The arts are a powerful thing. Whether acting in a play, singing a song, performing a dance, drawing a picture or writing a poem, the arts allow people to express themselves and their ideas without having to put them in to words. This is just one of the many reasons expressive arts therapy has become popular, particularly for special needs children.
What Is Expressive Art Therapy?
The term expressive arts refers to any combination of dance, writing, visual arts, drama, music or other creative outlets. Expressive arts therapy is taking these modalities and using them to enhance individual development and growth. The right mix can improve overall well-being and contribute to lowering anxiety and stress, improving self-awareness and self-esteem, strengthening relationships, regulating behaviors and advancing social skills.
This type of therapy has also been shown to help children – and adults – deal with negative situations, disabilities and trauma. Through rehabilitation, education and communication, art therapy helps an individual release and express feelings they may not know how to let go of otherwise.
Additionally, expressive arts positively affect function, mood, cognition and behavior. This is particularly evident in children with special needs, such as those with autism, speech impairments, PTSD, developmental disabilities, ADD/ADHD or other mental and behavioral health conditions. Expression through art is a way to help these kids feel a sense of normalcy without judgment, while allowing them to show their individual personality and bring attention to their strengths.
Developmental Benefits of Expressive Art
Children of all ages, both special needs and not, may not have the language skills to express themselves, but they still have a voice. Expressive arts awaken a child’s imagination and creativity to help him discover who he is and how to engage his senses. They also bring a sense of calm to the body and positively impact mindset, interpretation of surroundings and emotional state.
Putting their feelings into a poem, song and painting gives children a safe outlet for negative emotions through an enjoyable activity, which accelerates the healing and growth process. But expressive arts aren’t just for coping, they also have great effects on a child’s normal development.
Establishing social skills at a young age is incredibly important for regular development. Children who are comfortable in social settings operate much better as adults, as they establish connection, communication and empathy. Expressive art therapy can enhance social development by providing support without judgement from peers, parents and the therapist. It gives children the opportunity to appreciate differences between people and accept each individual’s perceptions.
Many of the arts can be practiced in groups, where children have to work together, learn to share and accept responsibility for how their actions affect others. Even in private settings, interactions with the therapist, or even the parents, contribute to the development of social skills, as it encourages relationships and trust.
Experiences in the arts go hand in hand with learning. Whether painting a picture, writing a play or choreographing a dance, children are forced to learn simple things like colors and shapes, as well as experiential lessons like cause and effect, choices and consequences, problem solving and experimenting, and how to make decisions. They can also learn how to draw meaning from visuals and communicate through them.
On a deeper level, art actually seems to have an impact on the brain’s neural connections, which act as the wiring for learning. Whichever art form is being utilized, the senses have to operate and deep thinking is a requirement. This leads to the development of skills such as recognizing the difference between abstract and reality, understanding patterns, making observations about the world, and forming mental representations of what is real or imagined. Overall, the expressive arts help children develop comprehensive thinking capabilities through the interaction of complex thought processes.
In addition to being an emotional outlet for children, expressive arts therapy can actually help them develop and better understand their feelings. Being angry or hurt is not always easy to describe in words, but a child can put these emotions into a drawing, poem or dance and make it easy for themselves and others to comprehend. It also creates a starting point for conversation, which can lead to a more open expression of feelings and thoughts. At this point, the therapist, parent or child may even be able to tap into emotions none knew the child had.
Involvement in art activities also allows kids to grow confidence. It’s a way to open up dialogue about situations that may be hard to deal with or share. Getting their emotions out in a creative way can be both therapeutic and insightful.
While the mental benefits of expressive art therapy are prominent and major, there are also physical changes that can come about through this practice. Improved motor skills and control, hand-eye coordination and muscle development can be achieved through the different modalities of art.
For instance, dance and theater not only spark creativity, but also get the body moving. This puts multiple senses into action and teaches children to become more conscious of their physical presence and use of space. Drawing or writing, although they don’t require as much movement, also provide physical benefits by helping kids gain control over the small muscles in their hands. Whatever the action, these activities help children coordinate their thoughts and motions, which is a key step of development.
Expressive Art Takeaways for You and Your Child
Formal expressive art therapy should be facilitated by a professional, but the principles and activities can translate to home life. Encourage your children to explore their artistic and creative side by doing craft projects with their siblings or making up a song to perform to the rest of the family at the next gathering. When you take these actions, make sure older individuals understand there is to be no judgment – only encouragement. After achieving the expressive task, take a moment to talk about what was done and how the child feels about it. Asking questions shows the child you respect them and what they did matters.
Incorporating the arts into your young child’s life is essential for his or her development, particularly if mental or behavioral problems are present. However, if your children develop behavioral issues or psychiatric ailments as adolescents, other types of therapy or treatment may be a better option. Don’t hesitate to get the help of the professionals at this stage, through inpatient or outpatient therapy programs.