Children

Making space for a creative home

This blog entry is a repost of an article I wrote, which was published in Grounded Magazine in their Autumn 2014 "Make" issue. I'm revisiting it on this Spring Sunday morning, as I listen to my now 3rd grade daughter in her singer-songwriter creative zone in the other room. Unfortunately Grounded Magazine is no longer being published, and I wanted this piece to live on, so I will share it here with you. Wishing a spacious and creative day to you and yours!

creating-with-kids

My second grader and I linger at the table after breakfast on a brisk Autumn morning. I sip my light and sweet slow-drip and watch my mind fill with a Sunday to-do list: return emails, grocery shop, send birthday card. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a twirl of our handmade driftwood mobile near the window. For the next few moments, my thoughts flip-flop between warm days along the coast and plans to pick up butter and stamps.

Meanwhile, my daughter is grabbing a jar from a nearby shelf and is intensely engaged with acorn caps she collected on a walk yesterday. With profound focus, she is stacking them, lining them up, closely studying their shape and texture. She perches one between her thumb and pointer finger, declaring, “A perfect size for a fairy hat! Hey Mom, let’s make flower fairies!” Her proposal abruptly snaps me right back into the present moment, waking me from nostalgia for days passed and plans for the day ahead. One of the most profound gifts our children offer is reminding us to return to the present moment.

“Let’s make flower fairies!” is my daughter’s way of inviting me to enter her world of imaginal play and creation. She wants to connect in the most natural way children know – through immersion in the flow of creative expression. It’s so sincere and beautiful, and my iPhone is buzzing and there are dishes from breakfast and wet clothes to be dried and.. and.. and…

As both a mother and a mindfulness-oriented art psychotherapist, I have learned the deep, lasting, and mutual benefits of making art alongside our children. I can say, from personal and professional experience, this practice is not easy in modern parenthood. When we sit down to draw with our children, it’s either the ding of our inbox or the relentless voice of the inner critic distracting us from true absorption in the activity.

Slowing Down

A creative home life requires making mental space and time much more than it demands an expertly appointed craft room. Cuddling on the couch with a bag of seashell souvenirs and a spool of yarn from the junk drawer to create a garland will be meaningful as long as we are able to be fully present in those moments. Our undivided attention is what fills children up most. The added benefit is that if we really show up, it can be deeply gratifying for parents, too.

The best way I know how to enter into creative space with children is to slow everything down. Slowness is the antidote for the modern din, like an inverse yoga pose to balance all the rushing around. We can use the slow pace of the natural world as inspiration for the rhythm of our creative home lives. Step out for a family walk to absorb the colors, light, and offerings of each season, opening all senses to the experience.

Dancing with the earth models deep, meaningful living for children, reaffirming that each beautiful detail is worth honoring. When we experience the world through a child’s perspective, we are able to tune into the hundreds of colors on the skin of an apple. We can recall the magic of watching yellow and blue paint mixed to a vibrant green for the very first time. Slowing down each step validates a child’s inborn need to investigate the process. In preserving this innate gift, we challenge our own glorification of efficiency and multitasking. Bringing mindfulness to our experiences heightens the ordinary into something extraordinary. It allows space for us to feel something and to respond to it. This is what art is meant to do.

Making is our birthright as human beings. Children are aware of their inherent ability to create and are visibly enthusiastic about the life-affirming magic of putting something new into the world. Often adults have abandoned our inner makers for more socially sanctioned pursuits. The gabby inner art critic we carry can rest when we dive into a project with our children because they don’t expect us to be Martha Stewart or Wayne Thiebaud. Above all, they want to connect with our smiling eyes and benefit from seeing our committed engagement with the creative process.

Setting the table

Art materials are food for the soul. When preparing a creative activity, whether for my art therapy adult clients or for my young daughter, I imagine I’m hosting a special dinner party with an intention of making my guests feel cherished. Much like a chef pairs specific flavors so as not to clutter the palette and overwhelm the senses, I edit the selection of materials. The menu varies, but the setting is always deliberate and the meal nourishing.

I prepare the space with intentions of simplicity, beauty, and rhythm. I let in natural light and fresh air, assessing the space for distractions that could pull my family away from creative absorption. I turn off and cover electronic screens. I sweep away clutter that interrupts the eye. If I’m distracted by the worry that the “meal” will be messy, I simply cover the floor with an drop cloth, put butcher paper or oilcloth over the table, and we don smocks. If I still find mess to be an obstacle, I don’t cancel the party; we dine al fresco instead.

Just as I would select food at the market for dinner, I incorporate natural materials that are local and in season into our buffet of creative offerings. This reinforces a child’s attunement with the rhythms of the earth and helps parents come back home to these inner movements of the soul. Natural objects account for half of the “art materials” in my home. We gather acorns, sticks, shells, stones, leaves, flowers, and pine cones and store them in large, clear jars on a dedicated shelf.

Rather than a huge collection of art supplies, I invest in fewer, high-quality materials that promise a powerful sensory experience. Aside from basic paintbrushes, scissors, and glue, a few of my favorite art media are Stockmar beeswax crayons, liquid watercolors, Lyra Ferby colored pencils, wool roving, a variety of yarn and string, and white paper (140 lb. for painting and 80 lb. for drawing.) Knowing each type of art media holds an inherent metaphor, from the yielding way watercolors blend together to the resistance of a sharp pencil on paper, I purposefully select materials that will help balance the current mood.

Combining earthy items with traditional art materials makes for an elegant creative provocation — an art invitation without the intention of a specific product, inviting experimentation and free self-expression. I sometimes set up a provocation before my daughter comes home from school or prepare it before bed, so it greets us in the morning. Some favorite pairings on our art table that offer limitless possibility are:

  • leaves + clay
  • driftwood + acrylic paint
  • smooth stones + ink
  • acorn caps + wool roving
  • twigs + yarn
  • flower petals + clear contact paper
  • pine cones + colorful pompoms
  • a wildflower bouquet + colored pencils

Trusting the process

Children feel held when there is rhythm and appreciate a time each day or week devoted to making. Co-creating a ritual to mark creative time as sacred will bracket the experience as heightened and special, like lighting a candle or ringing a bell to begin and end art sessions.

Embracing an experimental mindset when making with children helps us to honor the process. This doesn’t always mean letting go of the idea that we might create a product or a useful craft; rather, it allows for meandering, messes, and mistakes along the journey. I trust that the art materials will tell us which way to turn next, and I listen to them with focus and wonder so my daughter might do the same.

Like all cycles, each creative process winds down to completion. Together, we clean our materials with respect and care. We set aside time to reflect upon what we have made, as this part of the creative process allows for integration and meaning-making. A child’s art holds his or her stories, emotions, worldview, and self-concept, so we treat the art with the same respect as the artist. I withhold my opinions and projections, being responsible to ask my daughter open-ended questions about her process and her creation.

When the candle had been snuffed or the bell has been rung, my daughter is often recharged and seamlessly moves into solitary play. My to-do list is still waiting there for me, and I face it feeling more balanced, satisfied, and connected. In my maker-momma bones and my art therapist heart, I have intimately come to know the value of mindfully making creative space where flower fairies can fly.

Paradise Lost: The experience of disillusionment for the child/inner child

The topic of disillusionment seems to be coming up a lot for me these days, as a mom to an almost 9-year-old, as a therapist, and as an adult woman consciously walking the path of healing my own inner 9-year-old. Disillusionment is defined as the absence of illusion, or a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be. Anthroposophical philosopher Rudolph Steiner put forth the idea that, much like Adam and Eve being banished from paradise, there is a "waking up" (sometimes a rude awakening) and a "fall from grace" that occurs in a child between the ages of 8 and 10 years old. In anthroposohy, the term for it is "the 9 year change."

At this time of life, children are becoming more embodied (literally, inhabiting their bodies) and grounded in the realities of the world around them, rather than floating in the imaginal realms of early childhood. In making that shift, the child experiences great inner turmoil. This is an age where a child may lose interest in toys that used to be fun for them, feeling (and acting) torn between toddler behavior and teenage behavior -- trying on both sides. At this age, children question the existence of beings like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and even the idea of magic itself. This is the age where they begin to see that their parents are not the superheroes they once believed, but mere fallible mortal beings who make mistakes -- and that can be a huge let down. This is the time when children are waking up to their sense of self in relation to the world around them, and trying to find where they fit. They may feel they can depend only on themselves, and anxiety becomes a dominant emotion. They may be quietly tuning into their inner world for the first time, and perhaps experiencing their own shadow side freshly.

Some common markers of this transition can include irritability, hypersensitivity, fickleness, difficulty falling asleep, fears of the dark/crime/intruders/death, spontaneous emotional releases (sobbing, yelling, hitting, tantrums,) feeling like the world is not fair, feeling isolated, self-conscious, and unloveable. Children begin testing their parents, as closest people to them, to make sure they will still be loved even when they show their darker sides and express anger, sadness, jealousy, neediness, hatred, and mischievousness. Psychosomatic symptoms are very common during this time - common ones being heart palpitations, headaches, and breathing problems. Nightmares can become more frequent and vivid, often involving being chased, robbed, in an accident, fire, or even being murdered. Ideas of right and wrong and of evil and death come to the forefront. They expect honesty and authenticity from everyone, especially from themselves.

Traumas or wounds that can really go deep at this age are ones involving lies, mixed messages, verbal abuse, criticism, not being allowed to "talk back," only getting praise or affection when being a "good girl" or "good boy," or being within a family system where there is a cycle of addiction (the "don't talk, don't trust, don't feel" unspoken rule.)

Overlaying anthroposophy's concept of the "9 year change" with other developmental models in psychology, this time correlates to the development of the fifth chakra (expressing one's truth,) Freud's latency period, Piaget's concrete operational period, Erikson's "Industry vs inferiority" period, Maslow's self-actualization stage, Wilber's middle egoic personic stage, and the conscious self stage of psychosynthesis.

Acknowledging and having compassion for the struggle at this (and every!) stage of development is key for a therapist, a parent, and a human being living on the earth with fellow human beings. I am a woman with a rich connection to my own inner 9-year-old and a mother currently parenting a small human being through this time. Even though I'm a therapist who works exclusively with adult clients in my practice, every adult brings their inner child into the room with them in some way. If there was wounding around this stage of a person's development, the therapist may serve as the "magical stranger" (as its known in the Hakomi method) providing the experience that was missing in this person's childhood, or the therapist could be called upon to "reparent" this younger part and/or aid a client in reparenting their own younger self, meeting needs that were not met in childhood. In doing so, the therapist may more directly dance in realms of transference and projections of the fallible parent, and take on the feelings of not being good enough, open enough, understanding enough, or giving enough. As always, the therapist's own mindfulness of their body, experiences, and triggers (in and out of session) and processing their own countertransference (outside of session) are ethically imperative to the work.

So, what do the 9-year-olds inside of us and out among us need? They need to know they are lovable unconditionally - no matter what emotions or behavior they display. They crave for their feelings and experiences to be validated. They need a solid, confident, care-giving presence who consistently and warmly enforces rules and boundaries. They need to see love, unity, and community modeled for them in the midst of their isolated feelings. They need a private space of their own (children at this age are often are moved to create forts and other shelters to burrow into.) This is a stage where children want to feel capable, so giving them the ability to do very useful, productive things for themselves helps them feel like they belong and are safe in the world. Even in wanting more independence, self-sufficiency, and privacy, it's important for children to feel warmth, connection, and support from adults nearby (but not hovering adults...)

You see, the line the adults walk (tiptoe?) around this is a delicate one.  We won't and can't always get it right, but we can own our mistakes and in doing so, model honesty, humanness, and humility. In doing so, we can become a different sort of superhero, one who is accessible and relatable and on the ground instead of admired while soaring far up in the sky.

Personally and professionally, my heart is cracked wide open around the issues involved in this crucial time of personal growth. One of my favorite poets, Billy Collins, really captures the essence of the 9 year change in this poem:

On Turning Ten

The whole idea makes me feel Like I’m coming down with something, Something worse than any stomach ache Or the headaches I get from reading in bad light – A kind of measles of the spirit, A mumps of the psyche, A disfiguring chicken pox of the soul. You tell me it is to early to be looking back, But that is because you have forgotten The perfect simplicity of being one And the beautiful complexity introduced by two. But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit, At four I was an Arabian wizard. I could make myself invisible By drinking a glass of milk a certain way. At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince. But now I am mostly at the window Watching the late afternoon light. Back then it never felt so solemnly Against the side of my tree house, And my bicycle never leaned against the garage As it does today, All the dark blue speed drained out of it. This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself, As I walk through the universe in my sneakers. It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends, Time to turn the first big number. It seems only yesterday I used to believe There was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me I would shine. But now when I fall upon the sidewalk of life, I skin my knees, I bleed.

If you'd like to read more on the 9 year change, here are a couple useful places to start:

Art for kids' sake

As a parent, an art therapist, and a publisher of a blog on making art with kids, I often think about the importance of art in the lives of children. Art is a universal, biological trait of the human species, satisfying our innate need to make things special and meaningful. Engaging in the creative process is life-affirming and builds self-esteem. It allows a safe space for re-authoring the past or rehearsing for the future while staying grounded in each present, tactile, colorful moment. Parents often ask me how they can facilitate positive art experiences for their children. Here are a few simple tips:

  • Present your child with developmentally appropriate art materials and activities that will help them to feel a sense of mastery while also stretching a bit to learn something new.
  • Choose quality materials and present them to your child in the same spirit as setting an inviting dinner table for special guests.
  • Allow your child the freedom to experiment with materials, to make a mess, to make mistakes, and to engage in open creative expression rather than trying to achieve a predetermined product.
  • Art is a safe holding environment for shadow material, and provides an opportunity for sublimation of dark experiences. We parents often want to brighten or smooth over negative content in the name of “protecting” our children; however this can minimize the importance of their feelings.
  • Approach each piece of art with humble curiosity, never assuming you know more than the artist about its meaning.

Art gives concrete form to often unformulated feelings, and is a natural language for children. Your child’s art holds his or her stories, emotions, worldview, and self-concept, so treat each art experience as an opportunity to deepen your relationship and each image with the same respect and love as you would treat your child.

Originally published by Allstate.