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   Home > About Sandplay > History

The History and Development of Sandplay Therapy

Barbara A. Turner, PhD

British pediatrician and child psychiatrist, Margaret Lowenfeld (1979/1993) is generally credited with the development of the therapeutic use of miniature figures in a tray of sand at her Clinic for Nervous and Difficult Children which she opened in London in 1928. Lowenfeld drew upon her memory of H.G. Wells’ Floor Games (1911), which describes the wonders of the miniature worlds Wells and his children created on the floor with a variety of small toys and blocks (Turner, 2004). The engaging and creative nature of the Floor Games had impressed Lowenfeld greatly, so she set about equipping her clinic with small toys and materials in what she called the wonder box. It was the children themselves who gave birth to what Lowenfeld named the World Technique in 1929 when they referred to the wonder box as, …the world, and spontaneously began fashioning miniature worlds and scenes in the sand boxes in the clinic playroom (Bowyer, 1970; Lowenfeld, 1979/1993).

Perceiving that children’s thought processes were quite different from those of adults, Lowenfeld’s (1939, 1946) intention was to develop a way that allowed for the direct expression of the mental and emotional experience of the child and which would lend itself to some form of record keeping so that their creations might be studied. Lowenfeld was concerned to avoid the superimposition of any theories onto the children’s productions, preferring to allow any theory to evolve from the children’s work itself.

My own endeavor in my work with children is to devise an instrument with which a child can demonstrate his own emotional and mental state without the necessary intervention of an adult either by transference or interpretation, and which will allow of a record being made of such a demonstration. My objective is to help children to produce something which will stand by itself and be independent of any theory as to its nature (Lowenfeld, 1979/1993, p.3).

The first professional demonstration of the World Technique was at a clinical conference in Paris in 1937. Carl Gustav Jung, who was in attendance at that conference, analyzed the World that Lowenfeld had presented (Bowyer, 1970). The therapeutic value of the World Technique was well regarded and documented in Lowenfeld’s child clinic and by the mid twentieth century came to be recognized as an effective means of treatment for adults, as well (Bowyer, 1970; Lowenfeld, 1950b, 1993).

A number of clinicians were drawn to the study of the World Technique, later adapting or modifying it to suit their own particular therapeutic or diagnostic purposes. Among these was Swedish clinician Goesta Harding, who was influenced by Hanna Bratt, who had studied with Lowenfeld in 1933. Harding studied briefly with Lowenfeld in 1949, then developed what she called the Erica Method, which has since flourished in Sweden (Harding, 1969/1972). Harding credits Gudrun Seitz, who studied with Lowenfeld in London in 1941 with the first introduction of the World Technique to the Institute for Therapeutic Pedagogy in Stockholm (Bowyer, 1970). The Erica Method parallels the tools and methods of Lowenfeld and is used for diagnostic and therapeutic applications.

Charlotte Buhler, noted child development researcher at the University of Vienna, also adapted the World Technique to her research and clinical needs. Taken with the ability of the World Technique to portray the workings of the child’s mind, Buhler (1951) worked to standardize the technique for use as a diagnostic test in the study of children’s cognitive and developmental processes. With Lowenfeld’s original support and encouragement, Buhler observed World making at the clinic in London. Buhler named her tool the World Test. With the use of a limited number of miniature figures, numbering between 160 and 300, the World Test is a diagnostic instrument which is conducted on a table top, rather than in sand, and is scored using a standardized rating scale designed to discern clinical (pathological) from normal (non-pathological) worlds. When Lowenfeld and Buhler later met in 1950 to discuss their work, Lowenfeld found Buhler’s World Test to be quite at cross-purposes to her work with the World Technique (Bowyer, 1970; Lowenfeld, 1950a, 1950b).

Buhler influenced the work of two French clinicians, de Beaumont and Arthus, who, after seeing a demonstration of the World material by Buhler in Holland in the 1940’s, returned to France to develop what they called the Village Test, another modification of the World Technique adapted for clinical assessment (Arthus, 1949; Bowyer, 1970). The Village Test equipment and interpretation was then standardized by Pierre Mabille (1950).

Coincidental with the work of Lowenfeld and Buhler was the development of the Dramatic Productions Test (DPT) by Erik Homberger (1937), later known as Erik Erikson. Although unaware of the World Technique or the World Test, Erikson used miniature figures in a defined space to attempt to better understand human behavior. Erikson utilized the DPT in two well documented studies: one of college students at Harvard, and the other as part of a twenty year longitudinal developmental study at the University of California at Berkeley (Erikson, 1951). Asking the participants to …make a dramatic scene, in the Harvard study, Erikson surmised that what appeared in their miniature configurations on the table top were scenes representative of trauma from childhood. Erikson concluded that the DPT configurations were continuations of where the participants had left off in their childhood attempts to overcome the trauma through the active repetition of play. In the developmental study Erikson saw similar themes of early trauma in addition to scenes of family conflict, themes of illness or somatic concerns and psycho sexual conflicts.

Another adaptation of Lowenfeld’s World Technique to assessment and diagnosis was that of Austrian clinicians Hedda Bolgar and Lisolette Fischer, who were interested in developing a non-verbal projective instrument to assist in clinical diagnosis. Familiar with the work of both Lowenfeld and Buhler, they developed the Little World Test in the mid 1930’s (Bolgar & Fischer, 1940). The Little World Test consists of 232 standardized colorful wood or metal miniatures of a simple or schematic design and is conducted on an octagonal table surface. The test is scored in six categories, choice, quantity, form, content, behavior and verbalization and is used to distinguish clinical from normal profiles (Bowyer, 1970).

Scottish psychologist and academician, Laura Ruth Bowyer (aka Pickford) made an avid study of the World Technique. With Margaret Lowenfeld’s encouragement she wrote a comprehensive survey of the history and uses of the World Technique and made significant contributions to work with the World Technique (Bowyer, 1970). Among other contributions to her work in the Lowenfeld tradition, Bowyer developed scoring categories to better analyze worlds and deduced developmental norms for children and adults from clinical and normal populations.

Another adaptation of Lowenfeld’s World Technique to diagnostic purposes was made by L.N.J. Kamp at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Kamp, had employed the World Technique to formulate a developmental scale when working in the public schools in Topeka, Kansas in the 1940’s. Working with E.S. Kessler of Georgetown University, Kamp devised scoring procedures to determine developmental norms as indicated in World productions (Kamp & Kessler, 1970).

Dutch educator, P.C. Ojemann drew upon the work of Kamp and that of educator, Maria J. Krabbe (1991) to develop her Wereldspel table top village construction test for the diagnosis of what she calls image thinking as a learning style for the early detection of learning difficulties in school children (Ojemann, Personal communication, November 1992, Groningen, Holland).

Another formidable figure in the development of the therapeutic use of miniatures in sand was Dora Marie Kalff. A neighbor and friend of Emma and Carl Jung in Switzerland, Kalff was encouraged by Jung to pursue a psychological career (Mitchell & Friedman, 1994; Kalff, 2003). Having observed Kalff’s abilities with children, Jung suggested that Kalff direct her attention to this unexplored area in Jungian psychology. This posed many logistical difficulties for Kalff. Traditional Jungian analysis is unsuited to children, as they have not yet evolved the cognitive skills or developmental capacities that predispose them to a verbal analysis. Kalff began her study in 1949 at the Jung Institute in Kusnaacht, Switzerland, and in 1954 attended a lecture presented by Margaret Lowenfeld on the World Technique. Kalff was intrigued and impressed with the possibility of using the World Technique as a symbolic tool with children. With Jung’s encouragement, Kalff went to London to study the World Technique with Margaret Lowenfeld upon completing her analytical training in 1956 (Weinrib, 1983/2004).

Recognizing the archetypal content and symbolic process of the Worlds, Kalff adapted the World Technique to Jungian theory and named her technique “sandplay” therapy, to distinguish it from Lowenfeld’s World Technique.

Whereas Margaret Lowenfeld (1979/1993) customarily interpreted the Worlds for the children before the end of treatment, Dora Kalff (1980/2003) recognized that a delayed interpretation was important as it allowed the client the opportunity to undergo transformation at the deepest layers of the psyche. Rooted in the fundamental Jungian concept that the psyche has an inherent tendency to move toward wholeness, Kalff saw that the therapist’s silent, but knowing attendance to the sandplay process activated these potentials in the client. Whereas Lowenfeld regarded the World Technique as a means for the communication and expression of children’s thoughts and emotions and as a vehicle for the release of conflicts and tension resulting from discrepancies between their inner and outer realities, Kalff saw the immediacy of the re-ordering of the psyche occurring in the creation of the sandplay itself. With her Jungian background and deeply intuitive nature, Kalff recognized that a process of archetypal symbolic transformation occurred through a series of sandplays and felt it was a perfect vehicle for the Jungian treatment of children.

Kalff and Lowenfeld communicated about their differing approaches to the sand tray and agreed in the late 1950’s to the difference in names to distinguish the two approaches (Mitchell & Friedman, 1994). Sandplay therapy has since grown in popularity as a valued therapeutic medium among Jungian analysts and Jungian oriented therapists. As occurred with the World Technique, sandplay has also come into favor for use with adult clients as well as children.

As with the World Technique, sandplay therapy is now used with both adults and children. Jungian sandplay therapy is employed in a wide variety of clinical settings, for treatment of psychiatric disorders, developmental deprivation, trauma and personal growth.

Today the teaching of sandplay therapy is carried on by the International Society for Sandplay Therapy and its affiliates in countries around the world, including the Sandplay Therapists of America. While sandplay therapy appears to be quite simple it is a highly complex therapeutic modality and has profound potential. Qualified sandplay therapists undergo extensive training, personal process and supervision in preparation for practice.

References for this article may be found on our Research Page in the Sandplay References section.


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