The Power and Magic of Art
As teachers, we sometimes witness unusual behavior from children that causes our inner alert systems to ring. In the best of situations, there is a partnership between home and school. If something is going on in either of the venues where children spend most of their time, information is often exchanged.
At times, this exchange is not possible. One tool we can rely on to learn about what might be going on is the power of art.
It’s developmentally appropriate for young children to see themselves as the center of their worlds and, thus, the cause of all that happens to them. When one of our four-year-olds fell and broke his arm, we all talked about it being an accident. While his parents, teachers and other adults all gave him words of reassurance, it was in the world of play that the next layer of healing took place.
Observing his unusually quiet and withdrawn behavior, I wondered if he blamed himself for the broken bone, as if he had done something wrong. We again discussed the concept of accidents without leading to any change in his behavior.
However, within a few days the child turned an old ball and a rubber glove into what he named the "Bad Ball Bone Breaker." The class hung it on the bulletin board and shouted at it for hurting their friend. While a psychologist might suggest this as being projection of the child's feelings, as a teacher I observed changes in his behavior.
During their time at Expressive Arts, the child and his friends would break into chants or accusations about Bad Ball Bone Breaker hurting someone, breaking their bones. For weeks and weeks the play went on as the child’s own broken bone healed. The boy’s usual sense of fun and comradery with his peers returned.
When the child had his cast removed, he brought it into school. He put the Bad Ball Bone Breaker inside the cast, stuck two additional rubber gloves on each end and quickly stuffed the imprisoned object into a silver can. He then asked me to write on it, "The Bad Ball Bone Breaker will stay in here until he can be good."
The other children covered the can with a long piece of cloth and wrote their names on it. They too chanted that it could not come out until it stopped breaking bones. If it tried to escape, they had poison ribbon and other obstacles that would thwart its escape. Stories of its attempted escape flew through the school.
For about a week, the Bad Ball Bone Breaker stayed inside its prison. Sometimes the children peeked inside.
"Be careful! Don’t open the lid too wide; it may try to get out," they warned each other with great glee.
Through the lightness of their play and the support of his friends, the boy found the courage to see if the Bad Ball Bone Breaker had changed. There was a hush of silence as the boy slowly opened the canister.
First he took out the poisoned ribbon, the goo and all the other traps. I watched him remove the glove and stare at the ball. There was a very long pause. We all waited for the boy’s words.
"It’s learned its lesson, Elyse. It’s not bad anymore," said the boy. A group sigh was heard.
"Let’s change its name. It’s not the Bad Ball Bone Breaker anymore," he said reflectively.
He thought for a moment, considering calling it Nice or Heart. He looked up earnestly and told me, softly, "I know, we’ll call it Love." He picked up a marker and wrote on the ball: L-O-V-E.
"You’re free now," he said to the ball, perhaps mirroring his own feelings. And that is the power of art.
Through art and peer support, a young boy who blamed himself learned that he wasn’t bad. We do not need to be art therapists to observe and cheer on supportive collaborations in our classrooms.
- Notice unusual differences in our children’s behavior.
- Ask open-ended questions.
- During open-ended art time, sit beside a child and ask questions using art as the bridge into a child’s inner world.
- Know that our thoughts are our best guesses. Continue asking questions for affirmation.
- Notice new changes in feeling tone or behavior.
- Documentation: photograph the process. You can memorialize it, having the child make it into a book or art box. In the process, additional information can be learned.
We observe our students, pay attention to what they make, ask questions and observe again. We intervene only if an adult's view is needed. We trust that they have their own inner guidance system. If allowed to freely express with simple materials, the most amazing results can occur. Sometimes we need do nothing but observe to witness art do its magic.