03. Art Therapy
In “Child’s Play: How Play Therapy Works,” Casado-Frankel observes that parents often ask about the effectiveness of play therapy as a form of treatment and say, “But it’s just play!” Art therapy often attracts the same question and a similar response—“But it’s just arts and crafts!” Like play therapy is not just “play,” art therapy is not just “arts and crafts” or even its first cousin, the ubiquitous coloring book. And also like play, art created within the context of a therapeutic relationship is intended to help young clients not only to engage in self-exploration, it also involves purposeful meaning-making through specific art making.
Child art therapy is also often confused with play therapy and for many good reasons. Play therapists introduce various art-based activities in their work with children when appropriate; similarly, art therapists who work with children include play activities [toys, puppets, props and games] to supplement art therapy and stimulate children’s creative expression. Art making within the context of therapy is, however, a slightly different experience from play because it encourages the creation of a tangible product in most cases. Art therapists are also in the business of helping children visually express and record experiences, perceptions, feelings and imagination; they capitalize on their vast knowledge of art media and arts-based approaches to enhance young clients’ ability to communicate through creative expression. Here is a brief overview of how and why art therapy “works:”
Non-Verbal, Sensory-Based. By its simplest definition, art expression is a form of non-verbal communication. For children who may not be able to articulate thoughts, sensations, emotions or perceptions, it is one way to convey what may be difficult to express with words. For those who have experienced abuse, it is one way to “tell without talking” when they are unable or afraid to speak about specific events or feelings. It is also a sensory-based approach that allows the children to experience themselves and communicate on multiple levels—visual, tactile, kinesthetic and more—and to not only be heard [talk], but also be seen via images [art].
Growth and Development. Art expressions, particularly drawings, provide useful information on development in children, especially young clients who are 10 years or younger. For example, differences in artistic development can help us understand something about a child’s emotional experiences, cognition and sensory integration —but only up to a point because most of what has been widely published has been derived from largely Western cultures. Despite this challenge, the currently accepted stages of artistic development, especially with younger children, are still generally helpful and add valuable information not always apparent through talk therapy alone.
Self-Regulation. Neurobiology continues to inform mental healthprofessionals about why specific art-based activities, within the context of therapy, may be helpful to children. In particular, certain sensory characteristics of art making seem to be effective in improving mood, sensory integration, and calming the body and mind, especially with children who have experienced traumatic events.
Meaning-Making. Like play therapy, art therapy provides an opportunity to express metaphor through art expression. In fact, one of the strengths of both approaches is their ability to encourage and enhance storytelling and narratives. Storytelling about a drawing, painting, collage or construction does not have to be literal to be therapeutic. In fact, a child who has experienced traumatic events or is challenged by an emotional disorder may only find it possible to generate imaginative stories. With the support and guidance of the therapist, these narratives serve as a way to slowly and safely release disturbing or terrorizing experiences.
therapy is a form of therapy predicated on the belief that artistic expression has the power to help us in healing, in self-esteem or simply in chilling out. It’s unique in that most other forms of therapy rely on language as the foremost mode of communication, whereas art requires something different, something harder to define.
We’re not art therapists, and the techniques below are only suggestions based on practices familiar to the art therapy community. But for those hungry for a creative outlet to relieve the tension that tends to build up this time of year, the practices below may help. They require few materials and no artistic background — in fact, the less art you make, the better. The following suggestions are less about the final product, and more about the transformation that occurs along the way.