If you have been doing sandtray for any amount of time, fences will come up in your tray.
But, although you know that fences are important, you often struggle to figure out what exactly they mean.
One important thing to always remember regardless of the client’s age: the underlying meaning of fences are the same- they cause separation and serve to keep things in or out.
Btw- if you are using sandtray therapy in your arsenal of therapy methods- you simply cannot have enough fences. You want to have a variety of fences ideally- those representing rock walls, traditional fences, and then “pretty fences.”
One tip: some of the best fences I have found were from the “fairy garden” section at Hobby Lobby. You can also google fairy garden items online and get a lot of really interesting and useful items for you sandtray.
With all ages, fences are indicative of anxiety, separation, and often times guardedness. Those who just don’t feel safe yet in the sandtray will often line the tray with fences or even the tray with stones. Clients will often do this subconsciously- like they don’t set out thinking “I’m going to set up the fences to keep me guarded and protected before I put myself in this tray.” It’s something the brain does intuitively, but as a therapist, pay close attention to these fences they they occur because its ALL very important.
Here’s five of questions to aid in processing the sandtray.
Depending on the age of your clients, they may or may not be able to answer them vocally. However, they are still good things to note as you are observing and processing the tray, even with young children.
1. When are the fences placed when building the tray?
If fences are placed FIRST, then you are likely looking at extreme guardedness and anxiety. The later that the fences are place in the building of the trays, better the person is generally doing.
2. Where are the fences?
If the fences are lining the outside of the tray, it is again often a sign of feelings of being vulnerable and wanting some type of protection. If the fences are only walling off a section of the tray, ask or pay attention to what is placed inside the tray.
Often times, children will have animals inside fences or cages. A VERY helpful question is to ask if the fence is keeping the animals protected or if they are protected from others?
The answer the child gives is a good indication of the purpose of their guardedness- meaning if the walls help them keep harmful people or thoughts outside, this is good to know. However, if they feel that the fences keep their thoughts or self from hurting others, the fences can mean something entirely different (an example would be a kid with OCD- the rituals keep the anxiety at bay.)
3. How far is the spacing between the individual fences?
If the pieces of the fence are all very tightly packed together, it is likely indicative of a higher level of guardedness. The better the client gets, the less likely the fences will be extremely close together.
As the weeks progress, if you are seeing that the space between the fences become farther apart, know you are making progress.
Important note: If you are seeing kids in the sandtray, know that they work much more fluidly in the tray than adults. Often times, as the child makes the world and tells the story, the fences will often come out themselves. If this happens, track it and then make a mental note that some positive progress is being made in therapy. This helps with writing your notes as well!
4. What kind of fences are being placed?
I’ve often had therapists build trays in my trainings using the pretty flower fences and then attempt to brush it off like “it’s just pretty.”
While it may be pretty, a fence is never just a fence.
It’s put there for a purpose. Choosing a “pretty” fence may point to the need for separation while maintaining the appearance of outward tranquility. Again, all of this stuff is grist for the mill within the processing of the tray.
5. What happened when the fences were taken out?
As mentioned, fences will often be removed during the process of telling the story in the tray of a child. However, I’ve also noted that fences will often be removed when I ask this question of an adult towards the end of processing the tray- “When looking at your tray, does anything need to be changed, added, or taken out?”
So many times, clients will automatically go to the fences, either taking them out or moving them farther apart. Every time this happens, I jump for joy a bit because I know we are trekking along our journey towards health and wholeness.
When the client does this, I either make note of this for my chart (again this will help with your charting of sandtray notes) or will process it within the session, saying something like, “Wow, that seems to feel a lot better. Tell me more about you felt as the fences came out.”
This is a prime opportunity for you as a therapist to really connect with your client and highlight the successes reflected in the tray.
Remember, even a small success like moving the fences farther apart, is another step towards the goal of therapy.
Note, reflect, and celebrate this with your client because they likely will not realize it until you help them remember how hard they are working in the tray.