Art as a Therapeutic Tool

Art is one of the most powerful therapeutic modalities we offer the clients of ChildSavers.

For almost 100 years, our therapists have utilized tactile tools – such as art materials – to help children feel more comfortable during their treatment. As far back as 1926, in partnership with volunteers from the Junior League of Richmond, ChildSavers introduced art and woodworking classes to the children we served. What was at the time a groundbreaking approach continues today. 

Because art is a natural language of childhood, children transcend communication barriers and begin expressing, exploring, and eventually, managing even the most complex feelings Typical activities include using crayons, paints, stickers, and more to create drawings, paintings, puppets, and clay models used for diagnostic exercises. The art that is created provides a vivid platform from which to build solutions. 

Use of art-based therapy is a natural extension of ChildSavers’ commitment to utilize the most effective tools to help children communicate. We believe that: 

  • Art supports the developmental needs of children. Children don’t come into the world with a full command of the language, or fully developed motor skills and sensitivities, or an ability to integrate experiences into an overall story. Whether the client is an advanced 3-year-old, a delayed 8-year-old, or a 12-year-old who has grown up in a non-English speaking home, art enables our staff to tailor the therapeutic process across language, physical skills, and cognitive development.  
  • Art is grounding. We use our bodies to make art, not our minds, even though our minds are engaged. Because artmaking is so concrete, it’s grounding for many clients. Art involves grip, focus, movement, and resistance. It involves materials with heft, texture, and shape – qualities that words don’t have. These sensory connections help to root the child in the present moment, enabling them to more safely express what they’re feeling. One foot is grounded in the safety of a therapeutic moment, while the other footsteps into a painful moment.  
  • Art is empowering. Engaging with art offers clients the ability to make choices, which is critical to successful therapy. Whether choosing between a large piece of paper or a smaller sketchbook, or selecting among a variety of stickers, or colors, the child is making their own choices.   
  • Art is representative. Art enables the child to choose how they, or their problem, are represented. Among the many benefits: the therapist can “see” what the client may be feeling. Children can use symbols, lines, shapes, and colors to represent a concern without using words at all. Art-averse children may select images from magazines to represent themselves or their community in a collage. Young children may do the same with stickers or fingerpaint. Regardless of the medium, a host of associations from the client’s inner world and social contexts support the child in naming and conceptualizing an issue, which in turn allows sharing it, modifying it, or growing past it.   
  • Art is externalized. Art enables children to shift problems from inside to outside — to a piece of paper, for example. Externalizing the problem enables the therapist and child to examine it without putting the child under the microscope. 
  • Art is contained and non-threatening. In a drawing, art is literally contained by the edge of the paper, which can help a client gain a sense of control. We often see clients paint and draw a very thick border as a first step, which may help them feel, “OK, this is safe. I’ve got it. It’s not going to jump off the page.”  

Art is not just in our programs and practice–it covers the walls in our Church Hill clinic. Filled with dozens of works of original art, children who come for outpatient mental health services see beautiful, bold works of art that inspire. Creating an environment brimming with art emboldens our clients with the freedom to safely express their emotions to aid in the healing process to hone  long-term resilience. 

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