What Are the Benefits of Art Therapy for Children?

Written by summer miller
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Art therapy is an arm of psychology used both as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool. Professionals use art to help children who suffer from mental, behavioural and physical illnesses. It is also used to help healthy children cope with the normal but sometimes difficult experiences of childhood–divorce, death of a loved one, or even a best friend moving to a different city.


Some may argue that art has always been a form of therapy or, perhaps, it is more appropriate to say therapy has always been a part of art. Although interest in art and the minds of those who create it has been the subject of scholars for hundreds of years, art therapy as a profession is a relatively young field. The first masters’ degrees in the field were earned in the early 1970s, but teachers, psychotherapist and artists began conducting formal research decades earlier.

Two women, Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer, are largely considered the founding mothers of art therapy. According to the American Art Therapy Association, Naumburg worked as an educator who had an interest in psychotherapy. She founded the Walden School in New York City and published a number of books on art therapy and children. She worked extensively with institutionalised children, which solidified many of her theories about the benefits of art as a therapeutic technique. Kramer was an educator and artist who used her dual interests to develop methods of working with children suffering from severe psychiatric problems. She published much of her work in the 1950s.


Art therapy is a safe, non-intrusive way to help a child share his experiences. A drawing or painting allows a child to express his feelings without having fully developed verbal communication skills. “[Art] is a very natural means of expression for children. They do it spontaneously. It’s pleasurable. It’s a language they know how to use. You rarely have to talk a child into using art,” said Judith Rubin, Ph.D., an early pioneer in art therapy. Rubin starred as “The Art Lady” on the classic children's show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and is the co-founder and president of Expressive Media Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to furthering the understanding of the creative arts in therapeutic settings. Rubin further explained that children willingly draw pictures then tell a story about the picture, but they have trouble conceptualizing then expressing their feelings without creative aids, especially when issues of abuse, abandonment or severe mental illness are involved.

Time Frame

Evaluation begins from the first interaction between child and therapist. The therapist observes not only the finished product but also the child’s approach to the task. “You ask a child to draw a picture of a family. You observe what sequence the people are drawn, who is close to whom, who is big, who is small or who is left out of the photo all together. This allows the therapist and the child to see the family relationships in a way that the child isn’t able to verbally express,” Rubin said. Sessions can last as long as the therapist and the family agree is necessary to reach the appropriate level of healing for the child.


Rubin recommends that parents think of art therapy on a continuum with art on one end and therapy on the other. Anybody–a teacher, a parent, a friend–can offer art materials to a child and the activity itself will be therapeutic. “Kids get to express themselves and a kid feels good if they create something they are proud of,” said Rubin. The other side of the continuum is a therapeutic activity that uses art to learn about the child and her circumstances, such as the example with the family drawing. In that scenario the therapist is using the drawing to better understand the child’s perception of family.

Finding Help

Some schools have specialised art therapy programs. If you are lucky enough to live in a community with such a program, it could be used as an additional resource in the development of your child. “Most programs are in bigger cities because they tend to have a broader understanding of psychotherapy and the arts,” said Debra Linesch, Ph.D., chair of the graduate department of Marital and Family Therapy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, one of the oldest and most established art therapy programs in the country. A qualified art therapist should have graduated from an accredited program, which can be verified through the American Art Therapy Association, a professional organisation dedicated to the advancement of art as a therapeutic practice. Linesch does not recommend trying to use art therapy without a professional if your child is suffering from some form of severe trauma; however, if your child is coping with the normal pitfalls of childhood, it would be very suitable to use art to help her address feelings. Some books to help use art with your children are: "Celebrating Family Milestones by Making Art Together" by Debra Linesch and "Child Art Therapy" and "My Mom and Dad Don’t Live Together Anymore: A Drawing Book for Children of Separated or Divorced Parents" by Judith Rubin, Ph.D. Children don't have to be artists to benefit form art therapy, they just have to be human.

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