Photo of toy shelving units with toys inside the bins, and a castle and two puppets on top of the unit

That sounds like lots of fun, but is it really therapy?

This is a very valid question I sense from many parents as they consider bringing their child for art therapy. To respond to this question, I would like to share some of my personal experience and learning.

First, I want to say how grateful and honoured I am that you are here. It takes a tremendous amount of bravery, trust, and vulnerability to bring your child to therapy. I’m asking a lot of you. I’m asking you to trust me with the most precious thing in your life – your baby. And not only are you leaving them in my care – you are also asking me to help in some way. Your beautiful child is struggling. And you are hoping that through art therapy with me, your child will be able to overcome this difficulty. In a way, you are also asking a lot of me. And we are both hoping that your child will be on board and will engage with therapy. 

I see you look around the room and spot the LEGO bin or the bottles of paint. You smile as you share confidently that your child will love it here. But I immediately sense the follow-up thought, one that you might be nervous to express. It’s an internal conflict, because you want your child to enjoy it here, to feel comfortable, to have fun – but at the same time, let’s not forget that this is therapy. I’m just gonna say it, it’s expensive – although this isn’t really about the money. 

You have heard me talk about how my approach is playful, and how I follow your child’s lead. You know that they will lead me straight to that LEGO bin, and we will be building rocket ships until it’s time to leave. 

aerial view of white bin filled with LEGO pieces

So how can you know that what your child is doing will be therapy? They play and make crafts at home all the time – what makes this unique?

Here’s the hardest part about this question – again I have to ask you to trust me. Because really, what makes this different is me. 

The case for play: 

The fact that I use play as part of therapy isn’t really unique. The reason is simply because your child’s first language is play. Play is how a child engages with, influences, and explores their world, even before they can speak. Because of the way their brain is developing, children are more attuned to images, actions, and movements than to words. Their non-verbal communication skills develop far earlier and faster than their verbal comprehension and communication abilities. 

But I’m sure you know this. You have heard that play is the work of childhood. You know about play-based learning. You can see even at home that your child is mastering their world and exploring, processing, and practicing as they draw pictures about their day. And you have seen how quickly they copy you when in a momentary lapse you accidentally rest your feet on the coffee table, despite telling them daily that the table is no place for feet.

Your child is inherently creative. They are naturally driven to make things, to play out stories, to imagine and share their imaginings. When left to play freely, they are working things out all the time. Without being consciously aware of it, they are building skills and solving problems continually. As they should be. 

small child sitting at a table using watercolour paints
Photo by Anita Jankovic

When does this become therapy? 

When your child comes and spends time with me, nothing about their natural art or play process is different. The simple fact of my presence changes things, and is what makes it therapy

Psychologist and art therapy pioneer Judith Rubin does a great job of explaining this. She clarifies that in order for a creative experience to truly be therapy, a trained and competent therapist must be present. 

She talks about how a child making art with a sensitive and caring art teacher may look almost identical to their experience with an art therapist, if observing from the outside. The materials may be the same, the art task may be similar, the things the teacher or the therapist says might even be the same. But the difference is internal, in the mind of the therapist, and eventually of the client. 

Rubin explains: 

“[An art therapist is] looking with a clinically-trained eye and listening with a psychologically-sophisticated ear to what is happening. [They are] tuned in to all aspects of behaviour, hoping to understand not simply what people can do with art materials, but where they are developmentally, what their primary conflicts are, and how they are coping with them” (2005, p. 349). 

ceramic jar with a monster smiley face filled with pencil crayons

While your child plays, here’s what I’m doing: 

Basically, the way I observe and think about what your child is doing is informed by my clinical training. It’s not that I am diagnosing or even interpreting, it’s more that I am compassionately curious about every element of your child’s behaviour. I am trained to look for and notice patterns, to ask open-ended questions, and to make carefully considered observations when they are appropriate. I want to understand how that colour choice, this puppet voice, or that answer to my question fits into the puzzle of who your child is and where they are going. I want to understand how your child defines themselves and how they interact with their world. What might be blocking them from reaching their goals, and how can we overcome those obstacles? 

My ultimate goal is to help your child have a better understanding of themselves, using their natural creative and play processes. I want to help them identify their thoughts and feelings, to see connections between them, and to develop confidence that they have some control in all of it. I hope to empower and encourage them in the problem-solving they are already doing. 

Sometimes I get to know your child and learn about their world by seeing what they do with that LEGO bin, without any instructions. I don’t believe that this is “wasted” time, because everything about your child’s response to this situation gives me valuable insight into the way they perceive themselves and the world around them. This isn’t always appropriate or helpful, but sometimes it is.

small child playing with LEGO
Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Intervention to bring connection: 

While observing is important, it’s not the only thing I’m doing. Even though your child may be leading the activity, my role is to always be in control. Sometimes I recognize that we need to stop, step back, and look at what has happened. If the paint has spilled and suddenly your child is elbow-deep in a dripping rainbow, it may be time for me to intervene. 

Image from Canva

As the therapist, I have more developed language and processing abilities than your child. I have skills in organizing, reflecting, containing, and structuring. So I can say:

“Hey, what’s happened? Let’s hit pause for a second. Let’s take a deep breath. It looks to me like when that bottle of paint tipped, you panicked and tried to stop it. But when you reached for it, your arm knocked over the other ones. Then they all spilled, and you felt worried that I would be mad. But you thought that if you were going to get in trouble, you might as well have some fun first. So you put your whole arm into the mess.” 

In this way, I am putting words and a story to your child’s non-verbal communication. I am modelling for them how to identify and name their feelings. I am connecting their thoughts to their feelings, and showing how these lead to their actions. Another way of saying this is that I am connecting their left and right brain. 

transparent skull model
Photo by Jesse Orrico

Through this process, your child is learning to tell their story. 

Sometimes I get it wrong! This may not be what your child was experiencing. But then they can correct me. They can follow my lead and use their own words to tell their story. 

This process helps your child to develop their own ability to connect their thoughts with their feelings, to understand their behaviour, and to exercise appropriate control over their actions. Ultimately, it leads to integration which is essential for mental health and well-being. 

This is my intention with everything that happens during an art therapy session. It’s all for the purpose of understanding your child, and helping them to understand themselves and make connections. 

animal toys with speech bubbles above them

Kids get it – art therapy is different. 

I have found that children very quickly realize that their time in the therapy room is unique. No one else interacts with them in this way. When they draw and play at home, it doesn’t feel the same. 

Rubin agrees, sharing that “Eventually, the individuals involved in art therapy themselves become aware that this is a different kind of art experience … The very young … soon grasp at some level the special nature of art therapy.” (p. 349).  

Children quickly understand the important “work” we are doing. They expect me to observe and interact in the way that I do. They may test the limits, just to make sure that I will be consistent. And the therapeutic relationship we develop over time is completely unique. Children can sense and feel that when a sibling comes into the room at the end of the session, or when their parent has some questions for me, that the therapy time is over and the unique space of the session has been changed. 

Photo by Christine Kennedy

At the end of the day, it’s never “just play.” 

On the surface it may seem like your child is just playing or drawing. And they may have fun, they may be laughing, they may play silly games at art therapy. But please know that I never for a second forget that we are working. And I believe that after the first session or two, your child doesn’t either. 

Some things are too difficult to explain in words, or too painful to talk about. Play can make it safer. Exploring a scenario that’s just imaginary is a little bit less threatening. But emotions are real, even in play. And the lessons learned or skills practiced while playing a silly game are 100% transferable to real life situations. My job is to help your child understand that, and make those connections. 

Children know what they are doing when they come to art therapy. If they feel safe, they will take the game or the art where they need to go. Children want to do well. They want to learn, heal, and grow.

Photo by Markus Spiske

A journey towards trusting the process:

My mantra as an individual, an artist, and an art therapist is trust the process. I believe that if you and I can both trust the process of art therapy, it’s where the transforming work will happen when your child is ready. 

embroidery hoop with image of a bunny and the words "trust the process" embroidered on fabric

I hope this helps to shed some light on why I believe that playful fun makes for good therapy, and what I mean when I say that I follow your child’s lead. If you have questions about anything I have shared, please reach out and send me a message.  

And if you’re interested in research that supports or explains these ideas, here are some resources and links:

  • Alter, R. (2011). Anxiety and the Gift of Imagination. Ontario: Alter Psychology Professional Corporation. 
  • Ginsberg, K. (2007). “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” <>. 
  • Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). “The Benefits of Play.” <>. 
  • Rubin, J. (2005). Child Art Therapy. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 
  • Siegel, D. & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child. New York: Bantam Books. 

Until next time, happy playing! 

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT