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Let’s Play in the Sand!


In my office, there is a shelf with hundreds (okay, let’s be honest, more like a thousand) miniature items. It looks like a child’s dream shelf, filled with superheroes, princesses, dinosaurs, Minecraft pieces, fences, animals of all kinds, food items, and treasure chests. Among the items there are also handcuffs, pill bottles, jails, coffins, skeletons, poker chips, and scary figurines. It is a rather eclectic grouping of items. In front of this six-foot by four-foot shelf is a tray on wheels that holds beautiful, sparkling, white sand.


Why would all these “toys” be in a psychologist’s office?


My name is Vanessa Hernberg, a Registered Psychologist, who practices what is called Sandtray Therapy.


In response to your first thought: no, it is not only for children.

Secondly: yes, it can be messy, but so worth it!


In order to understand how it works, I will give you a little bit of science behind trauma and your brain:

When you experience a trauma – and this is different for everyone - your brain takes it in as images, feelings, experiences, bodily sensations, and emotions. This is usually in our right hemisphere, or right side, of our brain. This part cannot talk about these experiences, and they can get “stuck” there, causing us to feel like we are reliving them on a never-ending loop. For example, if you were bitten by a dog, then every time you see a dog in the future you feel scared, start breathing heavily, cry, get a stomach-ache, or run away. For our brains to get out of this loop, we must be able to talk about the past experience in the here and now without having all the negative emotional responses.


If our right side of our brain cannot talk, how do we do that?


Good question!


We have to connect the two sides of our brain with the same experience; this is where sandtray comes in. We use the mini characters to display a scene that reminds us of the scary situation. Once the scene is set, I guide you through talking about it in a safe place:


Figures can be added to help you deal with difficult feelings.

Bridges can help to cross over from one feeling to another.

Dark figures can be replaced with lighter ones.

The possibilities are endless.


Once you are able to talk about the past situation in the present, without experiencing overwhelming and negative body reactions, I know that both parts of your brain have now dealt with the trauma.


Sandtray is also useful as a preparation tool for other forms of trauma therapy. Many people have heard of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). If you have not, we have an upcoming EMDR blog! I use sandtray for this. Miniature characters are chosen to represent strength, nurturing, and guidance to assist when the memories are painful. A path can be made beginning from where you are now to where you want to be, which then becomes the goal of therapy.


It is exciting for me to get a new miniature for my collection, but even more rewarding when it is used by a client on their healing journey.


Vanessa Hernberg

Registered Psychologist

Aspire Psychological Services