Sandtray Play at Ennis National School

By Anne & Padraig (Resource Teachers supporting the Sandtray Play project)

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Introduction to Sandtray Play
In March 2015 a team of three Special Education teachers – Anne, Liz and Padraig- from Ennis National Primary School, County Clare, Ireland arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland to participate in an Erasmus study based on Sandtray play led by Kristin Unsteindottir in Artunsskoli, Reykjavik. 

The title of the proposed study was “The impact of sandplay and storytelling on children‘s learning and emotional-behavioural development”.

During Kristin’s presentation, we were introduced to the many benefits of using sandtray play -whether to enhance learning in mainstream classrooms and special settings in primary schools or its usefulness as a successful tool in therapeutic settings. 

Since our team’s focus was special education settings, we were delighted to be able to visit Kristin’s classrooms in Artunsskoli School, Reykjavik, where we learned how to implement and resource sandtray play in school settings. Her extensive experience over fifteen years in Sandtray Play was awesome and so we decided to try and replicate at least some of her experiences in our special classrooms back home in County Clare. 

Setting up a Sandtray Play Room
Trolley2traysWe returned to our school with lots of new information and ideas. We discussed with our colleagues the potential benefits of sandplay; we met with school management and located a spare room that we could use for sandtray play sessions as part of our school timetable. We also met with our school therapist Siobhan who kindly provided us with helpful instructions on the process of sandtray play sessions. This was indeed a good beginning for introducing sand play into our school. We organised the constructions of sandtrays, sourced suitable furniture and shelving, arranged miniature collections and purchased other essential pieces to use in the sandtrays. 

During school year 2015-16, we started to introduce Sandtray play sessions into a special education setting. A quiet room had been located, a schedule for its use drawn up and we had acquired three sand trays.
First we selected a group of special education pupils with a variety of needs such as language deficits or emotional/ behavioural problems. The selection criterion uppermost in our minds was that the cohort group would derive most benefit from sand play. 

We decided to start with ten sand play sessions for each pupil in our newly furbished Sandtray play room. An initial debate had centred round whether we ought to incorporate the sand trays into our resource classrooms or set up a dedicated room complete with sand trays and miniatures in one location. Having a dedicated room with everything in place won hands down!

At the conclusion of each Sandtray play session, we listened to the stories created in the tray, recorded them when possible, then took pictures of each pupil’s creation to be used later to create a visual document written by hand or typed on computer. Afterwards, the children’s stories were put on a display.

Literacy Progress
We soon discovered that all pupils looked forward to Sandtray play sessions and were willing to relate the story of their tray at the end. The child’s imagination is fired when immersed in the world of sand and miniatures, assisting the flow of oral expression, and enhancing progress in literacy skills when drawing or writing about their creation as well. 

Liz took small groups of three students together for Literacy sessions from Senior classes. They worked on their trays and afterwards wrote the story of their tray on the computer. A display of their stories and digital images went up on the noticeboard soon after. Padraig and Anne also worked with students who had Language problems from the Junior school though often they attended in a smaller group of two or individually. 

Emotional & Behavioural Difficulties
Sandtray sessions were especially beneficial for students displaying social and emotional difficulties. Such children can escape into an interior world for the duration of the session, begin to de-stress and release innate creativity. This immersion seems to have a powerful influence on their emotional stability, calming and relaxing them. 

More often than not, such children return to their classrooms in a positive frame of mind. They are then much more likely to engage with the work of the classroom for the remainder of the school day. 

Since we found Sandtray play sessions so beneficial to our students with special needs, we continued to use them as a teaching tool well beyond the scope of the study, actually going forward to incorporate Sandtray play into our school schedule as part of pupil programmes for improving Literacy skills and supporting those with social, emotional and behavioural problems.

Progress in 2016-17
In the past school year 2016-17 we have made some changes to upgrade the Sandtray play room - an increase in the number of sandtrays, display units and miniatures to facilitate larger groups of students so that all pupils in the group can work simultaneously. We hope this change will provide scope for larger groups developing literacy skills or for those involved in project work whether in mainstream or special needs settings in the school. 

Sandtray play became an integrated part of our Special Education Programme delivery during the 2015-16 school years in Ennis National school, Ireland. Our Special Education caseloads during the year allowed us to combine Sandtray play and imagination to promote literacy skills among the junior students. More importantly, it readily assisted children with social and emotional difficulties to become confident and make progress socially and academically. Padraig’s caseload this year continued much like last year and so Sandtray play was an important part of his programme. Here is his report about how he has used Sandtray play in a special education setting to enhance student’s learning.

Using Sandtray play with my Pupils (Padraig Kelly)
For this academic year 2016-2017 I am using Sandtray play with four different pupils-three boys and one girl. One boy (Pupil A) has met the criteria for ASD/ Speech & Language Deficit, another (Pupil B) has a Specific Speech & Language Deficit and the third boy (Pupil C) has Social, Emotional & Behaviour Disorder combined with Speech and Language difficulties. The girl (Pupil D) has EBD and some language difficulties. Generally I take the pupils to the Sandtray play room individually but on occasion I have taken them in groups of two to enhance socialisation and cooperative skills. Pupil C has severe behavioural issues and can change from being very compliant to being completely oppositional in an instant. He is unable to follow the curriculum associated with his class and his programme of work has to be differentiated accordingly. He has an adequate grasp of the English language but has difficulties with regard to grammar and articulation.

I find Sandtray play very useful for him as a means of developing his language whereby he creates a world and tells me his story. If he wants me to I record the story, read it for him and get him to repeat it clearly line by line while correcting any mispronunciations he may have made and suggesting alternative vocabulary that he might use. Sometimes he will write part of the story with my assistance. While he is reluctant to read from readers/storybooks or to retell stories that I read to him he is very enthusiastic about retelling the stories he has created about his own Sandtray Play ‘worlds’.

In addition, Sandtray play is a vital tool for helping this pupil to regulate his behaviour. There have been several occasions where he has arrived at my classroom in a very distressed state. This is sometimes due to his reluctance to complete his work in class or maybe because of an issue on the yard. As soon as I inform him that we will be going to the Sandtray play room his demeanour often changes and he starts to behave in a more acceptable way. On reaching the room he starts to interact with the miniatures and the sand and the distress which manifested earlier decreases noticeably. The recurring theme in his stories centres on action figures and plots from science fiction movies that he has watched. In general, when this pupil returns to his class after Sandtray play he is much more likely to complete the tasks that have been set for him. I cannot reiterate enough how important this method of teaching is in the life of this child and his Resource Teacher!

The other pupils attending Sandtray play presented with varying speech/language issues such as expressive and receptive deficits, weak grammar/ articulation/ processing. They also it find it difficult to remain focused on completing tasks while one of struggles with following school rules and procedures. For pupils such as these, I use Sandtray play as a basis for creative storytelling/ story writing and relaxation. Sometimes before the child commences creating a ‘world’ he/she is asked to sit quietly for a few minutes to relax and contemplate the story.

When the child is ready he/she can then start creating a ‘world’. At times I will record parts of the story as the child is at work at the tray if he/she is narrating it and other times I will record the whole story at the end of the session. The child will then do the first draft of the story as I call it out without giving any hints with spellings, grammar, language, plot etc. At a follow up teaching session all the aforementioned aspects of the story are discussed, advice is given on how to improve, more appropriate vocabulary is suggested and a more polished piece of story writing is completed.

I have certainly noticed an improvement in the quality of the written work produced by these pupils. I have no doubt but that the use of Sandtray play helps these pupils to structure their stories much better and to use their imaginations and experiences in a very creative way.

On other occasions I bring the child who has behavioural difficulties to the Sandtray play room and while she is immersed in creating a ‘world’ we talk about the desired behaviours which are expected in the school and how she can improve in this area. Over the course of the academic year there has been an improvement in this child’s behaviour and I am certain that Sandtray play has had an impact on this positive outcome.

(Padraig contributed this report at the final Seminar in Bucharest in May 2017. Padraig and Anne co-presented with Kristen, contributing an account of their experience of setting up sandtray play in a special education setting)

Final Words
This then, is where we have arrived having integrated Sandtray play as part of our special education programme in a Primary School. We are happy with the progress our pupils have achieved and we commend Kristin’s wonderful work which she has done over many years to help children reach their potential with a successful educational tool called Sandtray play.

It is now up to us to disseminate her findings among teaching colleagues far and wide.

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