Connection during COVID-19: Self-Portrait with Removable Face Mask

Hi there! Welcome to the final post in my weekly series of free art activities to try while we stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19. With the green light from the Ontario government and the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario, starting next week (June 2020) I will be returning to the art room to start seeing some clients in-person again. I will still be available for online sessions, and my clients and I will work together to determine the best and safest option for them.

(I’ve really enjoyed creating these posts and I would love to keep sharing art activities with you, but with my upcoming schedule change it will be less often.)

As I plan for a safe and careful return to the art room, I am re-imagining what in-person therapy will look like. One of the things I love about my work is the physical, collaborative art process as my clients and I literally work together to solve problems and find creative solutions. We build, play, and get messy, and it’s difficult to stay 6 feet apart during this kind of a process. So, to help my clients stay safe, I will be wearing a face mask during our sessions.

Here’s a photo of me wearing one of my non-medical face masks.

In fact, health officials are now recommending that everyone wear a non-medical face mask in situations outside our homes where physical distancing is a challenge. Our new reality is that when we go out, we see many (if not most) people wearing some form of a face mask.

Photo by Julian Wan

Have you experienced this? Have you worn a face mask yourself, or noticed others wearing them? How did it make you feel? 

What about your children? Have they encountered face masks? How did they react?

Whatever your (child’s) reaction was, it’s perfectly okay. This is something that most of us have never encountered before. And often, the unknown is frightening.

When we see something new, our brains make up all kinds of things to fill in the blanks of what we don’t know. As a way to keep us safe, we are biologically wired with a negativity bias, which means that we often imagine something scary when we don’t understand what we’re experiencing.

Seeing someone wearing a face mask might feel uncomfortable because we can’t see most of the person’s face. It’s so much harder to tell how that person is feeling!

This can be especially frightening for young children, because developmentally they are at a stage where they rely heavily on visual cues from adults to confirm if they are safe in a given situation. Because children are relatively helpless and depend so much on adults to meet their needs, they vigilantly check adults’ faces to see if we seem happy, angry, or frightened. They adjust their behaviour based on the cues they pick up, in order to make sure they get taken care of. If they can’t see most of our faces, it’s much harder for them to quickly determine where we (and consequently they) are at.  

Photo by @tengyart on Unsplash

One of the things I explore with my little clients is the idea of becoming a “feelings expert” or “feelings detective” through our work. We use all kinds of clues to figure out how someone is feeling, but the first and main one is facial expression. If someone is wearing a mask, we can’t see their nose or mouth.

It’s a harder challenge for us feeling detectives, but there are still some clues available to us. We can still see their eyes, their eyebrows, and the rest of their body language (what their arms, legs, shoulders, and hands are doing). We can also get clues from the words they say and how they say them. And if we aren’t sure how someone is feeling, we can always ask. But this is the next step. For now, I just want to say that it makes total developmental sense if a child’s first reaction is to feel scared, uncomfortable, or uneasy when they see someone wearing a face mask. 

A play therapist whom I admire, Lisa Dion, says that one of the greatest things adults can do for children is to “make the unknown known.” When we help kids to understand their experiences and to know what to expect, we eliminate their need to imagine the worst and fill in the blanks on their own. 

So this week, let’s explore face masks!

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi

Making art and playing are two of the main ways that children (and adults!):

  • integrate new information,
  • make sense of their experiences,
  • rehearse or practice new skills, and
  • experience a sense of control in their lives.

By creating invitations for children to play with and make art around the idea of masks, we can support them to process this new element of their experience.

Here is a self-portrait doodle from my sketchbook as I get used to wearing a mask when I go out.

My hope with this project is that it will help us to name, acknowledge, and explore our feelings about face masks (and about our current situation in general). I hope that this project will also offer an opportunity to help kids understand WHY people are wearing face masks, to correct any misinformation kids might have absorbed, and to make the unknown known when it comes to face masks. On a personal level, this project will also help my child clients to know what to expect if they are planning to come back to the art room for an in-person session with me.

So, let’s make a self-portrait with a removable face mask 

Here’s what you need:

    1. A printed copy of the Self-Portrait with Removable Face Mask template. Click here to download the free PDF.
    2. Drawing materials (markers, crayons, pencil crayons)
    3. Scissors
    4. Scotch tape 

Here’s what you do:

Download the Self-Portrait with Removable Face Mask template and print a copy. After you turn the face into a self-portrait, follow the instructions on the first page to cut out, create, and attach your mask. 

Here’s a video of the process from my self-portrait (click the play button in the middle to watch!)


    • Print a few copies of the template and make portraits of important people in your child’s life who might be wearing face masks during upcoming interactions (eg. family, friends, service providers). Design a special mask for each person and experiment with putting the face masks on and taking them off again. 
    • Add pipe cleaners or strings to the paper face mask, so you can attach it to a toy or a stuffed animal. Invite your child to use the masked toys to play out common experiences like visiting the doctor or going to the grocery store. 

    • If you have a face mask, put it on and take some selfies! Selfies are powerful self-portraits and help us to explore how we see ourselves and others. 
Here’s a face mask selfie I took. Can you tell from my eyes that I’m smiling?

Rationale (Here’s why I love this activity):

  • This activity puts children in the position of power over their artwork, which may help them to experience a sense of mastery and control during a time when so many things are beyond their (and our) control.
  • Face masks are new in our day to day experience, and new often feels scary. This activity can help make something that might feel scary seem a bit more approachable and friendly.
  • Art is how children process, integrate, and make sense of new experiences. Making art about face masks will help children to work through this new aspect of their reality. 
  • This activity provides an opportunity for kids to practice using masks and get used to the idea in a playful, non-threatening way.
  • It’s a starting point for talking about what we can expect as we slowly expand our interactions and venture beyond our homes again. 
  • This activity allows us to teach kids about face masks and help them to understand why and when other people might be wearing them. 
  • This activity can inspire a discussion about how we can still sense each other’s emotions and share them with each other, even with masks on. 
  • I will be returning to some in-person art therapy services, but will be required to wear a face mask. I want to support my clients as they adjust to this change, and offer a way that we can think about this and explore their feelings connected with it. We can get used to the idea of face masks before we try it in real life. 
Photo by Mladen Borisov

Some things you might talk about:

For example, you might say: Face masks are really great at stopping germs from spreading. Some germs can make people feel sick with the coronavirus.  When we wear a mask, the  mask helps us to not share germs with the people around us. When other people wear masks, they are wearing them so that they don’t share germs with us. We wear masks to protect ourselves and the people around us. 

  • What else are we already doing to stop the spread of germs? (washing hands, staying 6 ft away from others when we can) 
  • When is it helpful to wear face masks?
    • when we are away from home and with people who don’t live with us
    • when we might come close to other people, and it will be hard to stay 6 feet apart
    • we don’t need to wear masks when we are playing at home, or when we are outside going for a walk or a bike ride 
  • What kinds of masks and face coverings might you see when you go out? 
    • Eg. Face shields, medical masks, N95 masks, surgical procedural masks, non-medical cloth masks 
    • Find some images using a google search to show your child so they can know what to expect (making the unknown known) 
  • Who might be wearing these different kinds of masks? Why do doctors and nurses wear different masks than most people doing normal day to day tasks?
    • They are taking care of people who are already sick. They use extra safety measures to stop from getting sick so they can keep helping others!
  • How do you feel when you see someone wearing a face mask? What does it make you think of? 
    • Try to normalize and accept however you and/or your child feel about this. If your child feels scared, you can explain why people are wearing masks, and offer reassurance.
  • How do you feel when you wear a face mask? 
    • Again, try your best to accept and have compassion for however you and/ or your child are feeling.
    • Some feelings I have felt while wearing a face mask include claustrophobic, hot, isolated, and safe.  
  • Can we tell how someone is feeling when they are wearing a face mask?
    • We can see their eyes and eyebrows, we can read their body language, we can listen to their words, we can notice their tone of voice, we can ask them how they are feeling
  • Reflect on how much has changed in the past few months. Acknowledge and accept any feelings you have in connection with all these changes. It’s perfectly normal to have complicated, mixed up, and even contradictory feelings when we experience change, especially such drastic changes in such a short amount of time.
Photo by H. Shaw

We have gone through HUGE changes in the past few months. If this project brings up some difficult feelings, worries, or fears, please reach out to someone you trust. If you would like to chat about any of this, or could use some support, you can send me an email anytime at

Sending you warm thoughts,


Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT

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