Inner-child expressions: using art in the classroom

Sasha Braganza

Regardless of age, each of us holds within us the essence of our inner child, that sensitive, genuine, loving, and creative part of our self that tries to surface every now and then in our interactions with the outside world. While this inner child is present fully during early childhood, eventually we ‘grow up’ ignoring its many needs as we cope with the demands of the society in which we live.

Growing up we were always told to “not act like a child” or “be mature” causing us to suppress the part of ourselves that is spontaneous, childlike, and pure enough to feel every emotion, positive or negative.

sasha-1 This aspect within us has all the positive qualities of a child – joy, innocence, wonder, playfulness, and creativity but just like a child it can be easily wounded when rejected, suppressed or hurt by the words or actions of others. Almost every adult at some point has lost touch with this child within and we continue to live our lives with a ‘wounded child’ aspect of our personality, rarely realizing that it continues to influence our lives subconsciously. For instance, harsh words from another can cause us to have one of two reactions – withdraw into a shell or lash out with an even harsher comment. The person’s reaction can be traced back to how he reacted to such a situation as a child. This ‘child’ thus continues influencing almost all our interactions even in adulthood.

As adults who are conscious of this inner-child, great responsibility lies upon teachers, some of the most influential adults in the lives of their students. The first step would be for teachers themselves to get in touch with their own inner-child for healing and expression to be able to see this aspect in their students. Understanding children from this perspective would answer many questions teachers may have regarding their students.

Children today are constantly told to be responsible, successful, hard-working, achievement oriented, and grown up. They forget how to be children and slowly begin to lose touch with their inner selves. This is where the use of art in schools comes in. As a tool to help children be children and express that part of themselves that brings them most joy as they rediscover their hidden talents and abilities. Teachers who recognize this aspect in their students tend to naturally understand student behaviour and relate to each student individually rather than as a collective.

Art for expression versus art class
In the school I went to as a child, apart from ‘art class’, where we received approval or disapproval for our work, we didn’t have a period set aside for mere creative expression. Unable to live up to the expectations of an art class I spent my childhood considering myself to have minimal talent and didn’t bother exploring that part of myself. It was only in adulthood when I began to use art as a therapeutic tool for working with children and adults with special needs that I realized how easily it helped me connect with the child within and released the mental block I had about art. It was an effective method of bringing me back in touch with my innate creative nature that had lain dormant all those years. Since art made such an impact on me as a teacher I began to feel connected to the process and grateful to be able to facilitate similar experiences for the individuals I worked with.

Published research over the years has consistently emphasized the benefits of using art in education. Commonly researched benefits include improved academic performance, fewer disciplinary infractions, and increased levels of satisfaction among students. When children and adults are guided to express themselves freely through the arts they discover a part of themselves they may have ignored over the years. They start to develop an increased sense of self worth as they see themselves as unique creative beings capable of much more than what society expects of them. Creativity and imagination permeate into ways in which they learn. Coordination and the ability to concentrate is honed as creating can be a meditative process. There is an overall increase in awareness of self and one’s surroundings, i.e., the inherent beauty in all things.

Children are able to access freely all the positive qualities that lie within, like enthusiasm, spontaneity, and joy. More importantly, they start to use art as a therapeutic tool to express that which cannot be expressed with words. This in turn helps them deal with their own emotions through expression in a healthy manner, taking responsibility for their own emotional well-being.

Letting children be children (even if they aren’t)
All art forms such as visual art, dance and movement, theatre, storytelling, and music can be used to express the ‘inner child’. Depending on the need, specific art forms bring therapeutic value to specific children. Whatever the area of weakness in an individual, it tends to stem from how the individual developed it in early childhood. Art helps people resolve that aspect of themselves.

For instance, a child with a negative perception about his body can gain confidence in himself through dance and movement while a soft spoken child who has trouble voicing his opinion can benefit from theatre and role plays. Both these weaknesses can be traced back to instances in childhood where perhaps the shy child was ridiculed for how he looked and the quiet child was not listened to when he spoke.

Some children are more drawn to particular art forms depending on their interests. However, all art forms when facilitated correctly have the ability to bring an individual in contact with their inner-child. Though some of these may be resource heavy for a classroom setting, the use of visual art is not only feasible but also a very effective method of expression. The sensory and experiential nature of working with media like crayons, paint, pastels, etc., is itself conducive to therapeutic expression as it involves working with colours, textures, and one’s own hands.

sasha-2 The environment created for such art sessions in the classroom must be a safe and non judgmental one. We all remember that one adult or teacher whose disapproval about the way we painted, sang, danced, or acted, affected us in a way that caused us to dislike or shun that particular form of expression. The beauty of the arts however is that there is no right or wrong, there is only an expression of who we are and what our inner worlds look like.

Activity: spontaneous art using crayons

  • Remember that using art for expression is different from ‘art class’ where artistic technique is not important.
  • Provide as few instructions as possible. Try to avoid asking or answering questions.
    Step 1: Start with a few ground rules before the art session. E.g.: no judgment or comments on each other’s work, maintain silence, etc. The class can come up with more and write them on the board.
    Step 2: Ask the children to have their own set of crayons. Explain that this is a fun activity and their work will not be judged or shared with others. Write on the board or say out loud a simple sentence such as “How do I feel today”, “What do I want my teacher to know?”, “When am I the happiest”, and “What would I want my future to look like”. A simple statement that triggers the inner child to express.
    Step 3: Ask them to use their non-dominant hand (left for right handers) and pick the colours that they feel most drawn to. Specify that they must not think and must just colour as they like.
    Step 4: Allow time for expression, you will know when they are done.
    Step 5: To close, ask the children to give their drawing a name using a single random word if they like. For example, ‘sleep’, ‘blue’. Ask them to share only if they want to.
  • As a facilitator walk around and try to gauge some aspect of their inner child by observing their work. Provide acceptance of their work, not approval.
  • One can improvise the above activity using different media and themes.

We are living in an age of education where academics trump imagination and expression. With the pressure on teachers to complete the syllabus and on children to perform, the student’s innate abilities have taken a back seat. It is time for teachers to start perceiving their students not only as little goal oriented achievers but also as young individuals with dynamic stories and complex emotions that need expression. The arts are a non-intrusive method of getting a glimpse into their worlds and connecting with them on a level that allows us to understand student behaviour from another perspective.

The author is an arts-based therapy practitioner, inner-child healing facilitator, and counsellor. Using art as a therapeutic tool for working with children and adults with special needs she soon experienced how it brought her in touch with her innate creative nature. She can be reached at sashangela@gmail.com.