The Many Ways Children Speak Through Art Therapy

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.

-Georgia O’Keeffe

Art is a natural, and indeed a universal means of communication, especially among children. It is a language unto itself; and in the context of art therapy, the artist’s process and his creations are the basis for promoting healing, growth, and new skills, often bypassing the barriers that arise when a child “has no words”. With the support of an art therapist, children with challenges ranging from sensory and other developmental issues, to behavioral, social and emotional concerns, can find significant relief and show positive growth.

Consider, for example, a two and a half year old who struggled with sensory processing issues and would become easily overwhelmed by all of the stimuli in a group setting, from the noise of her peers, to the tactile aspects of the art materials. She had historically avoided touching the paint at all costs and would immediately cry and want to wash it off of her hands if she made any contact with it. On this particular day, six weeks into the group, she was seated at a table with two other little girls who simply reveled, as some toddlers do, in direct contact with the slick, creamy, wet paint. She watched them quietly and intently, all the while refusing to touch her own roller to the paint on her panel. I assured her caregiver that this was enough. What a wonderful opportunity for her to see others getting messy, in a safe, supportive setting where she felt no pressure to do so herself, but could see that they were doing it, and they were OK. As the majority of the children were winding down after a stimulating session of painting and printing-making, I noticed a sweet, repetitive humming melody, and turned around to find our little friend sweeping her hand back and forth through the paint on her panel as she sung a soothing tune to herself. She lingered after the others had cleared the table and cleaned up. In her own time, she had arrived. Two weeks later she spent most of the group time delighting in the new sensation of paint on her hands, all the while repeating the words, “Beautiful hands” as both affirmation and reassurance that all was well.

In contrast to this case where the art materials helped “loosen up” a reluctant child, the art process can also be effective in helping an impulsive child to gain greater control over his behavior and emotions by experiencing the limitations and possibilities offered by the art materials and the impact of his actions upon them. The unique properties of working with real earthenware clay provide vast opportunities for this kind of growth. An exuberant eight year old boy diagnosed with ADHD who seemed to fill a room with his expansive energy and impulsivity found the physicality of working in three-dimensions with this malleable, yet resistant medium highly engaging. He wanted to bring his fascination with large and powerful creatures to life by sculpting a series of dinosaurs. With the support of the art therapist, he learned and executed, over a series of many weeks, the steps to successfully bringing his idea to fruition. This involved creating a solid, balanced structure, attaching limbs and details with the proper procedures to ensure they were secure, carving and hollowing for the firing process, reassembling by carefully etching and reattaching with slip, waiting for the pieces to thoroughly dry, putting them in the kiln for firing, applying glaze and lastly re-firing for the final result. This prolonged step by step process is a beautiful opportunity for practicing self-control, gaining feelings of mastery, and learning to delay gratification. When those finished pieces emerged from the kiln, not only were they a powerful representation of his feelings and wishes that we could safely explore within the context of the metaphor, it was gratifying indeed to have brought this process to fruition with such a tangible reminder of his accomplishments.

Art can also be a powerful tool for supporting and fostering the development of social skills. A group of six kindergartners and first-graders with varying skills, abilities and developmental concerns had a history of being challenging to corral and struggling to sustain interest in an activity due to their varying skill levels and interests. In this case too, the clay had a powerful impact. They were given the open-ended yet concrete directive to each use the clay to create a figure that would be placed in a designated shared space in the center of the table, a world that they would populate with their unique creations. Over a series of sessions, the process unfolded with unwavering investment from the children and vast opportunities for social growth–victories, such as sharing ideas, negotiating over shared space and materials, creating “friends” for their peers’ creatures, or offering technical advice, support or compliments to one another. There were also ample opportunities for learning that emerged out of the challenges that arose–an impulsive reach across the table that knocked over a peer’s piece and broke off a tail led to a teachable moment about taking responsibility for one’s actions and empathy on the one hand, and for practicing forgiveness and resilience on the other. The process continues to unfold, from sculpting, to painting, to creating the details of their shared world.

Often art is truly and simply a safe container for holding thoughts and feelings that are too difficult to express in another way, for any number of reasons whether developmental, emotional, or behavioral. Through metaphor, the language of art allows the internal to become external and therefore witnessed, held, and understood by the art therapist.