Art at the heart of healing

While many of us were gathering around the menorah or singing Christmas carols, some Arizona families sat bedside waiting and watching for hospitalized children to heal. It got me wondering what the role of the arts might be in the healing process. Did you know there are actually studies showing the health benefits of laughter? Maybe I should just take to the pediatric hospitals with my stick figure drawings and see if I can spread some cheer.

Happily, I got some better ideas while brainstorming with kids from the cast of Oliver! Saturday was my last day to wrangle (watch the kids when they’re not on stage), and they were gracious enough to help me with ideas for art projects children can do in the hospital. All agreed art projects are a great way to pass the time when you’re stuck at home sick or in the hospital for a spell.

Art projects are especially handy to have around when your child might be anxious waiting for a doctor to do his or her rounds, and when young friends or family members come to visit. Having materials to craft something wonderful together can ease that awkward silence that comes when we don’t know what to say to loved ones experiencing pain or suffering.

Pediatric specialists like Banner Health Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa and Phoenix Children’s Hospital already know that art is at the heart of healing. Their child life specialists work with children in several ways to assure they feel more comfortable with medical procedures and feel less stress while hospitalized and away from home, school and friends.

Child life specialists work with children both bedside and in hospital playrooms to assure that art is part of the healing process, according to Erin Sinnema, MSC, CCLS, certified child life specialist with Cardon Children’s Medical Center. The center also features a variety of support programs including humor therapy and music therapy. Especially for children, the expressive arts truly are at the heart of healing.

Sinnema says the center provides standard art materials like crayons, markers, paint and paper for many reasons. Because art is a universal language, it builds bridges between anxious patients and professionals who enter their world bearing familiar art materials.

A child who is used to drawing at home or in school will take comfort in being able to continue a familiar activity while isolated from familiar surroundings, reflects Sinnema. He or she may also feel a sense of satisfaction at being able to ‘give back’ by creating artwork for others. Most importantly, perhaps, art helps children express their feelings about the experience of being sick and separated from family and friends.

Child life specialists at Phoenix Children’s Hospital note that art is also an important resource for siblings of sick children. Brothers and sisters are welcome to send in artwork or photos to be displayed in their sibling’s hospital room, and sibs are also welcome to visit the child life playrooms (when healthy and accompanied by an adult).  Pediatric specialists recognize the role of the arts in treating the whole child and the whole family, and see firsthand the impact of art on health and hope.

If finding appropriate art materials for a hospitalized child or teen just isn’t your forte, plenty of folks—including the hospital’s child life specialists and your child’s teacher/s—can offer suggestions. Sometimes the simplest way to go is an art kit available from the hospital gift shop, or local businesses like bookstores, art supply stores or craft stores.

Many art museums—including the Phoenix Art Museum, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and others—have gift shops featuring kid-friendly arts and crafts projects. So do many of the Valley’s family-friendly destinations, such as the Desert Botanical Gardens and the Phoenix Zoo.

Creativity for Kids and Klutz are great online resources if you can’t get out for supplies.

A few guidelines as you’re making your selections…

Think neater rather than messier (a principle you don’t need to worry about at home). Think easy to transport, clean up after and store. Maybe you have a fun tote or plastic crate that can become the designated crafts center for your hospitalized child—something he or she knows will always be full of fun surprises. Think frugal. You’d be amazed what a child can do with simple and inexpensive materials like pipe cleaners or felt and a pair of scissors.

Consider not only your budget, but also your child’s age, motor skills and energy level. Your child’s own preferences, safety considerations and any hospital rules about what parents and other visitors can bring for patients should also influence what you choose.

Consider magazines like American Girl and FamilyFun that offer ideas, directions and/or templates for kid-friendly arts and crafts projects. If you’re not feeling particularly gifted in the arts, you can turn to online resources for project ideas and directions. When in doubt, give a simple sketch book with special pencils or pens. (This idea was especially popular among the boys in the Oliver! cast.)

At the bottom of this post you’ll find just a portion of the incredible list of ideas shared by girls from the Oliver! cast yesterday (the first time I wrangled, I interviewed more boys than girls, so this will balance the scales). I’ll see them later today for strike (theater term loosely translated as tearing a show down after that final performance), so I may have more ideas to add to the list this evening (or even tomorrow).

I’ll also share a few of our own family favorites (think thumbprints, multicolor ink pads and a Sharpie pen)–but first I’m off to whip up some goodies for the post-strike pot luck…

Until then, happy doodling!


*Fun hospital art projects…

  • Drawing supplies: Sketch pads, paper, pens, pencils, crayons, markers, erasers, pencil sharpeners and “how to” drawing books (how to draw animals, etc.)
  • Scrapbook making supplies: Blank scrapbook, miniature photo album or wire-bound unlined index cards with assorted papers, scissors, markers, glue sticks, etc. (fun scrapbook themes include family, friends, pets, dreams for the future)
  • Fiber arts: Yarn for making yarn dolls, embroidery floss for making friendship bracelets, felt for making finger puppets, crochet/knitting needles with yarn for making a blanket to sleep with or put around a favorite stuffed animal
  • Bookmark supplies: Bookmark templates for needlepoint with embroidery floss and needle or card stock bookmarks with stickers, stamped art, etc.
  • Button art: Buttons with wire or fishing line for making bracelets or flexible dolls
  • Card creations: Large unlined index cards or folded card stock with stickers and other embellishments to make thank you cards for hospital staff, friends who bring gifts, fellow patients, etc.
  • Collage art: Heavy cardstock or flat canvas with glue or glue stick for attaching magazine cut outs, get well cards, torn pieces of tissue paper, etc. (hole punch at top and add yarn or ribbon to hang up in hospital room)
  • Book-making supplies: Paper or card stock your child can staple into booklet form after writing a tall tale, a playful poem, etc.
  • Magnetic toys: Flat screens with magnets you manipulate into various designs or 3-D magnetic toys for creating a myriad of unique sculptures
  • Puppetry: Socks, paper lunch sacks or tall envelopes with fun face-making supplies like googly eyes, pom poms, felt, foam pieces, etc.
  • Paper crafts: Origami paper (plain or with designs such as animal prints) with instruction booklet for paper folding or paper cutting (kirigami); Roll of gift wrap for making long paper doll chains
  • Pom pom people: Furry little pom poms with glue, googly eyes and foam pieces for making people or animal faces with feet (foam core pieces make great people and animals too)
  • Hanging art: Yarn or fishing line for hanging art or mobiles (think snowflakes, butterflies, sports equipment, cars and trucks, etc. (thick pipe cleaners or thin hangers make handy mobile frames)
  • Puzzle art: Blank puzzle with markers for coloring custom design or heavy card stock with markers and scissors for drawing and cutting out a one-of-a-kind puzzle
  • Stuff to fluff: Felt, embroidery floss and stuffing for making teddy bears; Napkins or fabric squares, stuffing and needle/thread for making special hospital pillow; Soft cloth with ribbon and scented beads or potpourri for a refreshing sachet or compress

*Special thanks to Adele, Alex, Barrette and Madeleine and all the other Oliver! cast members who contributed ideas to this list of art projects–you’re one bright and creative bunch! Their best ideas were sentimental ones that might be easiest to accomplish with kits–dreamcatchers for capturing wishes and worry dolls for releasing fears.

Coming soon: Creating an art-friendly home


One response to “Art at the heart of healing

  1. i can relate to that…. im an artist (from the Philippines), currently working as a designer here in India…. an introvert…, so basically i am often in my room after work… my friends and colleagues often want me to hang around with them.., but i often refuse them…Im not just comfortable being in the parties and mingling with the crowd…

    In the office and even at home, there are lots of emotions.., sometimes im stressed, annoyed, but there are also happy moods…

    i love photoshops…, and you know when i feel bored, i just grab the mouse and scribble things thru it and fillem up with colors ( in accordance with my emotions) by the paint bucket tool…. Colors have their own meanings and emotions too…, so they are powerful instruments for reflecting our moods…

    i usually do it when i feel mad.., just releasing my anger thru the ARTS.., same thing i do when i feel inspired, in love or even hurt…

    art is really wonderful !!! it heals when you feel pain, soothes you when you are stressed or even give you peace of mind when needed….

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