Using art as therapy for orphans and vulnerable children

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Footsteps 101 - Caring for orphans

Includes case studies, children’s activities and a moving interview about growing up in a children’s home.

Using art as therapy for orphans and vulnerable children

by Julie Hefti 

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). 

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. 

Illustration: Amy Levene/Wingfinger

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. 

Illustration: Amy Levene/Wingfinger

Idea 2: That’s me! 

This activity can help strengthen a child’s sense of identity and build self-esteem

Get the child to look in a mirror. While she is still looking, ask the following questions: 

  • What do you see? 
  • Who created you? 
  • How many people in the world look exactly like you? (Point out that God created the child in a unique and special way. Tell her that everything from the hands of God is good and beautiful – including the child.) 
  • What do you look like? Can you describe yourself? 
  • What do you like about yourself? What is special? 

Then create a piece of artwork with the child on this theme. Here are some ideas, but feel free to think of your own. 

  • Using non-toxic paint or ink, get the child to make a handprint in the middle of a piece of paper. Alternatively, the child can draw around her hand and colour it in. 
  • Ask the child to write on or around the handprint, ‘I am unique.’ 
  • Encourage the child to write on every finger of the hand the things she likes about herself. 
  • Measure the child and write the result on the paper with the date. 
  • Get the child to glue a strand of her hair to the paper. 

This can be part of a set of art activities on themes such as ‘Where I’m from’, ‘Friendships’ and ‘My hopes for the future’. Children can collect these into a folder and decorate the cover.

Idea 3: Changing the memory 

This activity can help children to deal with frightening things that have happened in their life. 

Simply allowing children to draw or paint whatever they choose, and showing interest in what they create, will help them express their thoughts and feelings. Ask questions such as, ‘Tell me about your picture’, ‘Who is in it?’ and ‘What are they doing?’ If this reveals the child is feeling afraid, you can use the following activity. 

Tell the child a story about people or animals who were very afraid of something. In the midst of this situation, something happened that brought them out of danger. Perhaps another person or animal came along and so their fear disappeared. (An example from the Bible is the story of Jesus calming the storm when the disciples were afraid.) 

Go back to the picture the child drew of the situation where he felt afraid. Ask him what helped him in this situation and how his fear left. If the child cannot think of anything that helped, encourage him to imagine something by asking, ‘What would have helped you?’ Ask the child to draw this person or thing that helped onto the picture, so that it changes the memory. 

Illustration: Amy Levene/Wingfinger

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: ps9213@googlemail.com 

Illustrations: Amy Levene/Wingfinger

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: ps9213@googlemail.com.