Toolkit: art therapy for orphans and vulnerable children

Creating art and talking about it can help children heal from difficult experiences. Activities can include drawing, painting, modelling, collage and any other type of art. The activities below can help orphans and vulnerable children to express their emotions, grow in self-esteem and work through difficult memories.

The caregiver needs to listen well, to express understanding and to offer full acceptance and love. It is important to be sensitive to how much a child wants to share. The atmosphere should be relaxed and friendly, and children should have fun while doing the activities (eg using different colours and materials).

Art therapy can help strengthen a child's sense of identity and build self esteem. Photo: Kieran Dodds/Tearfund

Before you start

Find out the details of a trained local counsellor who works with children. If children show signs of distress, stop the activity, comfort them and consider arranging for them to meet with the counsellor.

Idea 1: The safe place

A good place to start with children who have experienced something traumatic is to get them to draw a ‘safe place’. This activity is also useful for children who are becoming anxious.

Encourage the child to close his eyes and imagine a place where he feels very safe. This could be a real or imaginary place. Give him plenty of time to imagine this place; this might be difficult for recently traumatised children. Tell him that only the people he wants are there, and nothing bad can happen to him. Ask questions to help him create an image of the place, such as, ‘Have a look around. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? You are very happy and safe… What are you doing?’ Ask ‘What else?’ to encourage the child to give more details. When the child has finished imagining the place, he could draw or create it with colouring pens, pencils, paints or different materials. Encourage him to remember this place and think of it when he feels afraid or sad.

In the second part of this post we'll look at an activity that can help strengthen a child’s sense of identity and build self-esteem, and learn how to help children to deal with frightening things that have happened in their life.

This article appears in issue 101 of Footsteps magazine, published in January 2017, which is on the topic of caring for orphans. You can read Footsteps online, sign up to receive Footsteps regularly or contact us to order printed copies.

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Julie Hefti
Julie Hefti studied therapeutic recreation and has worked with children in foster care. She has also worked in Kenya with traumatised Maasai girls, in Switzerland with drug users, and in Jordan in a pre-school for Syrian refugee children. Email: