Art therapy brings out creativity, boosts self-esteem, and gives children with special needs a chance to shine. Here are some tips to make crafting with your children successful and fun.
“Art really helps with self-esteem,” says Nancy Landy, ATR-BC, LCAT, co-director of Westchester Creative Arts Therapy Services. “A lot of children [with special needs] have very few successes—they’re not doing the things that their typical siblings are doing—and this is a time for them to shine, a time for them to be successful. Because all artwork in art therapy is acceptable!”
Doing arts and crafts with your child should not center around creating a masterpiece. Beyond having fun—an absolute goal!—undertaking art projects with your child can take a page out of the art therapy book: “Process over project,” as Pamela Ullmann refers to it. Ullmann, founder of Riverdale, NJ-based Colors of Play and president of the New Jersey American Art Therapy Association, says that all crafts are adaptable to different ages and abilities. “You basically have to know your child,” she says.
Two essential bits of advice: Focus more on what your child can do than what she can’t do; and always “let them know what’s next,” advises Ullmann. Beyond that, here are some tips for making craft time not only productive, but enjoyable—for you both.
Tips for doing crafts with children with special needs
- Eliminate distractions. Set the stage by not choosing a time when a sibling is running around or when your child’s favorite television show is about to come on. “If you’re a working parent,” suggests Ullmann, “do it on a Sunday morning or a Saturday afternoon when everyone’s fresh. Don’t start it and end it when everyone’s cranky and tired.”
- Give a choice. Offer up two or three potential craft projects and let your child choose. He’ll be more invested when he feels in control.
- Ease into the work. “Let the child play with the materials before jumping into a project,” Ullmann says. “Sometimes it’s just about being with the materials and not feeling pressured to make a finished product.” This approach can be especially helpful for kids who have sensitivities to textures, helping build a tolerance for the materials such as clay or yarn.
- Offer specific encouragement. Hone in on the details of your child’s project, Ullmann says: “I really like the way you used the blue over there.” And acknowledge effort: “I like the way you’re sticking with it.”
- Help, but don’t hover. Before jumping in to assist your child with a task that seems to be challenging, first engage in conversation. Maybe ask how it’s going, or say, “I see you’re having some trouble with that. Maybe I can offer a suggestion that might make it easier.” Helping your child problem-solve instead of just assisting with the task at hand empowers her to become a problem-solver in the future, and helps her gain confidence.
- Limit materials. Especially for children with limited attention spans, it can be overwhelming if too many materials are spread all over the table. “For some young children who have trouble focusing, you might have projects that are pre-prepared,” Ullmann says. Eliminating a step or two simplifies things. “If you are making paper-bag puppets, for example, a parent can precut some of the shapes, but not all of them, so the kids can still be creative.”
- Use the “hand over hand” technique. Place your hand over your child’s to help him trace or paint. You serve as a guide and support, and he’s still building fine motor skills.
- Invite a friend. It’s a good opportunity to have some socialization and peer interaction—and, as Ullmann says, “the more hands on deck—with another parent present—the better!”
- Show off the work. Kids love showing off what they can do, and sharing with others can be powerful, Ullmann notes, especially for a child who has struggled to make something, or overcome an aversion to texture, perhaps. “A parent can take a picture of a child’s artwork and tell their kid, ‘I think Grandma would love to see what you’ve been working on—let’s send it to her!’
“I have a client who is 25 with cerebral palsy, and painting has really helped her in her everyday life,” Landy says. “She has decided to paint pictures for people who have helped her in some way. It’s become a nice way for her to show her appreciation while at the same time developing her fine motor skills—which in turn has helped her in the kitchen with cooking.”
Try this tool when crafting with kids with special needs
For pint-sized Picassos without the sharpest fine motor skills, get a little grip assist with Melissa & Doug’s Happy Handle Stamp Set. The set comes with six graphic stamps with designs like butterflies and paw prints, ready to be pressed down with the ease of a molded wooden handle. Stamps guarantee a perfect graphic every time rubber meets paper, so your kids will be proud of their creations. The Happy Handle Stamp Set includes a pad of six bright, washable inks.