How to ask children empowering questions about their art

Your child arrives home from school and proudly presents you with a painting he or she made at school. You are overjoyed to see what they have made, but what happens next? Today we’re exploring how we can talk to people about their artwork in ways that empower them to share what’s on their minds.

One of the first things to know about art therapy is that it does not require any artistic skill or experience, because rather than focusing on making things that accurately reflect reality or demonstrate a specific technique, art making in art therapy is all about the creative process. It’s about using art materials as a form of self-expression to communicate thoughts and emotions. While the end product might, at times, be beautiful, this is not the goal or the expected outcome. Sometimes artwork is intended to look messy, or scary, or chaotic. The goal is to use the creative process for self-expression, and to follow that process wherever it may lead.

Art therapy is based on the understanding that some of our thoughts and emotions are unconscious, meaning that we’re not always aware of them. When we are given an opportunity to express ourselves through art materials in the context of a safe environment, sometimes those unconscious thoughts and emotions can be communicated through our artwork. In art therapy, both the creative process of making the artwork and the finished product itself provide opportunities for reflection and insight.

While this is not always the case, usually an important part of the therapy session is the conversation between the therapist and the client about the art making process and the resulting art product. The therapist acts as a witness during the session, bringing a sense of wonder and curiosity. Through questions and observations the therapist invites the client to share about their art making experiences and products. The client is in charge of interpreting what the artwork means, but the therapist and client work together to process what has happened in the session and to make connections. Talking about artwork places it within the context of a personal narrative, which deepens its meaning and can help clients in their journey of discovering their strengths and exploring their emotions.

Although art therapists are specially trained to know how to guide clients through the art making process and reflection in a therapeutic context, talking about artwork in general can be a wonderful opportunity to build connection in relationships and to gain insight for yourself or learn more about the art makers around you.

If there are children in your life, chances are that they are presenting you with artwork all the time! It may be an art project from school, something they made during play time, or even something they made at art therapy. When kids show you their artwork, this is an incredible opportunity to talk to them about what they’ve made! If you adopt the view that all artwork is a form of self-expression and reflects something about the person who made it, this means that the artist has already invited you into their world by showing you their artwork. With the right approach you can enter even further into the child’s world by talking to them about what they’ve made.

Today we’re sharing four suggestions for how to talk about artwork in ways that open up conversation and encourage deeper connection. These suggestions have been written with child artists in mind, but the suggestions can be applied to and are just as important for conversations with teens and adults as well!

Four suggestions for how to empower children to share about their artwork:

  1. Come from a place of curiosity and wonder. Genuine curiosity is when we admit that we don’t know about something but we really would like to learn about it. Brene Brown points out that “choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty” (Rising Strong). When we ask questions out of curiosity, we want to hear from the artist and we are open to whatever the response might be.
  1. Press “pause” on your own associations, judgements, or reactions. We all see things differently – this is part of the beauty of art! When we view artwork, we bring our own associations, preferences, and experiences to the viewing process, and all of these factors impact what we think about artwork and how we interpret it. Jean Van’t Hul, author of The Artful Parent, tells a story about a time that she was going to commented on the lovely rainbow her daughter had drawn only to discover that it was actually a drawing of a cave (follow the link to see a photo: I’m sure we’ve all had similar experiences of commenting on something when it was meant to be something else. When we comment based on our own associations, we may miss the chance to hear what a piece of art means to the child. If our association is different from what the child intended, they may get the message that art is not an effective means of communication or that they aren’t very good at it. When we allow them to tell us about what they made, they receive the opposite message that art is a wonderful way to express themselves.
  1. Avoid value or judgement statements. (eg. that’s beautiful! That’s actually really good. That’s pretty). Judgement statements shift the focus from artwork being about self expression to it being about performance. Rather than expressing what is on his or her mind, the child may be thinking about trying to please you or making things look better the next time they want to create something.
  1. Ask open-ended questions or make general observations, and then allow the artist to respond. Open-ended questions and judgement-free observations provide an invitation for the artist to share more about their artwork on their own terms. They get to experience a sense of empowerment because they’re the ones in charge of interpreting their artwork. Check out the poster accompanying this post for some sample questions or observations to try!

At Art as Therapy, we believe that a picture can be a springboard for communication and conversation. The next time someone shows you something they`ve made, keep these simple suggestions in mind and try some of our sample questions – you might be amazed at the conversations you can have and what you can discover! If you would like to experience the art therapy process for yourself, check out our website for more information.

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, Art Therapist at Art as Therapy