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Blog post Part of special issue: The future of educational research in Wales

Drawing a line in the sand: Reflective practice using ‘sandboxing’ with HE students

Claire Pescott Eleri John

The ability to reflect in and on practice (Schön, 1983; 1991) is an integral professional skill within the field of education. This metacognitive process develops effective practitioners and promotes a network of self-constructed, interconnected understandings: theory to practice. However, as this process is not always tacit in nature it requires explicit teaching and embedding in the HE curriculum, which can prove challenging. This process has been facilitated by recent changes in HE that have supported a move towards constructivist teaching.

The adoption of dialogic, student-focussed approaches is more suitable for teaching the art of reflection. Despite this, the enactment of such reflective practices in higher education varies considerably from the use of blogs, diary entries, structured scaffolds and focussed cyclical questioning (Kolb, 1984; Boud et al, 1985; Gibbs, 1988). A variety of these aforementioned reflective tools were utilised on the BA (Hons) early years education and practice degree programme at the University of South Wales. As a result, the students’ reflections were overly formalised, constrained and formulaic in nature, meaning the reflective process lost its authenticity and became a chore. Therefore, a more nuanced, innovative method of reflection was adopted in the form of the ‘sandboxing technique.’ It was anticipated that this model would develop a close connection with students’ weekly experiences in placement, as well as developing a tool that could be used across education sectors – from higher education to the early years.

‘The sandboxing technique allows children to “play” through their concerns, issues and learning to make sense of their world.’

The sandboxing technique was developed by Lowenfeld (1967), who recognised that children essentially need to ‘play’ through their concerns, issues and learning to make sense of their world. Using a psychoanalytical, Jung-based approach, this technique continues in play therapy and other therapeutic disciplines to help children reflect on difficult issues or help them articulate their feelings. Utilising a box, tray or other similar receptacle filled with play sand, small toys and objects with the potential to be metaphorical (candles, keys, batteries, coins and so on) are placed to build a tableau representing their world and the opportunity to subsequently explore it narratively (Amas, 2007). Lines in the sand or divisions to represent different areas within the landscape are encouraged to signify time, space and symbolic imagery. This technique is also a visual participatory research method, employed extensively in Mannay’s work (2016) and in this instance as a tool for reflective practice. This research encouraged students to build a metaphorical landscape as part of reflective practice in response to placement within an early years setting. Students relinquish a part of themselves while working with children: they can never truly separate their practice from self, and this has emotional repercussions. Being a reflective practitioner is central to the professions of early years, and this in turn encourages problem-solving skills as well as self-improvement.

Despite implementing a more student-focussed reflective process, there were distinct reservations from the student cohort. The initial feeling was that such a process was immature in nature because of the association of a ‘sand box’ with early years pupils. Furthermore, students initially felt embarrassed and self-conscious during the reflective process, as it was a method they were uncomfortable and unfamiliar with. It was a significant move away from the traditional, formalised academic language of reflection, which resulted in students imposing expectations and restraints on their own reflective processes. As researchers and tutors, it was our role to ensure anonymity, promote engagement and support classroom management in a positive manner, while also acknowledging and addressing the power imbalance our roles created.

The empirical data collected and subsequent themes identified (challenging relationships, professional/personal development and confidence in practice) affected how the ‘professional learning and practice’ modules have been planned for this academic year. Specific activities, scenarios and case studies to support these themes, and more overt opportunities for conflict resolution, have been adopted. Additionally, a sandboxing area has been set up in the base room, encouraging this technique in a more organic way: the opportunity to reflect on practice, work through challenging situations and act out through tableau the complex feelings that sometimes occur when working with young children, without the constraints of a conceptualised, formulaic model.


Amas, D. (2007). ‘We all love playing in the sand! Using sand play therapy in critical reflection with students in practice placement’, Journal of Teaching & Learning, 7 (2), pp.6–24.

Boud, D., Keogh, R. & Walker, D. (Eds.) (1985). Reflection: Turning experience into learning. London: Kogan Page.

Gibbs, G. (1988). Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods, Oxford: Oxford Polytechnic

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs.

Lowenfeld, M. (1967) Understanding Children’s Sandplay. Lowenfeld’s World Technique. Dr Margaret Lowenfeld Trust.

Mannay, D. (2016) Visual, Narrative and Creative Research Methods. Abingdon: Routledge.

Schön, D. A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. London: Temple Smith.

Schön, D. A. (1991) The Reflective Turn: Case Studies In and On Educational Practice, New York: Teachers Press.