The Parents’ Guide to Art Therapy Techniques & Projects
Art therapy is a powerful tool for building problem-solving and communication skills. Here, find projects that encourage meaningful art-making at home — and learn how to work side-by-side with your child to enhance his strengths and address his challenges.
Art therapy is a form of alternative treatment based on the premise that art helps express emotions – anxiety, depression, or anger – that are sometimes difficult to put into words. Art therapy helps some children (and adults) who communicate their thoughts more easily though visual images and artistry – and who are more comfortable with pictures than they are with words.
“As a parent, you likely quickly recognize struggles in how your child approachs schoolwork. As an art therapist, I will notice the same attention difficulties in how a child approaches an art task,” says Stacey Nelson, LCPC, LCPAT, ATR-BC. “The process of making art can reveal problems with focus, motor control, memory, managing emotions, organization, sequencing and decision making. It also has the potential to improve emotional wellbeing, develop problem solving skills, and enhance social interaction.”
During a typical art therapy session, a child works on structured projects — a process that helps him work through feelings, resolve conflicts, and develop important skills. After school and during the summer, when routines and schedules allow for more flexibility, parents can carve out time to use the techniques of art therapy to build skills and encourage a child to express emotions.
Through art therapy, children with ADHD can build mental flexibility, problem-solving skills, and communication practice as they explain what they made to a parent or friend. Art also creates natural moments for positive social interactions, like sharing materials, sharing space, making compliments, or even making suggestions. Here are some ideas for making it work for your family this summer.
Setting the Stage to Make Art
Every creative environment begins with a positive and motivating attitude. The benefits of art therapy emerge from the process of making art, not the visual appeal of the final product, so be certain to focus on your child’s effort rather than the outcome.
Create a workspace with few visual distractions. Put away all electronics. Make sure your art supplies are in good condition, washable, and easy to access.
Limit the choices to two or three for each material or craft. Try creating a visual boundary around the workspace by marking off the perimeter with blue painter’s tape to help focus inside the box.
A simple, relaxing task can help a child with ADHD release excess energy and enter a creative state of mind.
A mandala is a circle with a pattern inside it that represents the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. Drawing mandalas can help to create calm energy and promote focus. Some art therapists begin their sessions by asking a child to trace a round, flat object – like a plate – on a blank piece of paper, then fill it with color and designs.
A child can draw simple scribbles, a face, images of the moon, or whatever sparks her creativity.
Give a child a piece of paper and a marker. Ask him to scribble all over one side of the paper with his dominant hands. Then, flip the paper over, and scribble on the other side using the non-dominant hand.
Ask the child to write down a worry he wants to put aside while making art, then tell him to tear up the paper using both hands.
“As a parent, you might also ask your child what a particular feeling or experience looks like,” says Stacey Nelson. “They may draw it realistically or abstractly, but it can be a starting off point of them telling you their point of view.”
Sample Art Projects
The best art projects comprise a series of simple steps, and incorporate movements like pounding clay or walking across the room to get another material. When working with a younger child, write down the steps and check off each one as your complete it. With older children, reflect on the steps after a project is completed by asking how they made it.
1. Summertime Snowman
Materials: Clay, Small Sticks, Paint or markers
- Roll out three balls of clay
- Stack the balls
- Add details like a face, buttons, and arms
2. Ripped Paper Collage
Materials: Paper, drawing tools, tape or glue
- Think of something that makes you feel angry, and draw it quickly
- Rip up the paper
- Use some of the pieces to make a collage or another piece of art that makes you feel happy
3. Create Your Own Coloring Sheet
Materials: Paper, and drawing tools
- With a black or dark colored marker, close your eyes and draw a scribble
- Open your eyes
- Color in each section of the scribble with a different color
4. Circle Weaving
The motion of weaving can be calming. This can also create a soft fidget for children who benefit from keeping their hands busy.
Materials: Sturdy paper (i.e., cardstock cardboard), yarn, scissors, pencil, beads (optional), compass, ruler, sewing needle (optional)
Make the Circle Loom
- Draw a circle on paper
- Cut out circle
- Make pencil marks an even distance apart at the perimeter of the circle
- Cut a notch at each pencil mark
Thread the Loom
- (Back) Tape yarn to the back of the loom and insert it through any notch
- (Front) Wrap the yarn over to the front and insert through the opposite notch
- (Back) Continue wrapping the yarn across the back, and insert the yarn through the notch next to the notch used in Step 5
- (Front) Wrap the yarn over to the front and insert it through the opposite notch (which is next to the notch used in Step 6
- Continue wrapping the yarn over the front and back of the loom until you get to the last notch
- Bring the yarn to the back of the loom, cut and tape it to the back
Start the Weaving
- If using a sewing needle, thread another piece of yarn. If not, wrap 2 inches of the yarn’s tail with tape
- Cut off a piece of yarn to weave (about an arm’s length)
- In the center of the loom, tie a double knot of the threaded yarn, to a line of yarn of the loom (called the warp)
- Weave over and under each line of the warp, making your way around the circle. After a few rows, a pattern will appear
Add Yarn or Change Color
- Double knot the end of the old yarn to the beginning of the new yarn
- Continue adding more yarn of different colors as you wish
Remove Weave from the Loom
- Cut the lines of yarn at the back of the loom. Be sure to cut close to the center
- Tie two adjacent pieces of yarn; double know them
- Continue knotting two adjacent pieces of yarns until you have knotted all the loose ends
- String beads to the loose pieces of yarn
- Encourage children to choose beads that symbolize calm. Or, encourage children to assign a gratitude to each bead
Circle weaving (2016). Retrieved from http://www.instructables.com/id/Circle-Weaving/?ALLSTEPS.
For More Ideas
Read the Art Therapy Sourcebook, by Cathy Malchiodi.
Visit the ADDitude Pinterest Board for inspiration and ideas, and please add your own recommendations.
Look up easy clay or dough recipes that children can shape, then bake. Find a wooden project to build, or buy a pack of balsa wood to glue together in an interesting way. Get some big paper, and try the Jackson Pollack style of flicking paint. If a child has a favorite character, like Super Mario, ask him to draw Mario on an adventure, or paint Mario expressing a feeling he has. Or, have him build a home for Mario to relax in. Start from the child’s natural interests, then incorporate other things.
Getting Kids to Talk About Their Art
“Making art as a family provides natural opportunities for positive social interactions like sharing materials, sharing space, making compliments or even making suggestions if someone needs some help with problem solving,” says Stacey Nelson. “Sometimes it’s easier to talk about our artwork than ourselves.”
To get children to open up about their creations, start with these questions and comments:
- Tell me about your picture.
- Is there a story that goes along with your drawing?
- What feeling would you put with your picture?
- Is there a title?
- How did you make this?
- Where did your ideas come from?
- What was the most challenging part of making this?
“For instance, if children draw and tell you about an experience of being angry at school, you can ask what the worst part was for them. You can ask them what helped them get through it,” suggests Stacey Nelson. “Then, highlight some skills or some resiliency that they might not have noticed in themselves. It can provide an opportunity for you to provide some support.”
It’s much more important to comment on positive behavior than it is to discuss how the art looks. For example, say, “I really like how you…”
- …followed the steps carefully.
- …focused for a long time.
- …kept working even when you were frustrated.
The most important thing is to have fun. It doesn’t matter if a project doesn’t work out perfectly the first time – it’s an opportunity to try again tomorrow. As Stacey Nelson reminds parents, “Remember, it’s only paper and art materials are meant to be used up and enjoyed.”