Shortly after graduating from grad school, I traveled a couple of states over with a friend to attend a sand tray therapy for kids training. It really increased my confidence in using it and it became one of my most used tools as both a school-based therapist (my role at the time) and a school counselor (my role for many years after).
Sand tray counseling includes literal boundaries, there’s a kinesthetic piece, it involves play (the work and communication of children!), and is helpful with kids that have a range of verbal communication skills.
I am not an LPC or a registered play therapist and I am not a sand tray expert. If you’re looking for advanced information in interpreting children’s play in the sand, or in using sand tray for actual therapy, I recommend seeking out formal training! What I have is lots of experience using it in short-term counseling as an elementary school counselor, and I’m happy to share my experience and ideas with fellow school counselors looking to implement this into your practice.
Logistics and Tools
Before I share some of the sand tray activities I use with students, I want to answer some common questions I’ve gotten over the years – just quickly sharing some of what’s worked for me.
My rice tray is a Rubbermaid or Sterilite plastic under-the-bed bin. I’ve had it for over a decade and it’s still kicking! Some counselors also use smaller bins, like the paper trays they have at Target during the back-to-school-season, for students to have their own during group counseling.
Storage and Organization
When I was starting, I kept all of the figurines in one separate (smaller) bin for students to sift through or empty out. As my figurine collection grew, I started using a few small bins to store the figurines, sorted by category. My next storage setup was to keep the figurines out on shelves (and risers like what people use for canned goods in their kitchen cabinets). I really, really loved this because it allowed students to easily see and choose what they needed. It was also a lot of work to set things back up (and some figurines didn’t love to stand up). My last and final strategy was to use a piece of furniture from IKEA called the “Trofast” (they have almost the same exact thing at Target now!). It’s pricey (and I paid out of pocket) but it was definitely the best setup I had. The figurines were organized by type (people, animals, characters, nature, objects, etc.) in the drawers below, and I kept some of my other toys (baby dolls, masks, wands, Legos) in the extra drawers.
I used (dry) rice in my tray instead of sand. It was recommended by a supervisor when I first started (I think because of easier cleanup but I honestly can’t recall for sure) and I loved it. I tried using sand two times after and found that rice just worked better for my students. Almost everyone else (including most of my colleagues) uses sand. I wanted to share this all just because you’ll see me/read me say “rice tray” sometimes in this post since that’s what I used.
When I was first building my figurine collection, I got them mostly from the Target “dollar spot,” Dollar Tree, and Michaels (one at a time, using the 40% off coupon you can usually find online). When I had a small budget for supplies from my school, I found some really great ones from Child Therapy Toys and got a couple of the family sets from Lakeshore. I wish I had found the family counters on Amazon sooner because they’re one of the best budget options out there (affiliate link).
Here’s a list of the most used types of figurines in my office:
- Animal figurines in various sizes
- Traditionally “bad” characters, like a witch
- A character or tool that is magical (wizard, wand, etc.)
- Containment receptacles (trash can, cage, treasure chest)
- Family set
- Fences (or blocks to use as fences and walls)
- Items that serve as symbols: coffin, rainbow, brain, volcano, etc.
Getting to Know You and Rapport Building
One of the easiest and most straightforward ways to use a sand tray in school counseling is to use it for getting to know your student and building rapport. It’s one of my favorite things to use in the first counseling sessions with individuals! Sometimes kiddos don’t need any directions to engage in rice tray play – they just get right to it! Other times, they might need some prompts to get started. Here are some prompts to try:
“Show what things are like at school lately.”
Simple prompts like this give you a chance to see issues through the student’s eyes – and their view might be different than what was shared by their teacher. I’ve found that using this prompt with rice tray results in the student giving much more (and more helpful) information than if I just asked “Tell me what things are like at school lately,” especially if there are elements of what’s going on that they may feel uncomfortable verbalizing.
“Pick out a figurine for each of the important people in your life.”
Ask them about family members who live with them, family members who live elsewhere, and any super important people from school. Make sure they pick out a figurine for themself, too! After they’re done setting everyone up, ask questions like “I noticed you picked the ____ for ____. I’m curious why you picked that one for them.” You can also reflect on what you see in terms of placement. Is their own figurine particularly close or far away from anyone? Are any figurines facing away from others? Sometimes kids place them in randomly. Other times, the placement is intentional and it gives some information about relationship dynamics.
“What if you could design your dream life and world? Show me what that would look like.”
This is a really fun one to learn about the child’s interests, and also what they might wish would change in their life. Some students need more specific prompting like “show me what you wish school was like.”
“On one side, show me something that makes you smile. On the other side, show me something that makes you frown or cry or yell.”
There are lots of ways to ask kids to share when and why they have different emotions. This one has the bonus of setting students up to disclose a broader idea with more context! If emotional struggles are one of their presenting issues, then you can also add an additional prompt after they’ve completed this around creating a bridge, a road, or a sidewalk to get from the upset side to the smiling side. It’s a little bit metaphorical, but I think it’s also a way to really make it imaginative and playful and help their little minds see how they can get from distressed to happy.
One of the best parts of using rice tray is that it feels like a more manageable way of doing child-centered play therapy. It’s not the same as having the whole setup, but there’s still a lot a student can process and explore through the use of miniatures. And, bonus, child-centered play therapy in schools is effective (scroll to the bottom of this post to read more)!
A quick refresher about child-centered counseling:
- Generally non-directive
- Focuses on reflecting feelings, reflecting content
- Tracking (play) behavior
- Facilitating decision-making, creativity, and relationship
While the play might not seem, on the surface, to connect to whatever their presenting issues are, there’s a good chance it does. Child-centered play also “works” through the safe and stable relationship they build and hold with you through it. This book is a great start if you’re wanting to learn more!
Processing Previous Events
One of the most effective interventions I’ve done in my rice tray is having students process through previously distressing events. First, ask the child to use the figurines to show you what happened (reflecting feelings and content as they go). Next, ask them if they’d be okay going through it again with some small changes. Depending on the situation, this could look like:
- Showing an alternative perspective of point of view (such as what others may have been thinking and feeling)
- Pointing out where the child showed strength, or bravery, or did the best they could given the situation
- Having the child’s character make a different more helpful choice (coping skill, assertive communication, etc.) and exploring what that might have changed
- Act it out with a friend or role model taking the place of themselves to see how things may be different
One time this was really helpful for me was with a student processing a scary situation they witnessed at the bus stop; our processing included me showing them how quickly an adult came to help, how they made a safe choice, etc. Another was with a student who struggled with a conflict they had with their teacher. Together we were able to identify the outcomes of their response and what they could do differently in a similar situation.
Social Skills Practice
A LOT of the work we do in an elementary school involves helping our students develop the social skills they need to be successful. Practicing these skills and rehearsing the behaviors that will help them, is the most important part. This can absolutely be done standing up in your office, with them playing themselves and you playing the person they would use the skill with. It can be a little uncomfortable for some students, though, to role-play like this. Using miniatures in the sand tray takes some of the imagined pressure off! Here are just some skills you might help your students practice in the rice tray:
- Using a social filter
- Asking for help
- Waiting, sharing, taking turns
- Joining in play
More Prompts to Consider
Here’s a list of other prompts that you might want to use with your students:
- Make your world in the sand tray. Now imagine you have a magic wand. Show me how things would change.
- Show me a time you felt really proud of yourself.
- What does a day in the life of (student’s name) look like?
- Show me how you calm down when you’re upset.
- How would things be different if you felt more/less _________?
- Pick a figurine to be your special coach or helper. Show me what they would say to you during math/recess/lunch.
- Show me your favorite memory of the person you love who died.
Nearly any question you might pose to a student when talking can be used with miniatures in the tray!
Less Traditional Uses
You can also use the sand tray or rice tray in school counseling in less traditional ways, ways that don’t necessarily involve acting things out or setting things up. Some kids might enjoy using it the same way they might use fidgets or stuffed animals – just playing in it while you talk.
These can also be great introductory activities for students you want to do play-based work in the tray with but who might be a little reluctant.
One is to just let it be a sensory experience. Most kids love playing in beans or rice or sand. For many, it helps create a brain-body connection and can help with physical and emotional regulation.
They can still absolutely use figurines for this, but you might want to consider having some other tools like shovels, rakes, and cups if you want to use it in this way.
Hide and Seek
I love discussion question cards, practice task cards, and sorting cards. They provide hands-on ways of working through important ideas and skills. There are lots of fun ways to use them in class lessons and groups, but you can also make them fun with individuals through a little “hide and seek.” Bury the cards in the bin and ask your student to find them and respond to them one at a time. It adds an extra element of engagement and play.