Minecraft project update

The primary focus of our Catalyst Minecraft project is to develop a “youth club” style virtual space in which members of our Young People’s Peer Support Group can interact and have fun with each other.

However, we are also keen to explore whether Minecraft’s enormous scope for creativity could be used as a way of delivering sandbox therapy by CancerCare’s team of expert children’s counsellors who use play therapy to help younger children affected by bereavement or serious illness within their families.

Sand tray therapy is a combination of play therapy and art therapy. The specially-trained therapist provides the child with a tray filled with sand and a variety of toys to create their own unique play world. Toys may include anything from action figures, animals and dinosaurs to building blocks and cars.  Water and items from the natural world such as twigs, shells and pebbles are also common.

The child then chooses which toys to play with and arranges them in the tray in any way they want while the therapist acts as an observer, rarely interrupting. The theory being they will create a world that represents their internal struggles or emotions and, afterwards, the therapist can interpret what has unfolded—the toys they chose, how they were arranged, and any resulting metaphorical meanings.

Essentially, what happens is the child begins to tell their story through the sand using the objects and figures.

Symbolism is a vital part of the process. For example, animals are important for channelling instinctual energies.  Different ones can represent different things including anger, sadness, depression, shock, denial, courage, strength and nurturing.

Similarly, toy cars can symbolise power and a submerged car can show feelings of powerlessness. Shells can represent a very feminine energy while wood can mean growth and grounding.

Given the almost limitless creative possibilities within Minecraft, in which people can build anything from a simple shack to a whole city, it is not difficult to see how it could be used to replicate a play therapy session.

Initially, some CancerCare therapists expressed reservations about losing the face-to-face environment as it allows the child a secure “safe space” in which they feel relaxed and which allows the therapist to pick up on visual cues and body language. However, many of therapists were also curious to see how using such a malleable and infinitely creative digital tool could enhance their work and benefit the children they help.

One therapist described a session she had with a little boy.

“I remember him playing out the story of a journey using lots of figures and animals. It was very imaginative and included a battle and natural disasters, such as a sandstorm and a tidal wave, which was indicative of the trauma he was experiencing himself. At the end he had constructed a pathway through the sand that had sent some of his figures on a journey to rescue others from a very turbulent and dramatic part of the tray, through trees and to a very calm, flat piece of sand. This could have meant resurrection, possibility and new growth.”

This could have been easily created within Minecraft and the child would not have been constrained by only being able to use the toys at hand, he could have added anything in that he could have imagined.

The mechanics of how it might work are still very much in their early stages with questions still to be answered such as “would the platform need to have a ready-made suite of toys or would the child create them?” and “would the therapist and child need to be together in the same room or could they work remotely?”

This process of discovery is every bit as exciting as the prospect of playing in the finished CancerCare World!




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