Updated: Oct 17, 2020
By Sruthi Radhakrishnan
When I say artist I mean the man who is building things - creating molding
the earth - whether it be the plains of the west - or the iron ore of Penn. It's
all a big game of construction - some with a brush - some with a shovel -
some choose a pen.
— Jackson Pollock, American Painter
Pooja* was seven years old when her parents took her to meet an art therapist. She had always been hyperactive – unable to sit still and concentrate on tasks, constantly fidgeting – the classic symptoms. With some puppets, stories and games, Pooja’s hyperactivity is being well-managed.
If you’re wondering how stories and games are helping manage serious issues like hyperactivity, meet art therapy.
What is art therapy?
Art therapy is the process of introducing therapy through the arts, providing a safe space for expression and working towards therapeutic goals.
From the outside, it can look like any arts and crafts class. In fact, that’s one of the reasons art therapy has been gaining ground in the last few years. What looks like a simple fun activity can, in fact, help people heal.
How can art therapy help children?
One of the biggest problems that children today face is the lack of a safe and articulate way to speak their mind. Art therapy fills this gap by helping them visually express themselves and record experiences. Bengaluru-based art therapist Vasundhara Wadiyar believes that this is a big step towards healing.
After working as an art teacher for eight years at the Prakriya Green Wisdom school, Vasundhara took a course in art therapy and has been in this field since then. Art therapy is all about “observing and building a rapport with the client and create a safe non-judgmental space,” says Vasundhara.
She, and many other art therapists, begin by understanding the goals the client needs to reach. Some of the common goals are:
Physical — body coordination
Emotional — depression, anxiety etc.
Social — social anxiety, self-consciousness etc.
To meet these goals, “we introduce specific materials, tools and techniques, and observe the child and how they work with the material,” explains Vasundhara.
About working with children who have HIV at Snehadaan, a care centre in Bengaluru, she says, “these are children who have lost their parents, faced social stigma, and are also dealing with an incurable disease. The first thing we did was to create rapport with them by making them play team games. Once that was established, we got them to express what they were feeling, be it fear or grief.”
When children trust the therapist and feel safe, they also open up easily.
What about children who don’t like to draw? Art therapy isn’t just about drawing, painting and such crafts. In fact, Vasundhara reiterates that art therapy can be photography, clay modelling, journaling, theatre, dance, music, puppetry – just about anything that is creative.
Can you DIY your art therapy?
“During the lockdown, I conducted some workshops on WhatsApp,” she says. “They were on mindful journaling. I would give them a prompt each day and they would get back with an expression, either a drawing, some writing or a bit of both. That’s when I realised so many people needed an outlet at a time like this.”
Although going to an arts class and working for a new environment has its benefits, you can reap the benefits of art therapy, for yourselves and your children, at your own home.
“Dedicate a corner of your house to the arts. Keep materials there. It can be paints, it can be clay, paper, anything. You can even print out art worksheets. Sit with your child there and engage them in the arts.”
But she does emphasise that the focus should be on process and not the product.
“Therapy is not about the result of it, but about the journey taken to get there. Schools tend to focus on the product. The idea is to create something and let it go, and then create something else.”
What are you waiting for?
The pandemic and the aftermath of it has been difficult on all of us. While it’s great news that mental health has entered mainstream conversation and adults are actively seeking help, it can be complex with children. Without the language for expressing themselves, it won’t be easy to understand what they’re going through.
It is here that art therapy can help. Celebrate this World Mental Health Day with a little art. Sit down as a family and create some spontaneous art. Express your feelings and emotions without judgment. Encourage your children to develop compassion, creativity and collaboration skills — not only are they all necessary for the 21st century, they also enable good mental health.
Here’s wishing you and your children robust mental health today and forever!
*Name changed to protect identity.
About the Author
A journalist-turned-writer, dancer-turned-teacher, Sruthi can be found on @sruthirk at Twitter, usually making bad jokes.