Ritam "Sand Play at Transition School"

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February 2005

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Sand Play at Transition School

By Jossy

“The inconscient is an appearance, a dwelling place, an instrument of a secret consciousness or a superconscient which has created the miracle of the universe…Its emergence in our consciousness is the secret aim of evolution and the key to the mystery of our existence.” - Sri Aurobindo, “The Supramental Manifestation upon Earth”

Sand play in Transition School came out of a need to provide children who, for some reasons, could not cope with certain situations either in their classroom or on the playground and became disruptive, with a place where they could have a quiet time for themselves, cool down, and find their inner balance again. The model we had in mind was something like the “silent room” at the Ashram school where children can go when they feel a need for silence. This topic was often brought up in our weekly teachers’ meeting, but with no teacher ready to develop such a project and no space available, it was then really just an idea, just a dream, and at that time we certainly had no idea whatsoever about sand play.

In 1998, after many years as a teacher, I decided to take a sabbatical year, not knowing if I would ever go back to Transition or what would be my next step. I was to learn very quickly!

Sometimes in August I read in the news that Heidi - in my mind it could not have been someone other than Heidi Watts who had been regularly giving workshops to teachers in Auroville - wanted to present some slides about the work she had been doing with children in her school. It sounded very interesting to me and I decided to go to her presentation. As I was soon to discover, this Heidi was not at all the one I was thinking about, but somebody else entirely!

Interested in the work of Mother and Sri Aurobindo, the lady I met in CSR (Centre for Scientific Research) had often come to the Ashram and was living in Switzerland where she was working as a first grade teacher. All of the children she worked with were having learning difficulties and needed a two year period in order to integrate the 2nd grade, and this for various reasons, psychological, as well as sociological. Some came from emigrated families and knew very poor German or no German at all, some had problems learning how to read and write, some were hyperactive children, others extremely asocial and sometimes violent, and some so closed upon themselves that they refused to talk to her and to each other. She worked with groups of twelve students and had developed a special program based on the reading and acting of fairy tales, art, modern mathematics, dance and theater and the daily practice of sand play. After these two years, she said, most of her kids could read and could reintegrate a normal school system; only a very few remained unresponsive and had to go to more specialized schools.

The slides she showed us of the sand boxes done by some of those children were absolutely fascinating, and I felt in a flash of recognition that this was the thing that could best answer our own needs in Transition, and on an even larger scale than what we had envisaged. It could provide children with a non-verbal activity that would help them help themselves in various circumstances; help them cool down if that was what they needed, slow down and get centered if concentration was lacking, or open up if timidity or lack of self confidence was barring them from verbal expression. I thought of how it could help our young Tamil Aurovilians and all the other children just arriving who had to adjust to a system in which everything was taught in English. I could see how it would help release all kinds of negative emotions like aggressiveness or fear. It was suddenly like an open window on a completely new field of research! I also deeply felt that it was what Mother wanted me to do next!

It was not my first encounter with the sand play process. When I first came to Auroville in 1973, I had visited ‘Equals One’, a school in Pondicherry whose initiators were close disciples of Mother and Sri Aurobindo and who used that technique with their students. I remembered having been quite impressed by it at that time. I had also seen a video about the work of Austin, a Jungian, who had been working with youngsters in a capsule on the beach, at the very beginning of Auroville, and again had found it really fascinating. Yet I had never felt it was something I would or could ever do!

Losing no time, I immediately presented this project to Transition and it was well received. I was offered a room that was soon to be vacated, as the children occupying it were to move to a bigger classroom. I also got some funds to create the appropriate environment and to start a ‘miniatures’ collection. It took about a year to get it off the ground and in July '99 we were able to start on this new adventure.

Now, what is sand play?

Sand play is actually just what its name implies; it is playing with sand. It is a tool to getting to the imagination and allowing it to become creative. It is a wonderful instrument which helps create a link between body and psyche, matter and spirit. Our hands act as a mediator between inner images and their expression in the outer world; here the sand tray. It fosters sensitivity to inner images, a condition of relatedness to the inner world, and its concreteness helps create a state of absorption and relaxed concentration. It is a way of objectifying, in the form of symbols, the energy of the unconscious and is very closely related to the method of active imagination developed by Carl Jung.

The aim of sand play is to offer real free play, devoid of rules and in safe circumstances. My role is essentially to create and maintain a “safe place”, physically, as well as psychologically, for this inner process to take place. The sand box is the container, the temenos, the alchemistic vessel in which the transformation of the psyche occurs, and the sand picture can be seen as the garden of one’s soul where the inner and the outer come together. In sand play there is no judgment involved, no good or bad picture. The process is as important as the result. Being done on an individual basis, the child is entirely alone with himself/herself and has nothing to prove, either to me or to his fellow students. I am just there as a companion quietly supporting but never directing.

Once this trust is established contents flow freely. The basic equipment for sand play consists of a rectangular sand tray, 28"x 19", 3" deep, half filled with sand. The inside of the sand tray is painted blue. When a child moves the sand away from an area at the bottom of the tray, he/she gets the impression of blue water. In this way one can create images of a river, lake or ocean. Real water can be used to wet the sand so that it can be moulded or shaped. All kinds of miniatures and small objects are arranged on open shelves, ready to be taken by the child in order for him or her to make a sand picture. These include people of various cultures and occupations as well as fantasy characters out of fairy tales or myths, all kinds of animals, both wild and domesticated, trees, bushes and flowers, houses of different styles, cars, trains, planes, boats, bridges etc and also all kind of natural elements such as stones, shells, sticks, seeds, feathers as well as wooden blocks, cloth, ribbons and all kind of craft material that children may use to make for themselves what they found missing. In short all what they need to create a ‘world’.

Only very basic instructions are given. The child is simply encouraged to create what he or she wishes in the sand tray, and to choose among all the numerous figures the ones that particularly appeal to him/her. He/she is totally free to just work with sand, moulding it in anyway he or she feels, or to shape it into hills and mountains, valleys and rivers, just as he or she perceives the world. The child can also just use the sand as a support for his chosen figures. He/she is totally free to express verbally what comes to his/her mind during the play, or be perfectly silent. Some children work quickly and like to make two and sometimes three sand boxes in a row, while others may take the full hour and some not even finish. Some make it so full that things come on top of each other, some like it very empty or keep changing things all the time; some youngsters often like to play with me.

One limitation children are facing is the size of the sand box, which can be quite frustrating for some of the more expansive natures, but which is of extreme importance for it is symbolic of the limitations that are prerequisite for genuine freedom in the real world. It also allows the child to have a full view of his world at one glance with no need to move his head. Another limitation is the time allotted to them; as this work is done during school hours, I can not keep them for more than an hour. The mere making of the picture seems to have a good effect. Particularly tense children tend to relax, hyperactive ones tend to quiet down, passive children get more alive. Just to work with sand and water can have an incredible effect, especially when emotions are stirred up. Here let me tell you of an experience that taught me a lot in a very short time.

One day a nine year old came to me, sent by his teacher, after a fight on the playground. He was shaking and on the verge of tears. I did not try to know what had happened but offered him to play in a box outside where he could use as much water as he liked. He started to pour buckets after buckets and soon got water overflowing everywhere. Then he played with mud and stones and started to build a very intricate structure. At the end I asked him how he felt. His answer to me was very revealing for he said, with a lot of feeling, “I really enjoyed pouring water, you know, and, as I poured and poured, I could feel all my anger pouring out with it!” In half an hour a boy, absolutely upset and so angry that he could hardly speak, could reintegrate into his classroom and quietly pursue his day.

Of course it is not always as conscious a process and more often children come just to enjoy a playful, intense moment of active imagination and of total personal attention in which what they express is taken with absolute seriousness. After the picture is completed I always ask the child if he/she can tell a story about it, or describe what is happening in the sand box and we engage in verbal communication. The story is never enforced but is very important because it helps one understand better what has been expressed and get closer to the child’s world. Verbalization is also a way to bring contents closer to consciousness. Young children usually love to talk about their pictures and some can weave incredibly vivid stories; older ones, especially young adolescents, are more reflective and may bring in very deep concerns.

A sand picture is never dismantled in the child’s presence (except in extremely rare cases when one strongly requires it). When he or she leaves the room, the picture will be carried inwardly and an imprint is left in his/her mind out of which something new can evolve; very often children remember very well what they have done previously even though they may not come again before two or three months. As they leave the room it is time for me to take one or more pictures, to draw and name carefully what has been done and to file everything under the child’s name with the date so as not to lose track of the child’s work. At the end of their time in Transition, I prepare for each one a small photo album, with stories attached, so that they can share with their parents and friends and keep something of this beautiful work for themselves.

Sand play, as a therapeutic method, originated in England, in the mid twenties, early thirties, by a child psychiatrist, Margaret Lowenfeld. Her method, soon to be known under the name of "World Technique", was practiced at the Institute of Psychology in London. She published a book about it called World Techniques: Play in Childhood in 1935, and said she herself had been inspired by a book “Floor games” written by H.G. Wells and published in 1911. In the mid fifties Dora M. Kalf, who had been studying with Carl Jung at the Jung institute in Zurich for six years, went to a conference held by Dr. Lowenfeld in which she presented her “world techniques.” She was so impressed by it that she moved to London to study and work with her. On her return to Switzerland, she started her own practice with children as a Jungian analyst, and developed her own version of sand play. She started with Jung’s hypothesis that there is a fundamental drive towards wholeness and healing in the human psyche. In the course of her work with children, she recognized the validity of Eric Neuman’s theory on child development and of the various stages he describes. Dora Kalf, herself, proposed three stages of ego development; the animal, vegetative stage; the fighting stage; the adaptation to the collective.

My own experience coincides totally with it. Working with children, age six to fourteen, I am daily confronted with the lush forests, jungles, gardens, with or without animals, of the first stage; the amazing battles, that appear again and again, under endless guises, of the second stage; the well built villages and towns, with all the range of human activity, of the third stage. And this completely independent of the child’s culture for the worlds children are creating, besides some very personal elements related to the child history, are a symbolic expression of the quest for consciousness that is the first and essential drive of all human beings.