This article is written in partnership with Olander Earthworks. Their hand-crafted Wonderscapes place beauty, calm, and emotional regulation in the palms of our hands. Even sandtray therapists use them in their practices (and in their homes). We’re honored to work with them. ~ed.
What is it about sand that’s so damn delightful?
We spend hours in the sandbox as children, needing to be literally pulled from the pits when it’s time to go home.
We write our names in it while at the beach, or perhaps slip our hands or toes beneath a gritty, crumbling blanket of it, digging them deeper as we watch the waves crawl up and smooth the shoreline, erasing tiny, avian footprints.
We watch as people slice through mounded shapes of tactile sand, and listen to its oddly satisfying crunch as the hairs on our arms, neck, and scalp raise in response.
It’s pretty safe to say that sand is captivating—magical even. It’s just all-around good for our souls.
So, then, would it be any surprise if I told you that it’s also clinically proven to be therapeutic?
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Andrew and Sarah Lonnquist have crafted a living of playing with sand. Their family business. Olander Earthworks, started by Andrew in 2008, creates hand-crafted, original textured concrete sand spheres and wooden sand trays and that allow us to tap into a matured version of our childhood fascination with the glorious, grainy stuff.
And while the husband-and-wife duo and their small team of artisans set out making their sculptural objects as a form of artistic expression for others to both feature as décor in their homes and enjoy as a creative and relaxing pass-time, their Wonderscapes quickly became a tool that therapists began reaching for.
The Healing Power of Playing with Sand
Sandtray therapy is a combination of play and art therapy where people use a tray or box filled with sand and tools to create or display different life scenarios. It’s been shown to help with ADHD, anger management, anxiety and autism spectrum disorders, depression, grief, loss, and other trauma, as well as a slew of other mental health conditions (1).
So, it would seem that not only is sand fun, but also a powerful healing tool that can be used for all ages.
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According to Licensed Psychological Examiner-Independent, Amy Flaherty, “Sandtray therapy is an excellent way to bring out emotions and stories that are not able to be brought up into consciousness through words alone.” (2)
In her own practice, Wonderscapes are used in almost every adult session as a regulation tool while doing talk therapy. That’s particularly the case when treatment first begins.
If you’ve ever had a therapy session, chances are that you know the awkward feelings that can bubble up when speaking vulnerably with someone new for the very first time. That’s when Amy finds the trays are used the most.
When we’re apprehensive and unsure as to what to say or do, Amy explains, putting our hands in the sand and using a tool like the Wonderscape allows for a feeling of calm and regulation so that we can feel safe enough to express our difficult emotions.
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And from a neurological perspective, sand trays like the Wonderscape deepen the effects of healing trauma and emotional wounds by using the whole brain rather than just one part of it:
Because we primarily use the left-brain when speaking and using logic, using our right brain allows for the real stuff (which is often trauma-related) to be brought up and discussed.
This is an effect that Dr. Rosalind (Roz) Heiko PhD, CST-T, an Olander Earthworks enthusiast, has seen first hand (3). Asked to describe a time she’s seen the efficacy of Wonderscapes in motion, she shared a memory of one of her female clients having worked through a wound in her relationship with her father using a specific sphere:
“As she rolled and pressed the Flowers sphere in the sand, the client paused, head cocked. She began to speak about a time with her father where they planted veggies and flowers like marigolds to protect the young plants from aphids. She remembered how carefully they worked together, easily protecting the seedlings. This memory of a wonderfully connected time with her father provided needed healing for that bond.” ~ Dr. Rosalind (Roz) Heiko PhD, CST-T
It’s like squeezing a stress therapy ball, only different.
I’m an anxious person. I always find something to worry about. I’m working on this, and slowly but surely, I’m making progress to give my perfectionistic ways some slack.
But on the days when I’m the most up-tight and self-critical? Well, my go-tos for letting go are fidgeting with the fringe of a scarf and winding them into balls between my fingertips, or coloring. If you’re anxious, you probably have your own, similar thing; we seek anything to slow our minds.
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For me, it’s the repetitive motion of making small circles with my fingers that zens me out; it’s the same with the precise back-and-forth motion in my wrist, and the synchronized movement of my eyes as I drag a colored marker across a white speck of page.
Using an Olander Earthworks sand table is kind of like that, melded with all the magic of playing with sand at the beach.
In fact, their sand tables are called Wonderscapes because of the way they tap into multiple senses to help us really escape into the wonder of creation. The premium materials and craftsmanship incorporated in each design handmade by Andrew heightens the satisfaction.
Scientifically, when we look at a beautiful interior, we activate our ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is part of the brain’s reward system. One factor that weighs heavily on the quality of that activation is fascination, or how interesting the room is (4).
Fascination, and therefore reward, is certainly heightened when we interact with a Wonderscape.
Maybe our eye trails along the grain visible along the Baltic Birch tray and scuttles across the smooth surface of sand before settling on the deep craters of a pigmented concrete sphere. That’s just the surface-most visual interaction that we get when we see a Wonderscape on our table.
When we reach out and touch the sphere and roll it across the sand’s surface, we feel the grains move beneath the pressure of our touch. We feel the texture of the sphere against our palm, rolling and massaging out the tension of the day.
We hear the sand tingle and pop between the earthen sphere and the wood below as we literally feel through our palm what we are hearing.
All the while, the smooth surface of the sand bed begins to reveal the finely detailed imprints of the sphere displayed sharply by the geometric structure of crystalline quartz sand grains.
And just like that, our troubles melt away.
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Creating a Wonderscape of Wellness in your Home
While sandtrays are beneficial for our mental health from a clinical perspective, they’re also good for everyday use in our homes.
As I go through life healing from childhood abandonment and other trauma, I’m defining more and more who I am outside of my trauma-induced people-pleasing and perfectionism. As I do, I find myself turning toward creative expression—particularly in my home.
I want to transition from the objects in my home being cheap and primarily meant to portray a certain image of how I’d like to be perceived, to objects that have a purpose, an attached meaning, and evoke a sense of play when visitors come to town.
Olander Earthworks’ Wonderscapes definitely fit that bill. They’re the perfect mix of where I’m at in life—striving to blend mental wellness with an expressive flair.
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And just as they’re helpful in a clinical environment, Wonderscapes are literally pretty helpful when at home.
You know those times when you’re feeling overwhelmed, agitated, anxious, or unsure? That’s a good time to turn to a Wonderscape. As Amy explains, when we get our hands on a sphere and press it into the tray, “more of the difficult parts of the story can be discussed without becoming dysregulated or falling apart.”
That sounds like the perfect place to dissolve the pressure of a long day’s work, resolve a lover’s quarrel, or even just relax into the space that is “home.” That’s something that Dr. Roz agrees with wholeheartedly.
“Not only do I have a Wonderscape at my office, but I have one in my home. It resides in the living room and guests as well as our family enjoy the feeling of rolling the spheres in the sand, making interesting shapes and trails, and erasing them to make them again. The comforting calm that settles over folks as they work the sand brings a smile to my heart.” Dr. Rosalind (Roz) Heiko PhD, CST-T
Another Wonderscape resides on the kitchen counter in a sheltered spot at Dr. Roz’s daughter’s house in her special needs community. There, she says, the residents and staff enjoy the relaxing benefits of the sand and spheres.
And of course, she’s also bought Wonderscapes for friends and work colleagues, to mark special occasions, like weddings and birthdays.
So, whether we’re seeking something purely pleasing to look at in the home, or are looking for a tool to help us, or our loved ones, with regulating our emotions in an ever-faster, more confusing, and overwhelming world, Olander Earthworks provides just the space we’re looking for.
After all, couldn’t we all do with just a little more grounding wonder in our most treasured inner worlds: our home and mind?
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