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The Symbol Series: Practice to Build Skills with Amplification

With Dee Preston-Dillon, M.A., Ph.D.

Dear Colleagues,

The purpose of this series is to practice clinical reflection, explore potential meanings for symbols across cultures, and develop skills for amplification in clinical engagement. We hope the series is both relaxing and educational. Our audience is you, clinicians who use symbols in sand, including Sandplay therapists, Narrative Sand Therapy specialists, and Sand Tray play therapists.

Any object becomes a symbol when an individual projects their perception of meaning onto the object. We should consider idiosyncratic meaning as well as cultural, familial, historic, and the physical reality of the object. For example, in nature a sea shell was once the home of a sea creature. Symbolically, a sea shell might represent an individual’s home town near the sea, or developmental life stages, or fragility, vulnerability in life, or leaving one’s home as the sea creature once left its home.

Primacy of the Individual

There are hundreds of meanings for any one object. In therapy we prioritize meaning described by the client. During clinical work the therapist avoids a narrow interpretation that any particular symbol has one meaning. Instead, therapists stay open to wonder about the figure in the client’s sand scene; listening carefully to the client’s story and their meaning, holding an open mind for potential meanings beyond the therapist’s experience. Our task is to study symbols from many cultures, historical relevance, and the original purpose or natural habitat. The aim is to build a rich, diverse language of symbols to extend our understanding of symbols in sand. We develop a vocabulary to see beyond concrete meaning and past therapists’ personal projections.

Problem with Symbol Meaning: Concretizing and Reifying

There are two main problems with the use of symbols in clinical work. When a therapist concretizes a symbol as if it were a real thing, having one meaning; the therapist confines their perception and understanding of the symbol with little to no regard for potential layers of meaning. When we concretize a symbol, we see the object not reflective of many meanings, but instead as a narrow idea that conforms to our personal perception or that stated by the client. For example, when a therapist sees a figure in a sand scene and interprets the figure as a specific psychological idea, a specific archetype. Or, when an everyday object, such as a soldier or car or tree is viewed solely as representing the actual object.

Similarly, when a therapist reifies a symbol, they are thinking of the object as representing a typical or actual experience of the client. For example, a sand scene seems to have many figures fighting, buried, piled up and the therapist’s perception is that the scene is chaotic, and hence, that the client’s thinking or emotional experience is in chaos. Narrow associations may be made directly to the client's situation.

Practice every week:

Locate any object you could hold in your hand, at home or in your yard, or at work, anything small from anywhere. Turn your focus on the object. Pause, don’t rush, examine the object for details and ask yourself what possible meaning this object has for you. What is its natural function or purpose? How might you use the object in a completely surprising way? Turn to your creative imagination, how might the object serve some other function beyond its purpose? Even consider fantasy, how might the object contain some super power or have significance for your family or ancestors or a special group like children or elders? If you were to create a story with the object as the central figure, what story would you tell? What about a poem to the object? As you focus your attention on the object, build associations, the object gathers meaning and is now a symbol. Your imagination enhances meaning through whatever associations you decide are relevant. Build knowledge about the object from several resources such as dictionaries, history and culturally informed internet sources.


There are many questions we can use to stimulate associations and develop our language of symbols. Select one or two questions below for your reflection. Select a reflection or brief imaginary tale related to the narcissus flower and share with us here. Even if you don’t share with us enjoy the process of discover between symbols, the associations we make, and personal meaning.

  1. What associations do you have for the narcissus flower?

  2. Create a brief story with the flower as an important element. What if the flower were animated and seeking something it had lost? What is the flower’s life situation? What did it loose? What does it want from you?

  3. What if there were only one narcissus left in a field, found by a child, create a story to help us understand about the relationship between the child and the flower. What might the flower tell the child?

  4. What if the flower suddenly showed up in your yard or on your window out of season? If you could tell the flower, like a good listening friend, a story about yourself, what would you like the flower to know about you (keep this private)? What about the physical characteristics of the flower reflect characteristics about you? What qualities of the flower make it a good listening friend to hold your story?

  5. Imagine that you have a special narcissus flower, if you were to gift the flower to someone – past, present or future -- who would you want to give the flower to and what message for joy, care and compassion would the flower carry with it?