Children's Art During The Pandemic Offers A Window
Many parents are wondering how the pandemic is affecting their child, especially if their child is not easily able to verbalize their feelings. Enter the crayon box.
Art can be used as a "communication bridge" for parents and children, says Nadia Paredes, a California-based registered art therapist, and may be especially useful in starting difficult conversations.
Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California, pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce asked the children in his ongoing study of immunity to “draw the earthquake,” as The Atlantic's Kate Julian noted in a recent article, and found a real mix of happy families and scenes of destroyed houses. "Those of our kids who experience the events of their lives — those both thrilling and frightful — in Technicolor brilliance and brilliant relief have much shelter to derive from the expression of fears and pain," wrote Boyce in his book The Orchid and the Dandelion, explaining that those who created the more alarming pictures seemed to process the experience more easily and fared better in the long term.
We understand how great artists work through their experiences — take Frida Kahlo's portrayal of her injuries in "The Broken Column" — but how much can we read into our children's pictures of this moment?
"As art therapists, we don't interpret artwork," explains clinical art therapist Cheryl Walpole Tiku. "Sometimes it can mean something and sometimes it's just a kid processing the fact that they love ninjas."
"Don't assume," agrees Paredes. "Ask! Because kids will have inner symbolisms that we're not aware of. Why spoil it with your projections if you can use it to get to know the other person better?" She suggests asking questions about a child's artwork in the first person. ("When I see this it makes me feel X, do you feel that way?") This not only gives a child space to discuss their art and feelings but models empathy as well.
To get a sense of how the pandemic looks to children, I asked parents to share some of the art their children have made, and was rewarded with a true gallery of artistic vision. Some kids drew their life under quarantine, one drew the vacation he cannot take, many drew scenes from nature, and one rendered the virus itself. In these pictures, relationships are a theme, along with gratitude. The goal isn't to psychoanalyze them, as Paredes notes, but to use them to open a conversation, and as a reminder to keep creating.
One of Ethan's virtual assignments from his occupational therapist was to draw a picture from memory. His mother reports that while he has never actually been on a cruise, the family has one planned.
Eleanor's colorful work is titled "Rainbow Fairy Dreams."
Paredes suggests showing your child examples of titled art work and then asking them what they would call their own piece is a good conversation starter that may give you more insight into their process and intention.
Ayla drew this card for a friend's birthday. It's her in a car and is captioned "Me saying hi from 6 ft away."
Annabelle's mother Kristen was initially a little freaked out when Annabelle suddenly started drawing zombies as the pandemic began. (This particular one was for Annabelle's grandmother.) Paredes emphasizes, however, that art without a corresponding behavior probably isn't cause for concern.
"I would be very curious to ask so many questions about this picture," says Paredes. "Like where did the zombie come from? Is it a nice zombie? Is it a bad zombie? And who is the question ('does zombie make you scared?') for? Who are you asking that question to? Again, we don't want to interpret but it's a great way to start that conversation of 'Mom, I'm scared and I want to know if you're scared, because I don't know if you are or not.' Or it could be the kid asking herself if she's afraid of the zombie or not."
Leon's over here serving up puns.
Evyn's mom, Ashli, says that her daughter draws "all day every day" but this picture of her and her 18-month-old brother is a new favorite.
We're not supposed to interpret children's art... but sometimes it's not very hard to figure out what they're getting at, right? (Nate's mom confirms that this is, indeed, a picture of the novel coronavirus.)
The birth of Sailor's new sibling is very much on her mind.
This is Amir’s pizza warrior. A pizza was crossed with a human in an evil scientific lab and pizza warrior was created!
Veda's parent celebrated their birthday while quarantined. This is the card she made them.
Noah's art does not require a stretch of the imagination to interpret.
"Definitely 10-year-old art," says Paredes.
Tyler found a paint with water book that had been forgotten in the house and picked this as the first picture to paint.
Lia painted this for her kindergarten teacher to give her when she goes back to school. She describes her work as "half of a hill. Butterfly and ladybug, a river that leads to a big pond and flowers. I’m going to make the other half today.”
Like Lia, Margo has been thinking of the outdoors. Margo's aunt is in a nursing home and unable to go outside during the pandemic. Margo made this painting to bring spring and nature to her.
Zoe was very interested in dipping her paintbrush in every single color to make this flower.
Lily-Anna's Godzilla and Bunny Peep combination is, truly, giving me life right now.
"I could interpret so much of this," says Paredes, "but when you ask what the meaning is, sometimes they could represent things you wouldn't expect. We could say Godzilla is bad, he's a monster, but maybe for kids he's just a strong figure for them. He's fearless! And we're like 'I thought he was destroying the city!'"
Julia drew a picture of her mom, Tracy. Tracy reports that the "quarantine hair and caffeinated eyes" are extremely accurate right now.
Cheryl Walpole Tiku, MPS, ATR-BC, LCATC is a Clinical Art therapist working in private practice in Brooklyn, NY.