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  • Writer's pictureLynn Cukaj

Art Therapy for Children: The Creative Process

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

Art Therapy for Children, Teenagers, and Adults

In the process of creating, a child has given more than a painting, picture, or sculpture, the child has given a part of him/herself. Making art connects to the inner life and experiences of every child and taps into feelings, creative needs, and cognitive structures that are changing at each phase of a child’s development (Shore, 2013). Art can be a responsive medium to experience and express these developmental changes. Artwork offers an opportunity to concretely organize and obtain order from confusion. Part of the challenge is to integrate, bring together, to find mass and boundaries and to strive for balance and design in one’s work. It is a practice rehearsal for similar efforts applied to one’s own life. The art making process is a time to develop and practice skills based on frustration tolerance and concentration skills. Art making is a means to gain feelings of control and have successful experiences. The child begins to move toward increasing independence by developing a sense of self as an individual with some basic capacity to accomplish and master simple situations. Art production can be a vehicle for socialization and reality adaptation. It can be a used as a tool to gain the admiration of friends, peers, family for one’s own growing creative abilities.

An understanding of child artistic development is important because it provides knowledge of age-related stages that children move through, which then influences what an art therapist may ask a child to draw (Klop, 2017). It is essential that children have creative opportunities. Through art and play the child experiments with new ideas, expresses feelings, experiences fantasies, and resolves fears. The art object serves several different purposes and represents a metaphor for something in the child’s life. It is a means to ventilate feelings, a catharsis which becomes concrete in the artistic product. Escaping its inner confinement onto the two- or three-dimensional plane, it becomes miniaturized and manageable to its artist/creator. The art product provides the child with an opportunity to see a part of him/her through their own product. It is a vessel for self-expression and self-awareness. The art product and the process can be utilized by the art therapist as well as the child as a metaphorical tool with which to communicate. By way of the metaphor, much can be said indirectly that is too raw and too personal to state outright. In addition to the self-expression inherent in the expressive art product, the child can express dependency needs as when asking for materials or admiration of one’s work.

The creative process is inherently an unstructured time in which to practice making choices and to follow through with the consequences of these choices. In Florence Cane’s book The Artist in Each of Us (1983), she stated that children needed guidance to nurture inner desires and understand difficulties to allow the creative process to continue and develop. According to Myers-Garrett (1987), creativity is essentially the letting go of something that is familiar and forming something new; old symbols are detached, and a new system of symbols is constructed (p. 45). Creating art is an opportunity to practice life skills that enable each child to become a well-rounded individual. The art making process is an opportunity to practice the subtle life skills that enable each of us to become well rounded individuals. In choosing an art project, the child experiences a self-created structure. The art therapist helps the child to stay within their chosen structure and to have a successful experience in the process. Once a child is engaged in art therapy, meaning stimulated by the materials, striving for mastery and self-expression, the process of healing their self-esteem can begin.

The goal is to help the child stay with their art project and focus on the process rather than the product. Based on the work of Lowenfeld and Brittain (1987), the art making process contains the following: tactile, spatial, and visual sensory stimulation; opportunities to experiment and gain effectiveness for mastery of motor control and organizational skills; self-exploration and interpersonal communication through the expression of emotions, fantasy imagery and imagination, and nonverbal communication. Children are aided by the capacity of art making to restore healthy functioning and provide mastery amidst feelings of helplessness (Stronach-Buschel, 1990). Art making provides an effective means to channel feelings of anxiety and depression. Symbolic images that are generated may be representative of psychological conflicts and life experiences that are too difficult or complicated for verbal communication (Burgess, 1993). Creating art promotes sequential reasoning and organization of thought for those faced with overwhelming feelings but lack coping mechanisms to properly cope (Stember, 1977). Art can serve to map pictorially that which cannot be examined verbally. Through art making order can be visually established during psychological chaos. Art making aids in emotional regulation and can transform a child in distress into an engaged artist and participant in therapy (Shore, 2013).


For more therapeutic activities and resources on how to incorporate Art Therapy into your life, read more from Lynn's Creative Expressions Blog.

Learn more about Art Therapy and Lynn Cukaj, Board Certified Art Therapist here:


Klop, S. (2017). Sometimes words just ain’t enough-enhancing the contribution of children in

therapy through creative expression. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 38, 283-294.

Myers-Garrett, M. (1987). The role of contours in symbol building with a victim of sexual abuse.

Pratt Institute Creative Arts Therapy Review, 45-51.

Lowenfeld, V. & Brittain, W. (1987). Creative and mental growth (8th Ed.). MacMillan.

Shore, A. (2013). The practitioner’s guide to child art therapy. Routledge.

Stember, C. (1977). Printmaking with abused children: a first step in art therapy. The American

Journal of Art Therapy, 16, 104-109.

Stronach-Buschel, B. (1990). Trauma, children, and art. The American Journal of Art Therapy,

29, 48-52.


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