Lowenfeld’s Contribution
to the Understanding of Trauma
in Sandplay

           On September 25th and November 20th, 1999, I gave an extended lecture for the East Coast Sandplay Association on our understanding of trauma today. Dr. Margaret Lowenfeld, the originator of Sandplay, had some useful theories, which have not been well integrated into our general knowledge of how Sandplay works as a practical therapeutic method.

          Lowenfeld’s theory of Pre-verbal Thinking is the most important one. She was referring to part of the thinking process of the brain we now know as the Right Brain, non-logical, image making aspects of thought. Today we don’t visualize this part of thinking as half the brain but realize that though it exists, it is produced by specific Right and Left Brain functioning. Non-verbal Thinking is what we use when we draw, paint, write a poem, listen to music, or dance, etc. Its origin is hypothesized by Lowenfeld as the form of thinking used by the infant to think in pictures. Before the development of verbal language, she was convinced that the infant saw pictures as a form of internal communication. Gradually language was learned to stand for the pictures and finally picture making was reserved only for those activities that demanded its particular attributes, art, creative writing, dance, drama, etc.

          Lowenfeld developed Sandplay as a way of accessing this aspect of thinking using miniatures or figures to represent the pictures in our mind as a pure form of communication in which words are not necessary. Usually the Sandplay maker experiences a new learning process of picture making which is deep and satisfying, much like a painting and provides a physical outlet of energy. The maker develops a language of toys and begins to explore a new realm of inner wisdom and knowing from this wordless space of powerful images. The therapy takes place as the client or maker and guide or therapist watch the process unfold. The degree of verbalization depends on the judgment of the therapist or the client’s need to concretize the experience in words. In this way deep memories and even traumatic material is brought into consciousness. It’s acceptance and reintegration into the thinking process of the individual in therapy effects a lasting and healing change.                

          Here are some characteristics of Pre-verbal Thinking which Lowenfeld studied in the hope that her Sandplay material would uncover the dynamics of this important region of the mind. I am using material from an unpublished Lecture: Child Psychotherapy: The Lowenfeld Approach by the late John Hood-Williams, last director of Lowenfeld’s Institute of Child Psychology, London, U.K.

  1.  the material is multi-dimensional and exists on  many different planes and in different modes

  2. the simultaneous aspect of the material includes no distinction between time and space and includes opposites such as inner and outer, above and below, etc all in one picture

  3. the simultaneous presentation can include several different “selves” at one time, or several aspects of the same experience or object within one structure

  4. the presentation of very complicated conceptions of movement and direction within one and the same structure

  5. the inclusion of bodily sensations, together with irrational concepts concerning the causation and meaning of these sensations, within the same concrete presentation or tray

This inner material seems to carry with it a dynamic charge which drives it to seek expression. If suitable therapeutic material is not provided and it is not brought into consciousness, it could force expression through ritual, symbol, or bodily symptom. Or it could create repression and blocked energy for that which is needed for growth and learning.                 

          The above categories are useful in assessing all tray material. If the therapist feels there has been a developmental delay because of a trauma this list is particularly helpful in discovering what factors are involved in causing the delay. If the client is able to process a traumatic event, the tray material will eventually lead to what Lowenfeld called a “Cluster” Tray. In this material, all of the above factors can be utilized but the experience has a frozen-in-time feel about it. The more the therapist knows about the actual trauma, the more he or she is able to peel off the layers of meaning and help the child make sense of what at first can look like very chaotic and cluttered material. If a therapist doesn’t know what to look for, the “Cluster” Tray message can elude them.

          This theory was then illustrated in my lecture using the case of a 4 year 5 month old girl in a preschool program in the South Bronx, New York which I developed 10 years ago. After about 3 months of Sandplay therapy, Bea made this tray. She set out a rectangle of cars and a Barbie figure in a pink evening dress, off to one side. She then drives a red porch around the line of cars and it crashes into a street cleaner utility truck. Then a police car, a helicopter and 2 fire engines are added to the scene. As the woman in the pink evening dress looked so out of character, I asked Bea what she was doing? She answered by stating, “Looking for me”. The only other figure in the scene was a waving Barnie figure. In the next 6 months of Sandplay, the Barnie character became a witness symbol for future stories or trays.

I did know at the time of the making of this tray that Bea had been in a terrible car accident when she was 8 months old and that her father had been killed at the time. I suspected that this was a “Cluster” Tray as it was close to what really happened but had multi-dimensional and simultaneous aspects as well. I decided to ask Bea’s mother to give me more details of the actual event. It turned out that Bea was thrown from the car on impact and that she had a concussion on her forehead, was taken to the hospital and later released with other members of her family some of whom were also hurt. It was clear to me that Bea’s tray expressed her infant reasoning that she got hurt and was therefore responsible for her father’s death. This illogical conclusion is very common with young children who often blame themselves as the cause of    disasters.  My hypothesis was later corroborated when Bea answered a question about a drawing she made by saying that the protagonist was ba䁤 because, “it fell out of the door”. 

The symbolic meaning of the woman in pink in Bea’s tray was not as easily understood. Bea’s mother said that she herself was hurt too badly to look for her baby but that she had been found by a police or medical staff person who arrived at the accident. Her Mother was very moved by my explanation of the “Cluster Tray” explained above. She said, the Barbie character “sounds like an angel to me”.  Apparently Bea looked upon this person as a positive figure and her recurrence in future trays always signified a hopeful ‘saving grace’ aspect of the feminine in her life. In time Bea was able to use this positive force as a symbol of the nurturing mother, an image which at the end of therapy she began to trust could and would meet her needs. The entire case is too involved to go into here, in much detail. Hopefully the illustration of this cluster tray and its importance in the process of healing the trauma of Bea’s accident, will help to attune the Sandplay therapist to its usefulness.

Alison Van Dyk was on the Board of the Lowenfeld Trust for 8 years, Executive Produced “The Legacy of Margaret Lowenfeld” and has a Private Practice in Greenwich, CT, USA. She is currently working on a video about her preschool program using Sandplay therapy.