Therapeutic Art for children and their families

“Art reflects a time of intense curiosity and imagination that occurs prior to learning to read, write and perform competitively.” (Shore, 2013).  


In this blog I am going to look at the value of art for children’s development and expression. Art making is one of the earliest forms of curiosity children develop. Scribbling, colouring and drawing helps the child understand themselves and the world around them. It helps them identify external objects in a way that allows them to become familiar and understand them, for example a small child is told the house pet is called a cat and is told it’s name - the child may make a drawing of a cat, then identify the cat they have drawn by the cat’s name. The process and image of the drawing has allowed the child to make sense of the cat and familiarise themselves with the cat having a name separate from any other cat. Most of all the child has satisfied their curiosity and knowledge of the cat and developed their own understanding of it. 


As children develop they have many additional demands like school work, friends perhaps other stressors to deal with. It can be helpful for the child to find activities that help them relax or burn off extra energy, sometimes it can be helpful to turn to art making if the child enjoys this. Art is evidenced as having therapeutic benefits to aid relaxation (Choi et al. 2022). In this blog I will look at some ideas for what children and their carers might like to do to help the child experience positive self expression and mindfulness (Zabelina et al. 2020).


Before beginning I would like to look at how we prepare for art making. It isn’t important to have expensive materials or lots of space, art can be made with basic materials and in many ways. For therapeutic art it is important how art is viewed, that is something which is worthwhile and that the time spent doing it is worthwhile, it doesn’t need to be perfect or be a good likeness of something just as long as the child enjoyed making it. 


If the child wants to spend time alone making art this is fine but it might also be that the child would engage collaboratively with their parent or carer in which case you could work together or side by side. Whatever the child’s preference is it is important that the parent or carer is involved in the beginning and the end, this can be through being encouraging, showing interest, helping to source and arrange materials and showing interest in the end result. Remember it doesn’t matter what the result looks like for therapeutic art so you might want to praise the effort that has gone in or comment on the colours and shapes. 


Some ideas for art making:


Ideas for art making don’t have to be elaborate, one of the earliest and most straightforward ways of making art is using a sheet of paper and a coloured crayon (or more if you wish), a stick in a paint pot or using fingers and scribble. Benefits include free expression, improvement of motor skills and use of imagination. Different ‘loops’ inside the scribble could be coloured or cut out and coloured tissue paper stuck behind them to look at the shapes differently. 


Making or drawing a ‘safe place’ or a ‘me place’ can be a good way for the child to be curious about what makes them feel safe, this could involve actually making a place - a corner of their bedroom that they might want to decorate with their art or it might be a safe or relaxing place for thinking about things. Drawing or making the safe place will allow the child to see how they perceive feeling safe visually.


Paint a dream! - paint or draw or make a dream from falling asleep to having a nice dream. Think of the colours and the feelings of being in a nice dream, was it peaceful? Exciting? Did it tell a story? 


Draw or make a genie in a bottle - can be simple using crayons and paper or can be elaborate using an emply bottle, play doh, paper mache. The bottle can be decorated outside and drawings, thoughts and ideas can be put inside or on the outside. Think about the genie coming out of the bottle and granting three wishes. 


Make a feelings map! You can use paper, card, paint, fabrics, stickers etc. Draw the outline around the child or draw an outline of a gingerbread figure and ask them to make lots of different shapes and drawings. These will be used to stick onto the feelings map. Ask them to complete the map by sticking the different art pieces on the outline and where they think they go best. You might even want to think about what are big feelings and which are small ones and whereabouts does your child feel they are and where they would like them to be.


Connect with nature! Take your art outdoors, take some art materials to the beach or the park, draw or scribble the colours, use all your senses, what can I hear?  what can I see?  what can I touch? What can I taste? What can I smell? 

Collect shells, leaves, twigs, sand and use these in the art works. 


The most important thing with therapeutic art is to have fun doing it! If you feel that there are feelings which are distressing your child from the art work it is better not to pursue the activity but to reassure your child that they are loved and safe. 


Shore, A. (2013). The Practitioner's Guide to Child Art Therapy: Fostering Creativity and Relational Growth." Routledge, New York.

Zabelina, D.L., White, R.A., Tobin, A. et al. The Role of Mindfulness in Viewing and Making Art in Children and Adults. Mindfulness 11, 2604–2612 (2020).