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Art therapy: what is it, and how can it benefit our children?

By Darius Parvizi-Wayne
08 March 2023

One in eight children experiences some form of mental health condition, resulting in a significant impact on their memory, motivation and concentration at school. We spoke to the team at Kanjo – an interactive app packed with games and activities designed to help parents and carers better understand their children’s emotional health – to find out how by expressing themselves through drawing, children can better understand their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

At first glance, art and therapy might appear diametrically opposed in terms of their uses and results. Such preconceptions are understandable: art is typically associated more with relaxation and recreation, therapy with blood, sweat and tears. But it is not necessarily always the case.

Art therapy, along with a swathe of less-conventional therapeutic practices such as play and music therapy, permits not only dynamic, natural self-exploration, but also meaning-making and cognitive flexibility – something Kanjo taps into with its art-based emotion games for children.

But how does it work, and what can we learn from our children’s paintings?

The first thing to recognise is that art is powerful because it allows us to communicate in metaphors. As a child self-directs their art therapy, certain patterns and images begin to crop up. The role of the therapist, or in Kanjo’s case, parents and carers, is to interpret the underlying meaning of the art and guide the practice accordingly. In some cases, the appearance and the significance are transparently connected. For example, we all know what a picture of a broken heart means. In other cases, however, expert analysis is required, not only to discern the underlying meaning, but also so that the child themselves can become more aware of what they are feeling.

To this end, an art therapist might employ a number of exercises. For example, they may guide a child in decorating a mask. When given free rein, children will often superimpose some of their own emotions or aspects of their own personality onto the mask, which can then be teased apart as the therapist asks them to tell the story of what they’ve done. Kanjo takes these notions of art therapy and allows the parent and child to help each other communicate and dig into the artistic expressions.

Another benefit of art therapy is the diverse mediums through which a child’s thoughts and feelings can be expressed. For example, art therapists might encourage kids to create a family sculpture out of clay. By moulding and shaping the clay, children can explore their feelings about family members and their relationships with them. This often helps the therapist gain insight into attachment issues, which, despite underlying so many problems at home, can be improved with expert supervision. Equally, the child may learn something new about how they interact with certain family members, such as a younger sibling, and take initiative to improve that relationship.

Beyond providing a creative outlet through which children can communicate their thoughts, feelings and experiences, art therapy helps develop kids’ social and interpersonal skills. In group art-therapy sessions, children can learn to work collaboratively with others, share their ideas and receive feedback on their work. This can help them build confidence and improve their social skills, which can have a positive impact on their relationships with peers and adults alike.

Finally – and this is a point we can all relate to – art is fundamentally relaxing. Whether it's soft clay or the nib of a paint brush, there is something about centring on a task that requires our full attention that soothes our anxiety and grounds us in the world. This can be incredibly valuable for anxious children, especially if they are taught to trace repeating patterns, such as mandalas, which have been shown to calm the nervous system.

In conclusion, art therapy can be a powerful tool for helping children navigate the challenges of childhood and develop important skills and coping strategies, while allowing parents a window into their emotional wellbeing, thought processes and identity. By providing a safe and supportive environment for creative expression, Kanjo alongside art therapists can help children build resilience and find new ways of understanding and engaging with the world around them.

When the Kanjo team were looking for their first game to build, a key objective was to find one that was inclusive. They quickly realised that art therapy is a wonderful tool for those who have difficulty expressing themselves verbally and might struggle in a traditional talking-therapy setting. For this reason, as well as the fact that paint brushes and canvases are less alienating than a cold office and a black couch, art therapy has been shown to be particularly effective in helping children deal with complex and painful emotions.

Darius Parvizi-Wayne is a postgraduate in psychological sciences at UCL, and a lead writer and podcaster at Kanjo Health.