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Sandplay therapy used to help teens heal. (Processing Emotions).

A fallen lighthouse toppled over into the sand, surrounded by superheroes who dropped like stones from the sky.

They never collaborated, but that's how dozens of Montclair, N.J., high school students portrayed the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, using sandplay therapy.

As a self-directed, expressive therapy, sandplay is not diagnostic, and the students received no direction or interpretation of their experience. But Rosalind Winter said it was a valuable aid in helping students process and contain their emotions.

"Sandplay accesses unconscious material and makes it conscious by giving it form," said Ms. Winter, a certified Jungian psychoanalyst who brought sandplay therapy to Montclair High School after Sept. 11. The therapy can help relieve symptoms of emotional trauma--anxiety aggression, and even physical pain.

The sand tray in Montclair High School became the repository of fear and anxiety mourning, and even pride, as students used the sand and hundreds of tiny figures and symbols in a 21-by-30-inch sand tray to express their emotions about the tragedy. The symbolism of the fallen superheroes is easy to interpret, Ms. Winter said, and the meaning of the lighthouse also was obvious--at least to those who lived in Montclair.

"In this community we oriented ourselves by the Twin Towers," she said "When you saw them, you always knew you were looking east, you knew where you were. I think that is the lighthouse connection for these kids."

On the day of the attacks, Ms. Winter happened to be in Montclair High School. In the days afterward, she gave teachers on-the-run courses in crisis management and brought in a sand tray and an extensive collection of miniature figures. She placed the equipment in a walk-in closet near the nurse's office with a simple, one-word sign: "Welcome."

As word spread about how the simple technique encouraged teens to express, contain, and symbolize their emotions, teachers and counselors from other schools in the town asked for sand trays as well. With the help of colleagues from the Sandplay Therapists of America, Ms. Winter was able to place 10 more trays and miniature collections in schools throughout the system.

The project captured the enthusiasm of the community Residents scoured craft and toy stores for hundreds of figurines to add to the collections, said Ms. Winter, whose papers on sandplay therapy have been published in the Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice and the journal of Sandplay Therapy. Town employees and administrators were also able to take advantage of the experience when Ms. Winter set up a sandplay station in the town center.

Sandplay as therapy originated in Great Britain in the 1930s. Dr. Margaret Lowenfield, the founder of the London Institute of Child Psychology developed it as an extension of play therapy In 1966, Jungian analyst Dora Kalff enriched the technique by giving it a Jungian orientation, using archetypal figurines that allow patients to work with their emotions symbolically.

Sandplay requires two large, shallow-walled trays; containers of both dry and moist sand; and a collection of miniature figures. The tray symbolizes a protected space that is safe for expression; the sand--the place where land and water merge--symbolizes a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious. The miniatures are symbolic of the world at large--the collective unconscious.

Sandplay miniatures typically include things like wild and domestic animals, buildings and furniture, plants and nature items, bridges and vehicles, everyday people, and spiritual and fantasy figures. The figures selected will hold a personal, conscious meaning for patients, and a larger archetypal meaning, revealing the patient's unconscious experience, Ms. Winter said.

The Montclair project has been so successful that Ms. Winter is about to embark on a similar project for 15 New York City Public Schools in the Ground Zero area of Chinatown, TriBeCa, and Greenwich Village.

There's still a lot of healing to be done in the Ground Zero schools, Ms. Winter said. The need is especially great in Chinatown, where traditional values dictate personal reserve and nonverbal healing techniques rather than open sharing about troubling thoughts and feelings.

Administrators in the Chinatown schools are looking beyond Sept. 11 recovery, she said; they hope to make sandplay an integral part of helping their students deal with other difficult emotions that generally remain unspoken, such as grief over the death of a family member, or anxiety over violence or alcoholism in the home.

Researchers at Columbia University New York, are investigating whether sandplay provides a nonverbal, culturally free medium for expression that has been difficult to provide through the typical approaches used in schools.

As a teaching member of the Sandplay Therapists of America, Ms. Winter offers school counselors some basic training aimed at helping maximize the effectiveness of sandplay in schools.

The technique is about uncovering aspects of the unconscious, reflecting upon them, and integrating them into the life experience, as well as using the power of the symbolic processes to move one along the process of psychological development, Ms. Winter said. "In the school setting, the goal is the expression and containment of psychic energy The first level of training is simply to be a neutral witness to the child's expression."

For more information on sandplay therapy, visit Ms. Winter's experience with schoolchildren in the aftermath of Sept. 11 was also the subject of an interview contained in the newly published book, "Mourning Has Broken: Learning From the Wisdom of Adversity," by Carmella B'Hahn.
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Author:Sullivan, Michele G.
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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