Art making ideas for non-art therapy settings

Author: Rapinder Kaur

Implementing art directives without the therapist having appropriate training in a therapy session has some risks involved. In directive art therapy, there is a tendency to uncover too rapidly powerful feelings that may be difficult to contain and understand by both the client and therapist. Knowing when to expose the client to the arousal and the rawness of the emotions is critical. It is risky to expose the client to intense emotional material or memories before the necessary preparatory work has been completed. Such negative reactions may include a psychotic break, or a need for hospitalization.

However, art in of itself is very therapeutic and can certainly be used as a tool to connect with a client, ease tension, and reduce any anxiety the client may feel as a result of being in a therapy situation. For children and teens this can be especially useful. Below are some art ideas clinicians can use in a non-art therapy session to engage a client.

  1. Safety boxes – provide a small plain empty box, which a client can decorate with markers, stickers or beads. Direct the client to write or draw on a piece of paper something or someone they would like to keep safe and place it inside the box. You can also ask them to write down their feelings and place them inside the box. For trauma clients providing a lockable box can be particularly useful in establishing another layer of safety. As sessions progress client may be more comfortable in taking their feelings out of the box and exploring them with their therapist.
  2. Coloring pages: Age appropriate coloring pages can be soothing and anxiety reducing for both children and teens. Sharpie marker and pencils are good mediums to use. Pencils provide a sense of control; avoid using paints, which can allow a client to go into a regressive state.
  3. Buddha Board is based on the Zen concept of living in the moment. You simply paint on the surface with water and your creation will come to life in bold design. Then, as the water slowly evaporates, your art will magically disappear leaving you with a clean slate and a clear mind – ready to create a whole new masterpiece. (Can be purchased online). Using a miniature Zen sand tray is another idea. Both of these are a non-threatening way of expressing emotion in a visual form.
  4. Balloon art – Balloons can be a wonderful way to engage a client, the novelty of writing on the balloon using permanent markers is not only fun but they can also play with the balloon, by trying to keep it in the air. You can also have them draw a difficult feeling on the balloon and have them burst the balloon if they are comfortable with the noise it makes or they can release it. This process can release any nervous energy and tension they may have. You can also talk about breathing exercises by using the balloon as a tool.
  5. Drawing inside circles: Providing a piece of paper with pre-drawn circles and asking the client to draw or color within the circle or circles can provide a sense of containment if they are feeling overwhelmed.
  6. Play dough: Providing the client with a piece of play dough or modeling clay to squish in their hands while you talk to them can be helpful in grounding them, providing sensory stimulation and comfort.
  7. Puppets from really soft socks are fun, can be used to role-play or be used as spokesperson for the client, this can bring in a sense of fun and playfulness into a session. The softness of the socks can provide comfort on a sensory level. Even teens enjoy them!
  8. Mandalas: Creating or coloring in mandalas. The word “mandala” loosely translated from Sanskrit means “circle,” a mandala is far more than a simple shape. It represents wholeness, and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself–a cosmic diagram that reminds us of our relation to the infinite, the world that extends both beyond and within our bodies and minds. Creating mandalas can help to stabilize, integrate, and re-order inner life.
  9. Scribbles: Joint scribble picture: provide client with a blank piece of paper, ask them to pick their two favorite colored markers, ask them to give you one of the markers. Then ask them to make a mark on the page, and then from where the mark ends you make a mark and keep going until the page is filled with lines and shapes. This is a good technique because there is no artistic ability required, so takes the pressure off and allows you to build a relationship with the client especially if you mirror the marks they make.
  10. Affirmation cards or beads, help the client think of things they like about themselves and identify their strengths. You can write them on cards, which can be laminated, written on rocks with permanent markers or on beads. This technique builds self-esteem and can remind the client that things may change but their strengths and goodness will not.

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