Art therapy is a proven way of helping children express and process their feelings. But art therapy is also commonly misunderstood. Although in recent years coloring books and activities for all ages have gained in popularity as a self-soothing or mindfulness tool, none of these activities would qualify as art therapy in its clinical definition. These may be helpful to some, but without the skilled guidance of a therapist, they’re just self-help tools.
So what exactly is art therapy? In this post, we tackle that question along with the benefits of art therapy. To wrap things up, we showcase a curated list of some of the most interesting and innovative art therapy techniques in use today.
What Is Art Therapy?
Art therapy uses artistic expression as a tool to achieve specific therapeutic outcomes. By providing a safe space for children to overcome emotional or psychological obstacles, art therapy serves as a springboard for children to increase their own self-awareness. Children can explore challenging thoughts and feelings in an indirect, non-threatening way. Similarly, art therapy provides space to process past trauma or work through unresolved conflict. Art therapy is a valuable tool to help children overcome difficult emotions and psychological challenges in order to experience a greater sense of wellbeing. It’s most often used in combination with talk therapy.
Benefits of Art Therapy
The benefits of art therapy are many. One of the main ways art therapy is used is to improve social functioning, reducing conflict and enhancing social skills. It’s also been shown to boost self-esteem. This unique intersection of art and therapy also helps to strengthen cognitive functions and boost sensory-motor integration. Lastly, the creative, abstract nature of art therapy can promote a deeper sense of self-awareness and to provide a greater level of insight that would be difficult to achieve with a child using talk therapy alone.
Child Art Therapy Ideas
As you might imagine, art therapy techniques are creative and diverse. Below is a sampler of some of our favorites. They’re unique, simple to implement, and can be easily tweaked to target specific issues you want to address during the session.
- “Words to Live By” Collage — This art collage technique helps older children and young teens struggling with defining their true identity and values. Teens often feel immense pressure to conform to what they perceive to be expected peer norms, often resulting in the suppression of their true selves. This activity helps them to identify and express who they really are. After contemplating their core values, they create a “Words to Live By” collage. Using cut-out words and images from magazines, newspapers, and other print media, they assemble a collage that represents the core values that define them as a person.
- Postcards — This activity seeks to provide space for children to open up to their thoughts and emotions around a person or circumstance that’s caused them pain. With this project, you give the child a blank postcard and invite them to draw a picture to represent how they feel on the front of the card and write what they would say to that person about the situation if they could on the back.
- Draw Your Feelings — Images often allow us to communicate in ways that are simpler and more direct than words. With this activity, you invite the child to draw how they feel. The subject matter, color choices, and the way the picture is drawn is completely up to the child. What you observe as a therapist in this activity can provide valuable insights into the child’s thinking and emotional state that they may find difficult to express with words.
- Create a Family Sculpture — This fun project involves the child creating representations of their immediate family using modeling clay. The emphasis isn’t on creating lifelike images. Rather, you instruct the child to create a model of each family member based on their personality traits and the roles they play within the family. After each family member has been created, you invite the child to arrange each model on the table based on their relationships to other family members. This step gives you insights into the family dynamics at work in the child’s home setting.
- The Softness Project — The sense of touch allows children the ability to soothe and calm themselves with comforting textures. With this technique, children use scraps of fabrics and other soft material to create a soft, comforting collage on a piece of cardboard or thick paper backing. This activity works equally well in an individual or group therapy setting.
- Mask Making — The mask-making activity offers children an opportunity to explore their various personas. This activity can work in different ways. You could ask the child to create a mask that represents a part of themselves that they feel uncomfortable with, or one that represents a part of themselves that other people don’t understand, or one that represents a persona they present to the world that doesn’t feel true. Allowing the child to create a mask during the session provides a means to explore hidden aspects of themselves that they either choose to suppress beneath the surface or public representations of themselves that may not feel genuine.
- Group Art — Group art is at the intersection of group therapy and art therapy. This technique involves a group of children working together to collectively create a piece of art. Creating a larger work like a poster or banner gives everyone a chance to contribute, while practicing social skills. This type of intervention involves members negotiating, collaborating, and sharing their thoughts and feelings about the piece as they work together to bring it to life.
- Mandala Drawing — The mandala, a Sanskrit word for “sacred circle” is the backdrop for this soothing technique that involves the child creating and coloring in their own mandala. The circular forms and wide range of creative expression on offer with this type of drawing and coloring can create a relaxed, meditative setting that serves as a safe space to explore feelings and seek insights.
Art therapy is an engaging tool for helping children who struggle with emotional, behavioral, and other psychological challenges. Using art therapy, you can lead children on a journey of increased self-awareness of feelings and emotions, lessen the effects of past trauma, and unlock insights that would be difficult to access through talk therapy alone. And if that wasn’t enough, art therapy techniques are some of the most fun and creative interventions in the field of child therapy!
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