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Digital sandtrays – creating a new perspective on the world of sand play

Thoughts about our ‘world’ are a feature of our lives inside and outside the therapy room. Dr Margaret Lowenfled's pioneering World Technique, introduced in 1930's went on to shape the sandtray interventions many of us still use today. Since then, and unbeknown to me, the ‘sandbox game’ has been the gaming world’s answer to our need for a domain free from rules and objectives and full of the player’s choice of theme and characters. It was only a matter of time before the two worlds collided in the therapy room. Who hasn’t had a child-client eager to fill their session sharing tales of their online gaming adventures? The Virtual Sandtray App is a partner of the Lowenfeld Trust, who describe it as a way to 'bring Sandplay into the 21st century'. Personally, I regard my digital sandtrays as purpose-built tools to engage in therapy the mindset and techniques from the ‘creative’ mode found in several popular sandbox games. However, I've also wondered many times why digital sandtrays, especially the ones that use 3D images, divide professional opinions leaving users and non-users worlds apart?


Children playing with toys in a sand tray

...digital sandtrays, especially the ones that use 3D images, divide professional opinions leaving users and non-users worlds apart

 

You might have guessed already, I’m a little bit obsessed with images, and the last 18 months has given me way too many opportunities to indulge my passion. I’ve replaced Netflix with Skillshare and an abundance of digital art courses that I consume like soap operas; they’ve only just begun to make up for my lack of formal art training. I still don’t fully understand concepts like balance, contrast, movement, and how to use light and shadow but these concepts now make more sense as I think about the images that fill my day as an integrative child psychotherapist. Working online is sometimes harder than it looks – every time I get stuck on a tech issue I remember how much I miss the simplicity of my tools and toys. I don’t know how I’ve escaped playing online games and being in worlds where the camera roams around the environment using various perspectives. I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know; I’m reminded of this every time I gaze at a sandtray from a birdseye view and instinctively think that I’m seeing the whole picture. I now try to capture images from my digital sandtray in the same way that I might in an online game. After all, I wouldn't try to experience the whole world in Roblox or Minecraft from a birds-eye view. In practice, it's a struggle trying to reverse years of training and the temptation to make sense of a whole person and the image of an entire tray.


Sand can be retextured as water for a split-level views

I’m curious about my clients both past and present - maybe it's just me, but I can’t be sure that a traditional sandtray would allow me to ‘imagine in’ to the vivid places we now explore online. I rely on words, the fewer the better – all the time checking whether my thoughts and feelings align with theirs. This use of words to underpin images and emotions reminds me of ‘assistive text’ and the way it makes images accessible to the visually impaired. Whether I'm 'checking in', 'imagining in' or 'wondering out loud', digital sandtrays have challenged me to explore images in more depth and rely less on words. Instead, my clients can control the camera to make sure I can see what they’re seeing – that can only be a good thing.

 

...my clients can control the camera to make sure I can see what they’re seeing – that can only be a good thing

 

One of the benefits of working online is having the freedom to alter images in the moment. I’m free from the constraints of solid objects; clients can define and construct more elements within the narrative of their images. So whether we’re using a mobile device, presentation slide, whiteboard, sandtray – there’s thousands of images and a myriad of ways to add movement, texture, depth perception, scale and so much more. What the digital sandtray has lacked in the use of tactile sensation, smell and sound, it makes up for by creating an immersive experience which mimics the way we experience the world around us. It’s a different route to engage our brain and senses, and just like in the real world, there are many angles, stories and stages on the journey to explore clients' feelings. I’m fascinated by the way our relationship with the image is changed when the ‘canvass’ is a screen or an iPad, rather than a wooden box with sand (or paper, for that matter). I’m curious about the connection between our hands, eyes and body and I'm grateful that we can explore parts of the image that are usually out of reach to anyone without x-ray vision. Let’s face it, who would dare to pick up a tray of sand (and sometimes water) to explore the view from underneath?



How often do we talk about needing to change the atmosphere? Why shouldn’t client’s capture that in their sandtray image?

 

I’m a firm believer that modern technology should enhance, not replace the basic concepts and theories that underpin our work as psychotherapists. In my quest to combine the old with the new online, I’ve realised how I tended to use the boundary of the traditional sandtray to ‘frame’ the image, and how anything without it no longer 'felt' like a sandtray image. I’m learning how to give focus and voice to the environment around the tray – a bit like adding a choice of weather and elements in an imaginary 3D ‘eco-system’. How often do we talk about needing to change the atmosphere? Why shouldn’t client’s capture that in their sandtray image? I’m learning how to trust the therapeutic frame online and let clients choose how they want to ‘frame’ their world. But I haven’t ditched the trusty picture frame completely – it can be a game-changer when I’m exploring an object in the vast VR environment, but that’s another blog for another day. You'll have to join one of my modular online trainings if you want to learn more about what makes digital sandtrays an amazing therapeutic tool. Jessica Stone the co-creator of the Virtual Sandtray App has promised that it won’t be long before we can go from a screen to the VR scene and personally I can’t wait!


I've chosen the title ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ (yet more words) to describe my sandtray story and I'll leave you with a final image of the triumphant place where I found my warrior-self bathed in warmth and light. Thank goodness it wasn’t an oncoming train!


Female warrior in front of a tunnel with orb of light

All digital sandtray images produced using Virtual Sandtray App

Read more about Dr Margaret Lowenfeld's 'World Technique' at www.lowenfeld.org


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Lesley Simpson-Gray