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Working Creatively With Children

Dympna Bonfield


Art Psychotherapy is about working through the process of ‘Image Making’ in a therapeu tic relationship, where the client can explore feelings and fantasies. Even for the most articulate, art can be used as a kind of symbolic speech; a means of saying something non- verbally through symbols. Images can create clarity of expression, especially with some things that are most difficult to say. Symbolising feelings and experiences in images can be a more powerful means of expression and communication than verbal description alone, and at the same time can render these feelings and experiences less threatening. Previous experience of drawing, painting, etc. is not necessary.

Working as an Art Psychotherapist with adults can be quite different in many ways from working with children. “Psychotherapy is done in the overlap between the playing of the patient and the playing of the therapist.” (Winnicott, Therapeutic Consultations In Child Psychiatry). In his work, Winnicott also states that he made no interpretations of the paint ing and in that way allowed all the various meanings to co-exist alongside each other.

In my work with children, it seems to me that the concept of boundaries and space are piv otal areas around which the sessions revolve. I would like to look at these areas and in doing so, I will concentrate on how individuals cope with these concepts. Also, an abundance of materials is necessary, which may include paints, paper, paste, brushes, clay, plas tic, a sand tray, twine, cushions, as well as a warm and welcoming environment. The ther apist offers a wide menu from which the client may select according to her needs.

In my work, my role was that of a caring presence, while remaining non-directive. Having firstly laid down the rules, which were no damage to self, to me, or to anything in the room, the boundaries are set leaving the child free to use this space creatively. To some this could be quite a challenge, depending on the kind of hurt within. There are times when a child unable to cope would need a certain amount of help and encouragement; to others, it pre sents a new freedom.

Paul, an eight-year-old boy, presented himself as someone sophisticated, articulate, older than his years. Yet he was unable to cope with the space and freedom given. Parental expectations were such that he had grown up too quickly and had never played as a child. At his first session, I gave him clay. He was unable to choose it himself. The expectations of his parents had been transferred on to me and he could not make it ‘right’ or make it ‘good enough’. He dissolved into tears, unable to cope with the space and freedom. Here, I felt we were at a make-or-break point, so I helped him. Yet he was fearful, and I felt I was too helpful. I then encouraged him to use paints.

Here again, he could not make a ‘good enough’ picture. Eventually he discovered by himself that by pouring the paint onto the paper, then lifting up one end of the paper, he could allow beautiful patterns to form, and then, through the free flow of the various colours intermingling, a magical picture happened. Paul felt he was Picasso and proceeded to ask me if I thought his painting was as good as mine and how much money it was worth! Little by little, Paul began to gain confidence.

He was also very competitive. Together we played a simple game which had been taught to me by another child, called ‘the Racing Car Game’. Here the boundaries were represented by the tracks, within which one speeded with a racing car (a crayon). If one broke the boundary, one had to retreat and begin again from the start. At first I allowed Paul to win all the games, at the end of which he crowed over me with delight. Later, if he lost he would dissolve into tears, feeling a failure.

Eventually he learned that losing a game did not mean the end of the world. Through this play, Paul let go of the expectations and enjoyed the playing in itself . His progress con tinued through painting and using clay as well as the sand tray. One day I knew he had ’made it’; this was expressed in the following way.

Towards the end of a session, Paul pulled the curtains, made a little bed for himself with the cushions and turned off the music we were playing. He then lit a candle and turned off the lights, got into this little bed and fell asleep. I kept watch in silence. When he awoke, I suggested that he looked like a little baby. “Yes,” he said, “and you were minding me.” Paul had used his space, he had travelled back over his eight years and found his little boy!

When Liam arrived with his mother, he appeared to be quite withdrawn as a result of a series of abuses. He was a very bright and creative child who had gone into his shell. As we worked together, he had little problem in the area of using his space. I worked in a one- bedroomed apartment, and very soon Liam had investigated the rooms, the kitchen and even checked out my fridge. He was not yet ready to begin his journey inwards, as I found out when I suggested that he might tell me what was in the picture he had painted. On his return home he told his mother, “I’m not going back any more because Dympna asks too many questions.”

Liam had given me one of my first lessons. By the lavish use of paint, which he literally poured on, usually breaking the boundaries of the page and spilling out over the table, Liam freed up his locked-in feelings. While doing this, he would keep one eye on me, as if looking to see how far he could go.

The use of string was another symbolic way he used to express his bonding as well as his need for security while exploring within. One day while working together, he noticed a ball of string on the table. Taking it up, he gave me the ball. Then walking away, holding the end of the string on one hand, Liam explored all the rooms while the ball of twine unravelled in my hands. This experience, as well as all the others initiated by him, was an example of the symbolic use of space in a creative way. As I have already said, Liam was constantly testing boundaries. Once I told him that I was going to London for a short break. He didn’t respond in any way, yet later he noticed an air ticket sticking out of my diary. He took it out, checked the date of departure and arrival, and was satisfied that my return was certain.

One day while working with clay, Liam made I rectangular creation approximately twelve inches by nine. He secured the clay firmly. Into this he poured water, while warning me that it might overflow and drench my carpet (Liam kept me constantly on the alert – the boundaries constantly being challenged). However, this did not happen because he stopped pouring in time. This experience he repeated. He developed the process by putting a paper boat to float in the water, and in the boat he put a small boy. He reminded me that the boy was in grave danger of drowning. Eventually he made another rectangular shape, attaching it to his original creation. He then proceeded to make a hole in the adjoining wall, allowing the water to flow from one container into the other. This I interpreted as Liam, who was holding all the pain, tears and fears. He was now allowing me to hold, to share, all this repressed stuff. This totally unconscious material was worked out through the process of image making. Liam had neither the verbal ability to tell, nor the awareness to realise what was causing the pain and distress. At this stage, Liam had formed a strong bond with me and he resented new-comers who might take over his patch. One day when leaving, quite unknown to me he stuck a notice on the outside of my door which read, “DO NOT DISTURB”.

Once I worked with a four-and-a-half year-old, Ted. Because of circumstances, be had never separated from his mother. I suggested that his mother could remain on at the ses sion. Ted would sit on his mother’s knee for some time. I placed myself at the far end of the room, surrounded by ‘seductive’ paints, clay, etc, which would momentarily attract Ted. Ted would make his way across the room slowly. While distracted and attracted by these items, he would stay for a short while and then run back to the safety of his mother’s arms. Eventually, the length of time he would stay separated from his mother began to grow. He would express his great anger by making balls of clay and throwing them at a target he would make. I would encourage him to do this. Ted then progressed to using crayons and paper. He invented a game which he called ‘Playing Islands’ – a big island and a small island (all symbolic of the ‘here and now’). The ocean between was full of sharks which he had drawn. As the weeks went by, the little island got bigger and the eventual image was that of a large island with arms outstretched into which the small island fitted. At this stage, Ted had connected with me and no longer needed his mother’s presence. He was free to use his space creatively within safe boundaries.

As I said at the beginning, Art Psychotherapy is about working through the process of image making in a therapeutic relationship. Here I have concentrated on the aspects of boundaries and space and tried to show how Art Psychotherapy works in practice from my own experience of working with children. Working in this way means total involvement in the play, therefore it is important that I should not get distracted in observing the process to the same extent that I might in working with adults. Sometimes I would have little idea of what is happening in a session, and it may only make sense later on, as I wrote a descrip tion of the process which I had come to trust fully. I also felt the need for good commu nication with the parents of the children, while respecting the child’s need for confiden tiality.

Finally, I would suggest that it is an advantage to have the ability to enter into the life of the child, to welcome spontaneity and to respond enthusiastically to his/her needs. This was brought home to me one day, when a little boy entered the session with his pockets full of marbles. He said, “I want you to get on your knees, down to the floor, and play mar bles with me, because I need to practise as I’m the worst marble player on the street!”

Dympna Bonfield is an Art Psychotherapist working in private practice.


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