Some days we all just need to take a break and scribble. Adult routine and societal responsibilities can shift us into our left brain and leave our inner kindergartener in the dust. And while physical exercise and a balanced diet are certainly key components to maintaining our health, creativity is an equally integral connection that we all need in order to find the relaxation, healing and childlike play for mental and physical well being.
What Is Creativity?
Sure, creative expression is less measurable than calories or heart rate, but this very intangibility proves its importance. No numbers can quantify the meditative quality of mixing paints or the satisfaction of tying off the last row of a hand-knitted scarf. Some cultures even espouse creativity as the vital life force, such as chi, prana or kundalini. And in medical studies, creative expression has been proven again and again to be integral to the healing process.
Just take it from Rosalie Frankel, the founding art therapist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Art gives kids having a hard time a voice. It helps them reconnect with who they are … they are in an environment where they don’t have a lot of choices, and the art helps them do something that they have control over and that is purposeful, as opposed to being very passive and having all the decisions made for them.”
Having worked with everyone from children to seniors since she began practicing in 1980, Frankel has seen many patients work through anxiety, trauma, depression and illness successfully with various art mediums through her individual and group sessions. Citing the vital nature of optimism in the healing process, she says, “Creativity can be one of the keys to helping people change their attitude and be more positive and relaxed and divert their thoughts in a positive direction.”
This redirection toward mindfulness and away from any brewing storm of negative thoughts can also bring a sense of self, relaxation, confidence, power and even fine-motor skills.
Creativity in Action
Frankel currently assists children and young adults, ages 5 to 30, at the hospital, making the rounds at bedtime and leading groups for inpatient youth. Depending on the circumstances of each patient, she pulls different art materials from her toolbox, and the results not only empower the patient but also allow for increased communication and understanding between the individual and hospital staff.
One girl in particular, Frankel recalls, had an especially difficult time before a scheduled surgery and had been hiding under her bed, refusing to emerge. The nurses were bewildered. Markers in hand, Frankel coaxed the girl out from under the bed, and after some trepidation, the girl began to draw a dog. “We were talking about the dog, and then it comes out that she had this dog, and they had to put it to sleep. She was told that when she had surgery, she was going to be put to sleep. It’s no wonder she was hiding under the bed! This gave us the opportunity to clarify what was going to happen to her so she wouldn’t have that anxiety.”
Artwork hanging in a hospital room also provides something for hospital staff to connect with patients about other than their state of health. Rather than feeling reduced to a diagnosis, the patient can create art, allowing for an empowered expression of that patient’s humanity.
Of course, in this setting, it is extremely important for the art therapist to propose a task that is going to make for a positive experience so that the patient doesn’t leave feeling frustrated or even more agitated. Frankel says, “For someone who’s really cognitively loose, I wouldn’t give them a media that’s going to run away from them like watercolors or something that’s going to be hard to control. Whereas for someone who is feeling really stuck and rigid, I might give them something more fluid to encourage them to relax and play.”
Frankel notes that it’s also important to keep this principle in mind when dealing with different emotional states: “Sometimes for anger, I’ll have them put down what they’re feeling on the page, but not usually for anxiety … I find that redirecting [anxious thoughts] and using soothing media is more effective.”
For the Rest of Us
Thankfully, we don’t have to be in-crisis or artists extraordinaire to benefit from creativity’s therapeutic qualities.
First, drop your preconceptions. “I think everyone needs to not define art as being able to draw,” Frankel says. “I always tell people you wouldn’t expect to pick up a flute and be able to play a symphony on it. Everyone can technically learn how to draw, if that’s what you want to do, but drawing is only one part of art.”
Start with your personality type and goals. If you are more task-oriented and like to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a project, perhaps a structured activity like knitting, scrapbooking, or themed collage might work best. If you don’t strive for completion and simply wish to relax and play, an unstructured activity like abstract painting, freeform collage or mandala making could be more satisfying.
Forms of creative expression don’t seem to vary much between men and women, but when it comes to younger children, it’s important to be mindful that boys often develop fine-motor skills more slowly than girls. In keeping with Frankel’s “always be successful” art philosophy, they might feel more empowered and relaxed when building stuff out of blocks, popsicle sticks or other recycled materials.
Easy Weeknight Projects
Take a piece of paper and draw a line through the center to make your horizon (squiggly for mountains, flat for water). Then experiment with colors to fill in the sky and land.
Use a white crayon to draw patterns on a white piece of paper. Then paint over it with watercolor paints.
Ripped Paper Collage
With your hands, rip construction paper or magazines into various sizes and shapes, then glue them onto a piece of paper to create a new image.
Build Your Creative Toolbox
Markers, crayons, colored pencils, oil pastels, watercolor paints, finger paints, construction paper, recycled materials, stickers, magazines, rocks, sticks, leaves, yarn, beads, glitter