Academic journal article American Journal of Play


Academic journal article American Journal of Play


Article excerpt

SAND IS THE PERFECT PLAYTHING for humans; we are lucky there is so much of it. Dry sand, whether wild on a beach or tamed in a sandbox, has a sensuous feel, especially when warmed by the sun. Add water and the wet sand lends itself to shaping, constructing. On the wettest extreme is mud, usually dark, full of organic matter, often redolent with the earthy, fecund smells of a primordial ooze. Dry sand can feel clean; wet sand can feel clean but clingy; mud feels dirty. What better material is there for creating complex symbolizations of the body, of "clean" and "dirty" as fruitful categories for our thinking about purity and pollution, about good and evil (Douglas 1966; Babcock-Abrahams 1975)?

Playing with sand in its various states is so universal that the play has become nearly invisible to us, so taken-for-granted that it bumps up against what Brian Sutton-Smith (1970) called the "triviality barrier" of children's play. Of course, it is the invisible power of play and culture that we should hurry to examine. So, while I describe and categorize here play with sand and mud, I have a more serious, nontrivial analysis in mind. Hence my title, "sandwork," echoing Freud's "dreamwork" (1965) and "jokework" (1960), his words for the processes by which the mind takes repressed material, displaces it, and brings it back to the surface in a disguised form, including dreams, jokes, and other manifestations. It turns out that sand and mud provide perfect material for using play to address some of the social and psychological anxieties that plague individuals.

Doubtless every reader has played with sand or mud at one time or another. Those experiences help me communicate playing with sand that I cannot express satisfactorily with words. I rely here on the reader's experiences and my own, as a player and as an observer of others' play. I grew up in Miami Beach, Florida, a mile from the Atlantic Ocean. More recently, every summer for many years now, my family has spent weeks at a beach house rental in Santa Cruz, California, and at least once a day I take long walks on the beach observing, jotting down notes, and snapping an occasional photograph. I also have a number of photographs of individuals playing in sand and mud. Some are recent, and some are vintage.

Most children seem to be drawn naturally to playing with sand, while adults tend to view beaches (for example) as sites for leisure activity, from simple sunbathing to beach volleyball, more play on sand than with sand. Adults with children, however, often join the young ones in digging and building structures in the sand, and (as we shall see) some young adults delight as much as children do at playing in the mud.

Let me begin with discussions of these three states of sand and the play common in each-dry sand, wet sand, and mud.

Dry Sand

Play with dry sand is a very sensual experience, and, in part, the sensory qualities of sand provide the basis for its use in therapy and education. Margaret Lowenfeld, a British pediatrician and child psychiatrist, began using play with figures on trays of sand in her practice as early as 1928. Recalling H. G. Wells's Floor Games (1911) and the pleasures he reported of creating miniature play worlds with figures and blocks, Lowenfeld in her clinical work with children used a sand play box she called her "Wonder Box."

She called her method the World Technique. Carl Jung saw the technique demonstrated at a conference in Paris in 1937 and recognized its potential for the psychoanalysis of children (Bowyer 1970). The 1940s and 1950s saw the widespread development of the World Technique and variations of it as diagnostic tools in working with children. Soon child psychiatrists and devel- opmental psychologists employed sand play as a therapeutic tool, especially for Jungian approaches to the symbolic play of children (Kalff 2004; Bradway 2006).

Beyond the Jungian depth psychology, other developmental theories recognize the therapeutic and developmental values of sand play. …

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