to before the method was even developed. In 1911, H.G. Wells published Floor Games, a 71-page illustrated book on placid indoor playtime. In the book, Wells describes different ways children can use bricks, boards, planks, and figurines to build imaginary worlds where the ground is the ocean. The famed British author based Floor Games on real life – he would often spend hours playing these types of games with his two young sons, Frank and George, to encourage their development and independence. But sandtray therapy wouldn't emerge until two decades later. British pediatrician-turned-child psychologist Margaret Lowenfeld introduced sandtray therapy, which she called "The World Technique," in the early Thirties, after she opened the Institute of Child Psychology in London. She credited Wells' book for inspiring her work. Lowenfeld is largely considered the architect of sandtray therapy, although her protégé, Dora Kalff, expanded on the method in the late Fifties. Kalff called her version "sandplay," which is rooted in Jungian psychology. While both are similar in scope, sandtray is more adaptable, whereas sandplay is more structured.

Litschi describes sandtray therapy as a conscious and subconscious "exploration of our emotional process." It's a form of expressive therapy that allows people to resolve conflicts through engaging the right side – the creative side – of their brain, which for many adults is not dominant. The therapeutic method also helps the left brain and right brain align after the client creates their world, they talk through its meaning. "[The integration] certainly opens the door to the middle," said Karen Burke, co-founder of the Austin SandTray Assoc­ia­tion, a local educational and support group for sandtray therapists.

Burke has practiced sandtray therapy for 15 years. She owns the Burke Center, a ranch-style counseling hub off of High­way 71 West in Southwest Austin. Burke's office, which she shares with another counselor, Katherine Granberry, is the size of a large studio, with white walls and whimsical decor. Like Litschi, they use rectangular wooden trays lined with blue and filled with sand of different colors – the regulation setup, Burke said. Burke and Granberry also use round salvers, although they're harder to come by. "The round and rectangle [trays] can feel different" to a client, Granberry said, evoking distinct emotional and physical reactions.

Granberry, Burke, and Litschi use sandtray for a wide range of issues – depression, anxiety, relationship woes, family dysfunction. But sandtray therapy is especially effective in helping children and adults work through trauma. It's often used with children or adults who were physically or sexually abused, abandoned, or severely neglected. Sandtray allows the client to visualize what they cannot verbalize, or may be too triggering to discuss. "It can feel safer because of the playful side of it," Granberry said.

With sandtray therapy, the therapist acts as observer – as witness. Their role is to listen and guide the client as they unpack what they've just created. The therapist doesn't impart their own interpretations. "The client is the expert of themselves," said Rebecca Roth, a licensed counselor who works only with adults.

Roth's office on Banister Lane is markedly different from that of Burke and Litschi. Dim lights cast a gray shadow across the white walls. Meditative music fills the space. Eucalyptus and lavender waft through the air. Her figurines sit on tall black shelves that line one side of the room. Two regulation trays filled with sepia-colored sand stand a few feet away.

Ian (name changed for privacy) prefers the tray against the opposite wall – the one underneath the panels of abstract art. There's a balanced proportion to that particular shape that draws him in, he said. Ian is an artist himself – a sculptor by trade. A little over a year ago, he began painting. For a while, Ian didn't create anything. That broke his heart, he said.

Sandtray therapy helped Ian loosen his creativity. The method has a "special kind of wonder" one that is mysterious and fascinating. "There's no judgment. There's only curiosity," said Ian, who has been going to Roth for therapy for nearly seven years. "It's really an amazing thing."

Roth introduced sandtray into Ian's therapeutic work two years ago. Like many adults, Ian didn't know about sandtray therapy, even though the method has been around for eight decades. However, he found sandtray interesting and became enthusiastic about the practice. Ian said it was a natural progression from doing eye movement desensitization and reprocessing – or EMDR – which Roth has used to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder. Ian said he's experienced a lot of violence and trauma in his life, so much so that he's become hypervigilant – a symptom of PTSD. But Ian sees his transformation in the trays he creates. Where once a figurine held their sword up and across the chest, the sword is now at their side. "I feel grounded," he said. "I feel more centered."

Burke said most of her adult clients find sandtray therapy gratifying. But because adults are often not engaged in a type of play, some may consider going into the tray "unconscionable," she said. Some adults may dislike the feel of the sand or find the entire process too metaphorical. "Some people can be skeptical of the purpose of sandtray," said Lacey Fisher, ASTA's treasurer. "I have had a small amount of adults give the sandtray a try once [and] would rather continue with talk therapy."

Therapists can find it challenging to engage hyper-rational people in sandtray therapy, Litschi said. People who tend to overanalyze or repeatedly talk through their issues are "stuck in their left brain," as the therapists phrased it, so they're closed off to the right brain's creative process. "The left brain can be very helpful in protecting us from the things we don't want to look at," said Roth.

People dominated by their left brain also tend to see sandtray therapy as something for children – as something they shouldn't do. "As adults, we sometimes need permission to get in a playful state," Litschi said. "Some people may look at it as child's play. It's actually very powerful."

Ian said he has become an advocate for sandtray since he's begun incorporating it into his therapy. Sandtray has helped him be less critical of himself – less judgmental. He's also not as hypervigilant, and he's set healthier relationship boundaries. Above all, he finds a sense of resolution in making a tray, even if the emotions it dredges can be overwhelming. "[Sandtray] can feel like play," Ian said. "It can be sad. But it's cathartic."

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Austin SandTray Association, sandtray therapy, Floor Games, Institute of Child Psychology, Karen Burke, Burke Center, Matthew Litschi, Adult Play 2016

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