My Experience with Art Therapy!

Image Source- Google

As interesting as it is to work with children, for a structure freak like me, a desperate try to structure sessions and the consequent failure often forces me to change this intrinsic need. Sharing one of my first art based therapy sessions with you all!

Client Information:

The child is nine years old. She studies in class four. Since her father is in the Armed forces, she has changed 3 schools. She has been studying in the present school for the past one year now. She does not have any siblings. She describes herself as friendly and clever. Her parents describe her as talkative and intelligent!

The child, although a very sociable and studious child was refusing to go to school. Her parents’ and teachers’ failed attempts at understanding the reason for the same motivated them to seek counseling.

Most of us do not like to share our personal information with others. And in my opinion, children have a special screening tool in their heads and hearts that is not impossible to pass but yes it sure is a task! With experience and considerable success at expressive therapies, I often choose that now. Since this was one of my first sessions with art based therapy, the nervousness was palpable!

Pre~Session Planning MANIA!

When I started thinking about this session, all my attempts were towards making this as structured as possible: mistake number one. Then I spent a lot of time trying to make the sessions extraordinary: mistake number two.

I tried. Tried a lot. Failed off course!

If I were to express the pre session planning in two words, then that would be: high expectations and anxiety.

Anxious- whether the activities planned will be liked by the child or not? Will I be able to engage the child for 40 minutes every time I meet her? Will she get bored of me?

High expectations- I have to plan something that cannot be possibly hated by the child. I have to engage the child for 40 minutes. I have to entertain her. There should not be any scope of making her bored of me or the sessions.

Then one day I felt that in the attempt to have a perfect goal and an amazing outcome, I am losing on the ‘enjoyment’ aspect. I reminded myself that it’s truly essential to enjoy the sessions too!

Reading and watching some videos also helped. Over time I have come to realize that every time it is not important to know the outcome or the success/ failure rate of the process. What is important is to acknowledge the process and also to stay in the present.

I saw that when I altered my thinking and expectations, my way of searching for activities/ articles online changed too. From searching Best examples of art therapy’, I went onto ‘Examples of art therapy’. In my opinion, a therapist should try and help a client however trying too hard doesn’t really guarantee success; it creates only tremendous pressure.

The sessions were spanned over four meetings. Each session was for approximately 40 to 45 minutes.

Invitation for the session: Let me tell her please!!

Often parents bring their children to therapy without telling them the truth. They feel scared that the child might withdraw consent.Children complain that they have been ‘tricked’ into this. This case was no different. Her parents wanted me to hide this from the child. However, I had promised myself that in the professional realm, I would always tell my clients the purpose of them meeting me; irrespective of their age.


A brief rapport formation had already been undertaken. From the intake session, her mother had shared that she is a verbal child. Although being articulate indicates towards a possibility of smooth rapport formation, engaging her in any other activity except for talking maybe a challenge. Thus, I decided to do a combination of expressive therapies.

Activity 1: Teddy Bear Bait!

Liana Lowenstein, 2012 suggested that the ‘sunglasses technique’ is really helpful in rapport building with children. In this, the therapist wears fancy sunglasses and then introduces herself/ himself to the child. The child is usually so intrigued by the glasses that it becomes difficult for the child to reject the idea of going to the play room. I did not use various kinds of sunglasses, but I have a collection of soft toys. I selected the biggest of them all and greeted her with that. Like I anticipated, she was so excited to see the teddy, she soon became busy asking me about it. I soon invited her to the play room. This proved to be an effective ice breaker. She was so distracted with the toy that she did not pay attention to the fact that I had just met her. Her being verbal and friendly helped me too!

This was followed by giving her an overview about myself, knowing about her and most importantly seeking permission from her.

Activity 2: Origami to open up!

During rapport formation, I realized that she loves to draw/ paint/ make craft work. I shared all the craft material I had. She expressed interest in making something. Using papers, stickers and colors, she made a phone. It was pink in color with a lot of shiny stickers.

She shared that she wants a phone. And to get that, she is going to study hard and score well in her upcoming exams. When asked about why she needs the same; she said “so that I can call my parents whenever I am in trouble.” I thought I got a lead from this statement and tried to probe further, however, she did not encourage my inquisitiveness.

Activity 3: Let’s bring the Puppets to life!

I had made four paper puppets: with plain white paper and no details on them. she chose two out of them. She was encouraged to draw facial details and bring them to life. She drew a ‘mummy and papa’ on them. She said that she was drawing her own parents. The child is a lover for details. The features on the puppets resembled her parents in real life too. Example: she colored the hair of the ‘mummy puppet’ brown. She also said that she would write ‘mummy and papa’ on each puppet to avoid any confusion while playing!(Love her love for structure!)

I asked her if she would like to tell me a story using the two puppets. She readily agreed! Bingo!

During the story she said that ‘mummy puppet and papa puppet love baby puppet a lot. They get gifts and nice food for the baby puppet. But, they do not have time because they work very hard. They planned an outing for Sunday which got cancelled because mummy puppet & papa puppet were tired.”

Papa & Mummy puppets

When I asked her if she was narrating her own story, she nodded. She shared that it was quite upsetting but she understands that they are busy. Later when I spoke to her mother, she confirmed the incident.

Activity 4: Life is colorful!

I wanted to get to know her more and also knew that she likes craft and colors. I hung a ribbon on the window and cue cards. These had questions such as ‘my favorite game’ ‘favorite teacher’ ‘I hate’ ‘I love’ etc. I invited her to ask questions to me too if she liked. She readily agreed. For every question, she could express her choices the way she wanted to. She majorly used art and craft material. We then stuck those below to the cue cards. This kept her engaged, the plain window was adorned with colorful strips of paper & I got to know her likes and dislikes!

She told me that now I am her friend since she now knows about me!

Colorful & Creative execution! :)

Reflection on session 1: I guess I am a ‘structure’ magnet!

Choice of the Activity and its Rationale; Process and Output of the Activity:

I enjoyed the first session a lot. My anxieties were put to rest the moment we started talking and playing. It was amazing how she was able to weave her real life incidents and experiences into art, play or storytelling. I also realized that it was difficult to separate the three modalities during the session i.e. she used art, play and storytelling together.

Before and during the interaction, I had been telling myself continually that fluidity is essential and that I would let the child choose whatever she wanted to for how much ever time. But, it seems that I am a structure magnet! I consciously tried to not bring in structure, but the child wanted it! She was so particular about completing the activities and only then moving to the others. She would place everything back in place before moving on to the next one!

I felt that using a modality like art did not only help me to relate to her but also brought us closer.


Activity one: Get your Emotions Rolling!

From the first session, I had been able to form a rapport with her. I got an understanding of her likes and dislikes to some extent. Also, I got a lead from the origami & the puppet tasks. Hence the next step was understanding emotions.

I made a circle with many sections. Each section was numbered & had an emotion sticker to it. We would roll a dice, and move the arrow to the emotion, recognize the emotion and share a story when one felt that emotion last. I wasn’t sure how comfortable she would be doing the same. I was hopeful as she had considered me to be her friend in the last session. To my surprise, she shared her experiences openly.

Apart from knowing about her happy experiences, I was truly interested to know those incidents where she had felt some discomfort. This is because it may get me closer to understanding her reason for school refusal. But, above all, this game was helpful in knowing her better. She shared that she had cried a lot last year when her uncle passed away due to jaundice. I could sense a dip in her enthusiasm for some time. I decided to stay with her in the moment and did not probe about this emotion further. But then, she brilliantly bounced back & continued the game. When the pointer showed the anxious emoticon, she looked troubled. She just said “school makes me anxious.” On probing further, she changed the topic entirely. She started telling me about how she is so excited about her upcoming birthday. I knew that she was clearly using a defense mechanism. Nonetheless, I joined her in the conversation about her birthday.

Lets Spin & Share!

Reflection on session 2: What if she didn’t handle herself?

Choice of the Activity and its Rationale; Process and Output of the Activity:

This game was surprisingly successful. When I was designing it, I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing. This is because an exercise like this, on one hand, would help her remember good times but may also evoke negative/ sad feelings. My apprehension was centered on the negative/ more difficult aspect of the game.

However I went ahead with this thinking that it would be a good way to understand her more through a playful activity. I also thought that I would terminate the activity if it became too emotionally taxing for her.

When the activity started, I could sense that she is enjoying. Then at one point where the striker pointed towards the ‘sad’ emotion, I asked her if she wanted to share. She said yes and told me about her uncle. I perceived that she may want to change the game but she said that it was my turn to roll the dice! I guess children are stronger than our expectations!

I was glad that she bounced back. What if she would not have? For achieving my motive, did I remind her of something she did not want to remember? I don’t know!


Activity 1: Let’s Play it Out!

This session was about free play coupled with storytelling. This is because I wanted her to enjoy and also reach somewhere closer to the prime issue. Out of the huge collection of toys, she chose two barbies, a kitchen set and animal toys. She then divided the room into four parts: the zoo- her favorite place, two rooms- for each Barbie and a café for them to meet and chat.

She said that the two barbies are ‘us’ and they are catching up at a cafe like both of us are doing now a days.

She then chose to play with the animal toys. I asked her if she could tell me a story about the zoo. Initially she gave names to all the animals and was narrating the story in third person. As time progressed, she started narrating the same in first person and exchanged originally decided names with those of her classmates. She said that she’s the horse, her best friend is the cow and the ‘bad girl’ is the elephant. Bingo! I got a clue! Not to sound too inquisitive only about the ‘bad girl’, I asked her why she chose the animals as she did, what does she like/dislike about them etc.

She finally opened up and shared that one of her classmates is a bully and she troubles her most in class(the child considered the elephant as mighty and hence chose that in comparison). Whenever she would complain about her to the teacher, she would get out of the matter conveniently. With time, other children of her class started to conform and she was forced too. As a result, she started disliking school.

Yes! I found out the reason! It was truly a sigh of relief! Now I knew what I had to work on!

Choice of the Activity and its Rationale; Process and Output of the Activity:

I chose this activity for this session for two reasons: firstly, because I wanted to use this semi unstructured modality. Secondly, I wanted her to enjoy.

She was so particular about everything! It was amazing how she was taking care of each and every detail. This involved equal distribution of the limited furniture for the two houses she made for the Barbies. Her experiences, needs, likes, dislikes and wishes were so evident through her play.

It was so amazing to see as to how play was so intricately intertwined with her real life experiences. ‘Play’ is the child’s language is so true!!

One session was divided into two parts. First, relevant details of the session were shared with the parents and her class teacher. Second, she joined the session too. The class teacher promised her that she would take care of her and motivated her to come to school.

SESSION 4: This session was like a follow up/ strengthening session.

Activity 1: I am Strong!

For this I made her a shield out of paper and wrote ‘A’ in the center (her name starts with A). I asked her to express her strengths on them. She could do this in any way. She chose to write. She divided the shield into two parts. One: her weaknesses and one: strengths.

For weaknesses she wrote: darkness, heights, stage performance and ghosts that sometimes come in her dreams.

For strengths she wrote: her parents, her friends and her cleverness.

She then explained that even though she knows her weaknesses, she tries her best to not get scared. She shared that she has now developed a pact with her parents that entails sharing everything that happens in school. Other than that, when she sees darkness, she switches on the light, when confronted with heights, she closes her eyes and walks, when she has a stage performance, she thinks that only her parents and friends are sitting in the audience and when she has dreams with ghosts, she wakes up.

I realized how she had the ability to rationalize the situations. It was nice to see that the child was drawing strength from her parents, had trusted them and her teacher and was getting back on track.

Activity 2: My Circle; my Strengths!

I thought that I would end the session with the mandala formation. I told her that she could look around and select all that she thinks is important to her, is her strength and helps her. This was followed by her explaining to me what all she had selected and why she had done so.

She made a circle using beads. She chose two puppets which said mummy and papa (they are her biggest strengths), a doll (she said that she loves her toys), a dog showpiece (this symbolized her pet dog), 2 nail polishes (she loves make up), a book (Can’t sleep without reading something), a box of cake (she likes to eat sweets) and sketch pens (she enjoys craft work and art).

My Mandala!

Choice of the Activity and its Rationale; Process and Output of the Activity:

I wanted to terminate the sessions by helping her in recognizing her strong points, her strengths and her motivations.

I think for me this was the best session. I say so because I could sense the feeling of happiness and pride that she was experiencing when she was telling me about her strengths. She wanted to wear the shield and also wanted a picture of the Mandala.

While I was leaving, she told me, “Thank you Didi for reminding me that I have the strength to deal with anything. Also now I know that I need to ask for a makeup box for my birthday!”

Overall Reflections

It was an amazing experience indeed! I say this because not just the sessions but the process, pre session planning and each and every step was super interesting! I learned a lot. Although it is just the beginning and I need to improve a lot, but I feel that I was okay with the process skills and could interact with her well.

What was also very satisfying was the interaction with her mother post the sessions. I remember her saying this, “I wish we as children had someone to share our feelings with!” I can’t begin to express what I felt then. I have always loved the subject. But there was this parent who not only recognized the need but also appreciated the profession. Felt amazing!

She told me that she feels stronger now! Now that’s a success story for me! This particular session positively motivated me to use expressive therapies in my future sessions with children & adults!