Skip to content

Gaining the Best out of at Home Therapeutic Art: Are your Assumptions about Art Killing your Children’s Creativity?

We all have heard the benefits of practicing art for mental health. Beyond art therapy with a licensed therapist, therapeutic art at home can help clients to express themselves, develop confidence, and allow clients to learn more about themselves. However, while many may be seeing visible improvements in emotional management, self-esteem, and communication in their children when doing art at home, others may not have such a positive experience. If this is you or your child, don’t give up on therapeutic art just yet! Have you considered that just maybe your assumptions about art are preventing your children from gaining mental health benefits from art?

 Beyond regular art activities, therapeutic art has an emphasis on creating a comfortable environment where the child is free to be creative and to express themselves without judgement. This contrasts with many art environments where children are encouraged to follow art conventions and rules. To illustrate this further, let me tell you a story. A family living in Shanghai, China once shared a story to a friend of mine about their youngest daughter. She was filling in her coloring book one day and painted the sky grey. Seeing this, her mother, like what any other mother would likely do, nicely told her daughter that skies are meant to be colored blue. Maybe her teacher would mark her down for painting the sky the wrong color or her friends would laugh at her for school. Her mother only had the best intentions for her child. To this comment, her child held her mom’s hand and directed her to the window where she pointed to the sky, that is indeed very grey in color. 

Whether it be in at home, at an art class, or at school, you were probably taught similar art conventions that this mother was emphasizing to her daughter. Children are more commonly taught to follow the rules and find the “correct answers”, instead of thinking creatively and critically. Paint the sky blue and the grass green, color inside the lines, and neatly draw according to the dotted lines and a teacher will give an “A” but go over the lines or paint the sky purple and most children will get frowned upon. While these conventions are teaching children rules and how to follow them, are we limiting our child’s creativity and cognitive development by telling them to “stay in the lines?” These conventions may be necessary to teach children traditional artistic skills and mediums, but are these conventions beneficial in a play environment at home? When adults control instead of grant freedom and judge instead of accept, children are not given the safe environment that is the essential key for the success of therapeutic art. 

In his article on the subject, Dr. Peter Gray wrote, “creativity is nurtured by freedom and stifled by the continuous monitoring, evaluation, adult-direction, and pressure to conform that restrict children’s lives today” (Gray, 2012). As reported in a longitudinal study, the increase in rules and boundaries is seen to have created grave consequences in the US education system. It has resulted in a decline of 85% of children’s creativity from 1984 to 2008 (Kim, 2011). While this research is conducted in the United States educational system, a powerful lesson can be learned of the significant potential effect of placing confirmative boundaries on children’s creativity. Art therapy places a greater demand for creative freedom than classrooms.  If art is to be used to free a child, it cannot be applied in a manner that limits a child. 

Therapeutic Art
image source:

What are some things that adults may do that limit children’s creativity when giving art instructions at home?

  1. Giving rewards for neatness and conformity and not for creativity, originality, and expressiveness.
  2. Negatively commenting on children’s work
  3. Dismissing children’s questions
  4. Prohibiting children from trying new things
  5. Over-protecting children from making a mess and making mistakes

(Bartel, 2016; Gable, 2000; Art Instruction: Does it hurt a child’s creativity? 2018; Ruangguru, 2017)

What are some things adults can do to foster creativity and critical thinking to improve children’s mental health?

1. Provide instructions, but encourage originality, creativity, and curiosity!

Try to give children open-ended questions and instructions, to prevent children from copying examples and encourage them to create something on their own. For example instead of instructing children to draw a yellow flower on green grass, you may ask them to draw their favorite activity. Providing children with a variety of materials to work with may also encourage children to incorporate different mediums and think outside of the box. Additionally, consider preparing materials that allow for more creative freedom, such as blank pieces of colored paper, instead of a coloring book with pictures to fill in.

2. Praise creativity and effort instead of neatness and conformity!

Praising creativity and effort instead of neatness and conformity encourages children to think out of the box in unconventional ways. When children are praised for creativity and effort instead of neatness and conformity, they are also freed of the pressure of perfection and performance that they may already feel at school. Thus, children are also not only encouraged to be more creative, but feel safe and empowered in doing so. 

3. Teach children how to problem solve instead of giving an answer

When children come and present you with a problem. Try teaching them how to think of ways to deal with them on their own instead of providing a precise answer. This will further encourage creativity and foster independence and self-esteem.

4. Encourage children to try new or challenging things

Instead of restricting children to the activities that they’re used to, encourage children to try new and challenging things! If you are restricting your child out of fear that they will make a mess, communicate this to your child and give them the opportunity to prove to you that they can use their creativity in a manner that is safe and respectful. 

5. Provide children reasonable personal space and freedom without the pressure of constant surveillance.

Not all children enjoy the constant company of adults. In fact, most children like their own freedom once in a while, especially when they grow older. Of course, younger children should still be supervised, but that does not mean that adults can’t give their children time and a little space for themselves. Adults supervising younger children may simply sit by their side while reading a book or occupying themselves with another light activity that shows children that you are not surveilling their every move.

6. Try not to comment or give instructive feedback in the middle of your child’s creative process

Give instructive feedback only when your child has finished his/her work. Providing feedback in the middle of the process may pressure the child to conform instead of embracing creativity and originality.

7. When they’re done, give positive informative feedback!

Providing informative feedback does not mean showering children with praises and only praises, but it means considering which comments will encourage meaningful growth and which ones won’t. This means eliminating negative comments that will only bring children down and rephrasing feedback to a positive manner. For example, never say “This is so ugly”, “You have no drawing talent”, or insult a child or a child’s work. Instead, provide informative feedback on how they can improve. Instead of saying, “This is so ugly”, say “Wow you’ve really worked hard on this, but I think your picture would look even better if you used more colors, don’t you think?” Remember to not only give constructive feedback, but listen to your child’s response to them! Empowerment should be present every step of the way!

(Bartel, 2016; Gable, 2000; Art Instruction: Does it hurt a child’s creativity? 2018; Ruangguru, 2017)


Art Instruction: Does it hurt a child’s creativity? Deep Space Sparkle. (2018, May 11). 

Bartel, M. (2016). Ways not to kill classroom creativity. 

Gable, S. (2000, July). Creativity in Young Children. University of Missouri Extension. 

Gray, P. (2012, September 17). As Children’s Freedom Has Declined, So Has Their Creativity. Psychology Today. 

Ruangguru. (2017, February). Awas! 5 Hal Ini Tanpa Sadar Bisa Menghambat Kreativitas Siswa. Blog Ruangguru. 

Like This

Share This

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp