Trauma can be one of the most difficult things to discuss in the therapy room. Talking about it can be triggering, and it can bring up flashbacks, nightmares, and panic. As bad as this experience can be for adults, it can be devastating for children. Lacking the maturity to grasp the meaning of trauma and the language skills of adults to convey it, children often are unable to utilize talk therapy to process through their trauma. When this is the case, it can be helpful to bring in play therapy techniques.

Play therapy is a therapy technique that uses the child’s natural propensity for play to help therapists gain insights into their world and their problems. Children make sense of their world through the act of playing, and therapists trained in play therapy can help interpret that play into meaningful conversations and enactments with the children. In this way, they can explore their trauma in a safe environment with a trusted adult. One form of play therapy that we employ at Heartland Therapy Connection is sand tray therapy.


Sand tray therapy is a form of play therapy that uses a small sand tray to help children (and teens and even adults, too) to process their inner world. Children have access to a wide array of miniatures that they can place in the sand tray to represent themselves and the issues they are needing to process. The therapist might offer prompts or guiding questions, but children are free to design their sand tray however they see fit. This freedom of creativity coupled with the metaphorical nature of play combine to give words and meaning to the difficult concept of trauma that the child otherwise might not be able to access.


During the session, the therapist will often sit behind the child or off to the side so the child can fully focus on the sand tray, not the therapist. Time is usually given in the beginning to simply explore with the sand. This can help the child feel more at ease and start to access that connection between play and their inner world. After this, most sessions will begin with instructing the child to choose a miniature that represents themselves to place in the sand box. The therapist will observe and might ask for some reasoning. However, the child’s creative interpretation of their inner thoughts and emotions is supported and validated.

From here, the session will look different depending on the goal set by the therapist. The therapist might ask the child to recreate family dynamics in the sand tray to gain insight about how the child views them. If the focus is a specific trauma event, the therapist might have the child build different sand trays that represent the before, the during, and the after of that event. The entire time, the therapist is observing and looking for patterns or clues that show how the child is trying to make sense of their life and their place in the world.

Sometimes, a parent or other significant person in the child’s life might join them at the sand tray. The therapist leads them in an activity that can help them gain insight into each other and build bridges of communication.


At Heartland Therapy Connection, we are committed to helping people work through their trauma, and children are no exception! We are excited to be able to offer sand tray therapy to facilitate this. If you have questions, feel free to contact us today at (816) 287-0252 and schedule a free consultation today. We would love to assist you and your child in any way we can.

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