Eighty-six orphans from the Awqaf and Minors Affairs Foundation were inducted into a growing form of psychotherapy — expressions through art — to provide clues to their state of mind. A series of art workshops are held to enable them to portray their feelings, without fear of judgement.
“The way a child creates art and plays with it can highlight a great deal about their situation and experience,” said Sara Powell, art psychotherapist at the Art Therapy International Centre, which has been working closely with orphans. Ten Emirati volunteer artists hold the workshops.
The ongoing endeavour, called the ‘Saleh’ Art Programme, is part of a year-long initiative by the Cultural Office of Shaikha Manal Bint Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum organized for orphans and underprivileged children between ages four and 16.
The programme features four workshops, three of which have taken place, with the final one to be held on May 19.
Connecting with their thoughts and emotions for the first time, the children were able to explore the boundaries of their self-confidence and communicate their feelings through drawing, painting, clay modelling, music and group drama.
“The aim of art therapy is to encourage the use of a child’s natural inner resources, to help them to work through trauma and difficult experiences,” said Powell. “It does not focus on products or outcomes but on the therapeutic qualities of the art-making process itself. The safe environment provided to them to express themselves gives the tools to regulate their emotions and manage their behaviour.”
The approach gives the orphaned children an opportunity to directly convey their ideas on loss, grief or loneliness. Such emotions can have a deep impact on their sense of well-being, Powell said, depending on how strong or not is their resilience, and their ability to forge bonds and attachment with others.
The workshops explore themes such as self-identity and self-esteem in the form of in self-portraits, which are then assessed for what they reveal about the children’s minds. In another exercise, the children are asked to introduce themselves based on their likes and dislikes.
Certain clues in drawings provide a sharp insight, said Powell. For example, missing limbs in paintings, she said, can at times equate to feelings of helplessness. It could also allude to powers they wish to have or that they are maybe lacking in something. “[Such clues] help us understand their needs and drives (us) on how to support them.”
Powell said that it is extremely important for a child to be given the space to play and express their feelings [through art] because it helps build the emotional framework through abstract, imaginative thinking, to bridge development and aid cognition.
The children are also engaged in group activities wherein they have to work in collaboration on a canvas. This teaches t them how to understand their feelings and insecurities by having to share and negotiate space with others. “This can improve awareness of other people’s feelings and needs,” said Powell.
“Children who come from a difficult background can be self-contained and less open to others or overly attached and dependent on others. The process [of expression through sharing] helps them gain the confidence to trust and interact with others,” explained Powell.
A significant aspect of holding these workshops is that the children benefit by working with local artists. The artists brief the children and encourage them to socially interact. This engagement helps the children with any misconceptions they have in terms of their responses and enables them to clear their self-doubts, said Powell.
Mona Bin Kalli, Director of the Cultural Office of Shaikha Manal, said various studies have linked arts participation to positive emotional, social, physical and spiritual growth, as well as enhanced engagement in school, increased community engagement and pro-social activities.
“This is what we are trying to achieve for the children through these workshops,” she said. “We provided children with an outlet to open up about their thoughts.”
A special training was conducted for the children to prepare them for the workshops and increase their practical knowledge of therapeutic art.
“The programme allow the artists to feed the children’s imaginations and provide them with positive reinforcement,” said Mona.
The exercise, she said, is not about creating pleasing art works. “It is about creating authentic work, facilitating communication and expression in addition to managing and containing emotions, while inspiring creativity [in these children].”
The fourth and final workshop, on May 19, will focus on the principle of creating a happy place for the children, said Powell. The programme will conclude with a special art exhibition during Ramadan showcasing the children’s art achievements from all workshops.
By Mary Achkhanian
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