5 Art Therapy-Inspired Activities for Calming Behaviors and Building Resilience by Erica Curtis
Updated: Oct 22
Asking a child to talk about a problem, explain their behavior, or come up with solutions when they feel disconnected or upset is often ineffective. Art provides an accessible, nonverbal alternative when words don’t work.
In this article, you will learn 5 art therapy-inspired activities for calming behaviors and building resilience. You will also gain important best-practice tips for using art for social-emotional growth. No artistic skill or special supplies are necessary.
This is a guest blog post by Erica Curtis, author of the books Art Therapy Activities for Kids: 75 Evidence Based Art Projects to Improve Behavior, Build Social Skills, and Boost Emotional Resilience who is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Board-Certified Art Therapist with a private practice in San Juan Capistrano, California. Learn more about Erica below.
What is Art Therapy?
The arts are used for recreation, entertainment, social change, beautification, education, and ceremonial purposes. In all contexts, the arts have therapeutic potential. This is because the arts have unique qualities that activate emotions, bring people together, stimulate new ideas, train problem solving skills, and transform our experiences. When children make art, they benefit.
What is unique about art therapy is that it thoughtfully harnesses and magnifies art’s therapeutic qualities, in combination with knowledge of human development and psychology, to produce targeted therapeutic change.
Only credentialed art therapists can practice art therapy. However, there are many ways teachers, counselors, parents, and other caregivers can stay within their familial role or professional scope while using best practices from the field of art therapy to help the children in their lives. Here is a framework to keep in mind:
Use art to build internal resources like coping skills, resilience, positive self-esteem, and problem-solving skills, not to resolve persistent symptoms of psychological distress or trauma.
Use art to destress, not to stimulate repressed emotions.
Use art to build connections, not to reorganize family dynamics.
Art is an accessible, stigma-free, and fun avenue to improve self-awareness, emotional regulation, problem solving skills, and connections. What’s more, art gives us a way to connect with and express our internal world when words are inadequate or inaccessible due to stress, big feelings, shut down responses, trauma, language barriers, developmental delays, and more.
How it Works.
Asking a child to talk when they’re upset is often unproductive. There’s good scientific reason why. When we feel hurt, stressed, or upset, our brain’s problem-solving capabilities decrease. So does its ability to process and use language. In these moments, our brain and body are reserving resources to survive. Add to that the fact that children’s “thinking brain” region (the cortex) is still underdeveloped, as are the neural connections that allow the “thinking brain” region and “feeling brain” region (the amygdala) to effectively communicate. Asking an upset or shut down child to verbally problem solve isn’t working with how the brain works.
While heightened emotions impair problem solving, learning, and language - sensory perception is enhanced during these times. Art provides a non-verbal, visual, and kinesthetic language that permits access and gives form to emotions even when stressed or upset.
Once abstract internal experiences are transformed into tangible external objects, creators can step back and reflect on what they made. With this distance and curiosity, the “thinking brain” region can fully come back online. New meaning and solutions can arise in the moment, emotions shift, and neural connections between feeling and thinking brain regions are strengthened for the long term.
How We Talk About Art Matters.
When it comes to using art for social and emotional growth, aesthetics and artistic skill are unimportant. Let children know this. Art for social-emotional growth does not need to be “pretty”, “good”, or look like something specific. Just like emotions, sometimes we like what results from creative expression and sometimes we do not. We want children to learn how to bring curiosity, tolerance, and appreciation to all experiences that arise from within. Even the unpleasant ones. Art is an ideal platform for practicing this.
Start by paying attention to how you talk about art. Even well-meaning remarks like “good job”, “I like it”, or “that’s wonderful” unintentionally shift the focus toward aesthetics and away from potentially rich, personal meaning.
Model curiosity. Start with, “Tell me about what you made” or “What did you notice on the inside while you were making it?” rather than assuming. You may both be surprised.
Make observations using the phrases “I notice” or “I wonder.” For example, “I notice you sat for a while before starting” or “I notice you used a lot of blue.” Add wonderings like: “I wonder what was going on for you before beginning” or “I wonder if blue has any special meaning for you or not?”
If a child insists on knowing whether you like their art or not, ask if they’d be willing to tell you what they think of it, first. Encourage them to be specific. What about it, specifically, do they like or not like? When it is your turn to share, also be specific such as “These colors get my attention and make me smile” or “I like that you took risks and tried something new.”
Invite children to talk about the process of creating in addition to sharing about their art product. Reassure them it’s okay if it felt fun, relaxing, frustrating, or disappointing. Help them be curious about how they welcomed or coped with whatever feelings arose.
7 Tips on Guiding Resilience-Building Art Experiences.
Making art invites a present-focused mindset which can be a rich opportunity for stress reduction. The process also allows ample opportunities to problem solve, make choices, slow down, and work with mistakes. These are all valuable skills necessary for navigating life. Art is a relatively carefree arena in which to rehearse them.
However, as relaxing and skill-enriching as art can be, it is also a prime activity for self-doubt, frustration, and internal criticism: “Am I doing this wrong?”, “It looks bad”, “I’ll never finish in time”, “I don’t know where to start.”
Here are seven tips for turning any art-making experience into a therapeutic learning opportunity. Depending on the situation, you might use one or many of these.
Let a skill or goal guide activity directions and remarks. If you hope to teach stress reduction, suggest scribbling out stressful emotions. If you hope to increase tolerance of imperfections, suggest making the messiest scribble possible.
Capitalize on the present-focused quality of art making by inviting children to focus on one part of the process they find pleasing, such as a color or repetitive motion.
Get curious about worries and frustrations. Ask if similar thoughts arise during other parts of their day. How do they cope with those thoughts and feelings?
Encourage slowing down to think through problems that arise. Model taking a deep breath or using helpful self-talk like, “Let’s take it one step at a time.”
Point out strengths you see like stick-to-it-ness, trying something new, or self-control.
Keep material type and size in mind. Some kids need the containment of smaller paper and structured materials like pencils or markers, so they don’t feel overwhelmed. Other kids benefit from more expressivity and can both tolerate and maintain the self-control needed with larger paper and loose materials like paint.
Remember, there is no one right approach and blunders happen. Simply by being a positive presence and inviting creative expression, you are building resilience.
5 Art Therapy Activities You Can Use This Week
Below are five socially-emotionally rich activities from the book Art Therapy Activities for Kids: 75 Evidence Based Art Projects to Improve Behavior, Build Social Skills, and Boost Emotional Resilience that you can use immediately. They pull from creative arts domains including drawing, building, cutting and pasting, and creative movement. Try them as is or adapt them to meet your needs. Creativity is always welcome.
Time Needed: 20 minutes
Have you ever observed a child when they’re feeling smad? Sad and mad at the same time. What about scarppy? Scared and happy. Actually, most of us experience more than one emotion at a time. This can feel confusing, especially when emotions seem opposite. In this activity, you’ll help your child experiment with different emotion combinations to discover that even conflicting emotions can coexist in harmonious, and sometimes very silly, ways.
Materials: Drawing paper, drawing utensils (colored pencils, markers, crayons), electronic device to access emoji chart (optional)
Show your child a selection of emojis for inspiration. Search online for “emoji chart” or access an emoji menu on a phone app. (Skip this step if you don’t have access to a device).
Explain how we can feel many emotions at the same time. Give an example. Point to the emoji chart, showing two, three, or four emotions you’ve experienced simultaneously (if using). Invite your child to do the same.
Invite your child to draw a circle (or many circles for many emoji mash-ups).
Guide them to add emoji-inspired details and feature from two of more different emojis to create an original emoji.
Discuss unique names for each emoji mash-up. Combine feeling words based on its features, such as sad + mad = smad.
Helpful Tip: If emotionally charged kids won’t participate, try drawing possible mash-ups yourself as a way to guess what feelings they may be experiencing. Showing options can inspire curiosity and help them shift out of their funk.
Favorite Stuff Still Life
Time Needed: 15 Minutes
We might not realize it, but we’re surrounded by stuff that can help us cope with stress. Soothing scents, textures, sounds, and tastes signal the brain that we’re okay, even if things feel tough. With this activity, your child will develop a menu of self-soothing items to call upon in distressing time, as an alternative to bothering siblings or as a fun way to bust boredom.
Materials: Paper, writing utensil, wooden blocks or cardboard boxes (optional), camera
Explain that a still life is a drawing or photograph of everyday objects. Your child will gather special and soothing items for their still life.
Together, write a scavenger hunt list. Add items related to the senses, e.g., things that sound nice, smell good, feel soft, taste yummy, look beautiful.
Add items that evoke pleasant feelings, e.g., things that make your child smile and feel relaxed, playful, comfy.
Challenge your child to collect all items. Some delight at racing a timer. Others prefer to take their time.
Invite your child to arrange the items artistically for photographing. Optionally, use blocks or boxes to create levels, shelves, or frames for items.
Provide a camera for your child to photograph their still life composition.
Helpful Tip: For children who struggle with transitions, do a quick, one-item scavenger hunt between activities or before heading out the door. The chosen soothing item can accompany them to the next task.
Time Needed: 20 minutes
When we are mindful, we aren’t thinking about what’s happening. We’re observing it, like when carefully drawing a vase of flowers or watching a bird with interest. We might momentarily get distracted by a noise or thought, and then return to what we’re observing. This is being mindful. Mindfulness is a mindset kids can develop by paying attention with curiosity to whatever is happening moment by moment.
Mindfulness exercises can be traced back to ancient India and China. Because of its many benefits, today, people all over the world practice mindfulness. It improves focus, decreases distracting thoughts, and calms reactive impulses. Remarkably, when kids regularly shift into observing mode, they actually grow a part of the brain that helps them slow down, calm their emotions, and make good choices. Although changing the brain takes time and practice, kids can immediately use this activity to experience the calming effects of mindfulness today.
Materials: Drawing paper (any paper works), tape (or stapler), drawing utensils (colored pencils, markers, crayons, or paint)
Tape two or three pieces of paper together to create one longer piece of paper.
Explain that your child will draw a mountain range, using their breath to guide how tall each mountain becomes.
When they breathe in, they will move their drawing utensil up diagonally, creating one side of a mountain. As they breathe out, they will move it down diagonally, drawing the other side of the mountain. The longer the breath, the taller the mountain.
The next inhale begins the next mountain’s incline. Continue the up-and-down process until the drawing reaches the end of the page.
Guide your child to notice how long or short each inhale and exhale is naturally and to notice if their breath changes. Experiment with different breath lengths.
Optionally, invite your child to add a second row of Mindful Mountains lower down.
Finally, ask them to add details to complete their mountain scene.
Explain that we can draw mindful mountains in our imagination, too. When feeling stressed or preparing for sleep, they can imagine mountains forming in their mind with each breath.
Helpful Tip: Talk with children about how their feelings or energy changed. Invite children to decorate their scene with weather or other details that reflect their feelings, whether snowy, sunny, or breezy.
Let’s Talk About It:
What did you notice during this activity?
Was it easy or difficult to let your breath decide how big or small your mountains would be?
I wonder, were you able to stay focused on what your breath was doing? Or did your mind get distracted?
How did your body feel after the activity? Did you feel more relaxed, energized, or the same?
Time Needed: 15 minutes
Assuming the best in others is key to resolving conflicts smoothly. When we choose to see the positive in someone else, even when we’re angry, we’re less likely to stay stuck blaming them. The other person is more likely to let their guard down, too, creating an opportunity for solutions. The next time your child is arguing with a loved one, try making Likeable Links to ease the way to resolution.
Materials: Colored construction paper, scissors, writing utensil, tape
Initiate this activity with your child (or between siblings), instead of talking about the problem straightaway. To lower defenses say, “Let’s do something together.” Or say, “I’d like to show you something."
Invite children to cut long strips of construction paper about 1 to 2 inches wide.
Ask children to write what they like about the other person, with one like for each paper strip. Challenge children to make at least five. Assist with writing or brainstorming.
Demonstrate looping a strip into a circle, taping the ends together. Insert the next strip through the circle. Tape it into a circle. Now two strips are linked.
After linking all strips, take turns reading what’s likeable about the other person.
Connect both children’s paper chains with a final, joining link.
Helpful Tip: If your kids are ready for a teamwork challenge, intentionally provide only one pair of scissors or one roll of tape. Help them practice requesting materials and waiting patiently for their turn.
Time Needed: 20 minutes
Inspirational words don’t mean much unless we feel the truth of their message inside. Otherwise, they’re just sounds that can be quickly brushed away. It’s the difference between hearing the words “I love you” and feeling a hugging, warm sensation inside. Use this activity instead of a pep talk. You’ll find it’s much harder for your child to ignore encouragement when inspiring words are infused all the way to their heart.
Materials: Indoor or outdoor space for movement
Admit that your pep talks might not always be helpful. Share that you’ve learned an activity to make encouraging words more meaningful.
Explain that you’ll say some encouraging phrases. After each, your child will move their body in ways that represent the phrase or how the phrase feels to them.
Remind your child there’s no wrong way. Movements can be big, small, seated, or standing.
Say these phrases or make up your own: “Keep it up.” “We’re in it together.” “You’ve got this."
Give time after each phrase for your child to express the phrase and its feeling through creative movement. Join in with your own movements.
Discuss which movement was most pleasant. Were any unpleasant?
Repeat the most pleasant movement along with its phrase.
Helpful Tip: Repeat this activity using comforting phrases: “You’ll be okay.” “I am loved.” “Let’s try.” Develop subtler gestures so they can be repeated in various setting to help recall comforting feelings.
Excerpt from Art Therapy Activities for Kids, by Erica Curtis, published by Rockridge Press. Copyright © 2022 by Callisto Media, Inc. All rights reserved.
Books by this Author
Curtis, Erica. Art Therapy Activities for Kids: 75 Evidence-Based Art Projects to Improve Behavior, Build Social Skills, and Boost Emotional Resilience. Oakland, California: Rockridge Press, 2022.
Curtis, Erica and Ping Ho. The Innovative Parent: Raising Connected, Happy, Successful Kids through Art. Ohio: Ohio University Press / Swallow Press, 2019.
Social Emotional Arts Programming & Events: www.UCLArtsAndHealing.org
Art Therapy Information & Resources: www.ArtTherapy.org
About the Author
Erica Curtis is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Board-Certified Art Therapist with a private practice in San Juan Capistrano, California. For over twenty years, Erica has specialized in the integration of cutting edge, creative, and compassionate approaches to improving lives of others. She is an award-winning author, internationally sought speaker, and has been cited in over 100 media outlets including PBS, The Boston Globe, USA Today, and Elle. Erica serves as core faculty and curriculum developer for UCLArts & Healing and is the admissions consultant for the Loyola Marymount University Department of Marital and Family Therapy with specialized training in art therapy. Erica has served multiple terms on the board of directors of the American Art Therapy Association and is a past president of the Southern California Art Therapy Association, from which she received the highest recognition: Honorary Life Member. Erica serves as an expert consultant for organizations like The Foundation for Art and Healing and has collaborated with industry giants like L’Oréal on creative mental health initiatives. She is a subject expert for the CA Board of Behavioral Sciences, for whom she consults on standard of care in disciplinary cases brought against therapists. Her books, The Innovative Parent and Art Therapy Activities for Kids can be found anywhere books are sold. For more information or to connect with Erica visit www.TherapyWithErica.com or IG @ericakcurtis.