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Sandtray Therapy Cross-Theoretical Explanations and Models

Energetic Modes of FunctioningLowenfeld’s Theory of Energetic Modes comprises the holistic aspects of an individual’s physical/body, intellectual/thinking and emotional/feeling aspects or modes. These modes are expressed through E= universal life force. The underlying principles of these modes of functioning are expressed when one mode increases in energetic life force, it then becomes highly energised or charged rendering the other two modes less energetically charged.



E=universal life force


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Energetic Modes of Functioning

The Physical/Body Mode of Functioning is at its most energetic when Creator is being physical or using their body to move the sand, place objects, using little or no verbal communication. Creator can experience somatic shifts in the moment or even days after the expression in the sand tray. These could be experience as head aches, stomach aches, pains in various part of the body etc. At the time of the building of sand worlds the witness may also experience some of these somatic expressions.

The Intellectual/Thinking Mode of Functioning is energetically apparent when Creator is verbally able and communicating fluently as they are creating their sand world. The Witness and Creator are expressing thoughts as the Creator creates a sand world of their internal world.

The Emotional/Feeling Mode of Functioning when energetically activated allows the Creator to express in words or a word, in silence, tears in actions such as purposely destroying their sand world with intensity. This intensity may be ‘felt’ as a resonance by the Witness.

Roxanne Rae, MSW, LCSW, BCD Sandtray Playing to Heal, Recover, and Grow (2013).

E= Life ForceE being the life force controls the activation of the energetic mode of the individual’s personality. E is a neutral force in the soma and psyche and can be expressed in several ways within the Energetic Modes of Functioning. E can represent blocks and freedom of movement which is expressed in sand worlds. Objects in the sand worlds are expressed projections of the inner world, and the control of and movement towards self-awareness is the object relatedness which give the creator control and direction of E. We can also view this as steps towards building resilience. As seen in the Sandtray the clusters or grouping of objects or toys will move towards a more adaptive and developed form over a series of sand worlds.

Example of clustered or grouping in a Sand Worlds

Session 1 in the sand world series. The child begins with the two large Marvel Objects that were happy to fight each other in the boundary of the sand tray.

Session 2 in the sand world series. The child introduced a third Marvel character and a whole army that set up camp in preparation for war.

Session 3 in the sand world series. The child had organised the army into two line. The enemy versus the winner.

Session 4 in the sand world series. The child re-introduces the Marvel characters and ninja turtles from previous sessions.

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After session 4 the sand world series ended and the child created a different series of sand worlds.

Lowenfeld says of the symbols and clusters that they enable the client a step toward healing in his or her outer life. Through the projection of the client’s inner condition onto the objects of the world, the development of new and different skills comes about through the symbolic interaction and experimenting in the world.

session 1

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session 2

session 3

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Session 4

Energetic Modes and Sandtray TherapyWhen a client is creating their sand world they take on the role of Creator. The Creator and Witness (facilitator or therapist), are attending to all three modes as integral aspects of the intersubjective field. The Creator though may only be focusing on one aspect or Energetic Mode, it is the role of the Witness to enable this process. The Witness and the therapeutic relationship support this energetic transfer on a deep level using limbic to limbic functioning. At that moment the client and the therapist are experiencing a shared experience of the universal life force in process: Witness their own resonate functioning and that of their clients.

Sandtray Therapy enables a relationship to develop between the Witness (or therapist) and Creator. As the Creator produces their sand worlds the Witness is triggered, often taken into their own energetic modes of functioning. Herein lies the authentic functioning of the therapeutic process, as both Witness and Creator take each other through what Roxanne Rae expresses as intense resonant functioning. When the Witness is aware of their own unique role in this resonant functioning they can then support the Creator to move further,

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deeper into their sand world process. A new perspective is gained, and the Witness holds the Creator to explore their internal world.

Sandtray Therapy and Other TheoriesWhen the Creator is building their sand world, they will use the miniature objects or toys to build a 3D snapshot of their internal world. This world could be a world of chaos and turmoil, of distrust and feeling unsafe, unprotected. We can use other theories to determine the values or elements that make up these feelings. Erick Erickson’s’ Psychosocial Stages of Development gives a chart of the stages of development using a framework of ages and highlighting healthy and unhealthy psychological health and how trauma can hinder development.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs expresses in a model the importance of the basic needs of shelter, food, safety being met for the Creator to feel confident to move through the hierarchy. Like Erikson’s model in the Energetic Modes of Functioning if one need is not met, or if one psychosocial stage is not met, then the Creator will remain in this unmet stage, age or Mode. This means the resonance of that stage can be measured in the sand world and in the Modes of Energetic Functioning. Herein the Witness will read the sand world, understand the miniature figurines, their placement, metaphor, relationships, overall image such as a chaotic sand world filled with miniature objects or an empty scene with only or two miniature objects or toys. Where the Creator finds themselves being stuck can be identified in the Contextual Fields of Experience.

Another aspect to the Sandtray Therapy is the sand itself. A Witness will here the words: there’s too much sand, there’s not enough sand, the sand is too wet, too dry has bits of shell. One child expressed to me once in a voice that made me resonate with her at that moment “there is too much sand, too much”. For her next session I made sure that I took some sand so that this young girl who was dealing with a lot of trauma had a sense of control over at least the amount of sand that she had in her sand tray. The beginning of building resilience and steps to verbalising needs and wants and of course feeling safe in the Sandtray room where her Witness is listening and acting on her needs being met. In this realm we need to look at Attachment Theory, Bowlby Attachment theory indicates the needs of the child and how the child’s needs can be met on different levels of functioning. This gives an indication of the Contextual Fields of Experience. An abused child will experience their attachments as unsafe, uncertain yet they will build resilience around their coping mechanisms, which are not always healthy and can be taken into adulthood. Often the abused becomes the abuser, the bullied the bully.

Sandtray Therapy as an Expressive ReleaseWhen a Creator experiences their surroundings of the Sandtray room as safe and the Sandtray process becomes familiar they will begin to create sand worlds. Oftentimes children and young people have an immediate affinity to the Sandtray process and need less time to find their way! Play of course is a significant driver for children, adults that have traumas lose their ability to play, they become engrossed in their left brain and thinking mode. Too much thinking and thinking about the future and possible scenarios can lead to anxiety. When adults are in their thinking mode it is to the Detra-affect of the other modes.

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When we over think, we forget to feel or move our bodies. When we are over emotional we cannot think straight, and our bodies may carry a somatic hurt or pain. When we are gym junkies we may be hiding behind our fitness so as not to experience emotional hurt and turmoil.

Using the Sandtray as an expressive therapy serves to bring the creator into a polarity of balance. It is here in the balance where the E= life force resides. It is important to note here that every individual will have their own normal balance. Normal meaning individuals come in all shapes and sizes with all manner of character traits, personalities and conditioning. So, your family and environment play a large part in determining when you are feeling balanced in your life.

Object RelatednessThe activity of playing with transitional objects in the Sandtray therapy setting allows the continued presence of the ‘significant’ other. For example, a child playing with a baby doll, in the presence and guided by the ‘significant’ other/witness/therapist replaces the earlier attachment of mistrust and abuse. Through the nurturing, soothing words and actions of the witness the creator learns to begin the process of transition towards other object relatedness, using the boundary of the sand tray, the safety of the room and the therapeutic alliance. You now have the contexts in place for what is termed symbolic play.

Relatedness to the object and to the therapist/witness carries a different relatedness: new attachment bonds are formed. New senses of meaning is given to the transitional object and the witness/therapist of relatability.

Symbolic PlayThe child or creator then begins to understand the multiplicity of different attitudes and perspectives that can be applied to the same object. Objects and meanings fragment, new meaning is formed towards that object and the child can chose to apply new perspective to things and engage in more symbolic play. Symbolic play is changing intersubjective responses and relatedness, these are the steps towards bringing the child from the transitional world of relatedness to the objective world of awareness. Sandtray therapy is the space where the child can engage in objectified self-expression, where witness and creator have a shared directedness to the world. This sharing of symbolic play creates the terminus or safe space for the creator to explore sand worlds and over time establish new healthy bonds, boundaries and psychological health.

Lowenfeld Sand World and Miniature Figurines and ToysThe placement of the miniature figurines, the groups in which they belong whether developmentally or realistically for example groups of trees, birds, African animals etc. is an important aspect of the overall sand world and says a lot about spatial relationships, rigid relationships, controlling relationships, shadow relationships and more.

Lowenfeld (1993) observed that children organise their experiences by grouping them into what she termed clusters. This identifies the object relatedness and the personal experience and allows the

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child to make sense of their world. The clustering according to Lowenfeld is how children and young people interpret their subjective sensory experience of objects and events, coalescing together as unified components of a larger part of a whole. Often these clusters will appear in the sand worlds time and time again, until one day a child will no longer perform these same clusters but produce a new sand world. This is when we understand that the psyche or the resilience around that thing has grown, the need to resubmerge into this sand world, in effect has dispersed into a reorganised object relatedness.

Lowenfeld observations about the elemental organizations of experience in sensory, feeling laden clusters or grouping is a valuable tool for coming into relationship with the sandplay client’s efforts to differentiate various aspects of their inner and outer experience into coherent meaning systems (Turner, 2005 pg. 285).

Piaget Active Interaction with the EnvironmentPiaget (1970) recognised that relationship and action were two components of cognitive development integrated. To know objects, the subject, the child in this case, must act upon them and transform them, as in miniature objects being actioned within the sand tray. This is a place where a child can ‘displace, connect, combine, take apart and re—assemble them”. His observations regarding the relationship between action taken upon outer objects and the motive powers to transform the psyche are evident in the Sandtray method. Sand worlds are fundamentally created using action to manipulate the sand, using objects and eventually transforming their inner world. This leads the symbolic play towards new and expanded perspectives, of course once again the importance and reflection from the witness are key to building new perspectives.

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