In this illuminating interview, Sheila Dorothy Smith – author of the new book, Sandtray Play and Storymaking – discusses sandtray play with a teacher colleague who is interested in using this innovative approach with her elementary school classes.

Teacher: I see that you use play with students from Kindergarten to Grade Seven. I wonder, though, how I would justify it for a student after very early primary age, given the amount of curriculum that needs to be covered.

Sheila: In sandtray play, students build worlds in the sand. Then they want to make a story about it. And tell it. And write it down. So they want to learn the literacy skills that are our job to teach. As teachers, then, we ‘work smarter not harder’ by working with the child’s creativity and desire. Not only its invitation to imagination, but also the fact that it is ‘hands-on’ makes sandtray play effective at all ages. The sensorimotor, the kinasethetic, learning through doing – this is critically important for disengaged students as they progress through later elementary school.

Teacher: We have to show accountability in province-wide testing at the same time that large numbers of students are showing severe emotional/behavioural problems. So I am interested that your title says that the technique develops social and emotional skills along with the academic.

Sheila: You have described very well what our challenge in the schools is. How do you teach academics to kids whose brains are flooded with emotional concerns? Certainly the sandtray can be used within social skills groups in a directed way within a withdrawal setting and the book talks about this. But for me, the most gratifying experience is derived from the fact that children are able to do social and emotional work right in class at the very heart of their academic work in literacy learning.

Teacher: How so?

Sheila: Because of the freedom and sense of safety in the sandtray, children often return to the same story line and work it out over time, both without words (in the sand) and with words (in the stories about the worlds they make in the tray). Aggression, loss, sadness, conflict, hope, struggle – all these can be shown in the sandtray and expressed in the narrative. The emotional work is embedded in the academic work of oral and written language skill development.

Teacher: What is the time commitment that would be necessary for doing sandtray storymaking? And is it best done with individuals, small groups or an entire class.

Sheila: It is highly adaptable to different requirements of time frame, setting, and age group. The book relates stories of both mainstream and Special Education teachers who have used the technique in wide-ranging ways. Use it according to the needs of your students, your own scheduling demands, and the requirements of the curriculum.

Teacher: What do I need to know before I begin?

Sheila: To do sandtray play in the school effectively, you would need to:

1. Provide a structure that provides emotional safety to the students;

2. Stand back supportively as you allow sandplayers to develop their worlds; and

3. Foster a sense of community, a classroom ethos of listening between your students.

Teacher: What tools and equipment do I need to have available to the students?

Sheila: Sand. Individual sandtrays (27 litre bins, interiors spray-painted sky blue.) Water. Miniatures.

Teacher: How do you suggest responding when sensitive, painful or disturbing revelations arise from the sandtray play?

Sheila: I think your question arises out of our earlier discussion about how the play and storymaking help the child to process and sort out inner experience. Importantly, in sandtray play, there is a distance, a kind of ‘intermediate space’ in which children do this sorting out. It arises because sandworlds and stories are imaginary, not factual. Our role as teachers is definitely not to place an interpretation on the tray or on the story. And we are not therapists. If disturbing revelations do come to light, we need to deal with them in the same way as we would if this were to happen in any part of our daily round – by seeing support and help for the child and family from appropriate professionals or agencies.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

3 Thoughts

  1. I appreciate your book on sand tray wish to own a copy now if possible to guide me teach my preschoolers. the sand tray from your point of explanation I notify that it a good book for all kindergarten teachers

  2. It is Sunday morning here in Australia and a friend has just begun reading Sheila’s book and had to ring me to say how “..friggin good is this…” It is reinforcing who we are, what we are doing in our teaching and how we are right in what we do. We are not psychologists but people who are trained in play based development. We know about Winnicott, Piaget, Lowenfeld and also Kalf and Jung just to name a few . My friend and colleague read parts of your book to me and now I am about to order it . I have not heard my friend so animated and alive in such a long time. Thank you, thank you, thank you! ……..Neta -Victoria, Australia

  3. I was delighted to come across your new book, Ms. Smith, and think you may be interested to read the research study Kristin Unnsteinsdottir, PhD and myself published in January 2012, Sandplay and Storytelling: The Impact of Imaginative Thinking on Children’s Learning and Development, Temenos Press. The book documents Dr. Unnsteinsdottir’s four-year study wherein she measures the effect of sandplay on children’s learning, emotional well being and self esteem in the school setting. Dr. Unnsteinsdottir and I are happy that you are doing similar work in Canada and welcome any comments or feedback you may have about our work. Thank you again for an inspiring addition to the world of education. Barbara Turner, PhD, Author The Handbook of Sandplay Therapy.

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