• Suzanne Axelsson

The Art of Healing

Uppdaterad: jul 17

For me, the atelier, or art studio, is so much more than just a place to make arty things... it is a place of discovery, recovery and creativity.

it is also a place of relationships... between individuals, between materials, and between the human, the room and the resources.

It is a place for strategies, processes and experiments.

A place for play, work and healing.


Over the years I have selected materials and creative processes to both support and challenge children... not just in their creative abilities, but also cognitively, physically, socially, emotionally and their sensory processing.


Permission is an important element for the atelier.

Permission to be free to explore all ideas. This means as an educator we need to be open to the possibility of many possible topics being explored, including the ones that might make you feel uncomfortable. Ideas being explored is a way of processing them.

Permission to use the resources available. This does not necessarily mean that young children should be given all-access to all materials, but that with guidance they can learn how to master the tools and materials they need to express themselves and explore the world through art. But that doesn't mean the materials must only be used in one specific way that has been shown - there needs to be permission to play too. By giving the children the opportunity to both learn new skills and techniques as well as space to play and experiment with them enable them to be respectful of the materials as well as make informed decisions about their play. This is the foundation of Original Learning, play and learning interwoven.

Permission to get messy is also important. Not just the child, but the room too... Find a space where the children don't have to feel stressed about keeping clean, either by having flooring that is easily cleaned, or putting something down on the floor to protect it - the same applies for tables and chairs and other surfaces. Children lack the freedom to be creative if they need to be concerned about the possible repercussions if they make a mess. Having a dialogue with parents about clothes and getting messy is essential. So that parents can understand the learning behind the mess, but also so that you know how the parents feel... getting messy can be extremely therapeutic, just being able to focus on the process, the feel of the materials, being absorbed by the experience and engaging the whole body rather than wasting energy on trying to avoid making a mess. Sometimes it can be best to have extra clothes at preschool for children to change into, in order to create freely, either provided by the parents or the setting. Plastic aprons are something that can be used, but I tend not to like them so much as I have found they can restrict movement, they often make a sound that can interfere with the process as extra auditory input, and many times I have seen children frustrated when the aprons with sleeves fill up with paint or water (when washing up or engaged in a water intense exploration) and there is a sense of wet sogginess which usurps the experience, and creates puddles when taken off.. There is not one way that is right... finding the methods that suit you and the children you work with, that allows the most creative freedom.


In pandemic and post pandemic times the atelier/art studio can be a wonderful space for children (and adults) to process their experiences and to re-connect.


During the last decade I have been writing about "together" painting, this is not just about painting together at the same time, but also about working collaboratively on the same piece of art at different times, and over a period of time. The wonderful part of this is that for the settings where physical distancing (I will not write social distancing, as socially we want to come closer, but in a physically distanced manner), children being able to create something together, of being a part of something bigger than their individual sense, that feeling of belonging, is going to be an important part of the art studio. In the below slide selection of photos you can see a large painting where there are two working together... then another two would come and another two. In the beginning of the together painting I would just have two at a time... so that the children could get used to sharing a space, being aware of each other, and I gave them different colours (in this case black and white) and they would have to ask each other to swap in order to change colour... learning how to say yes, or no, or wait a moment, or feel what it felt like to wait... But in pandemic times, maybe the process is more about how to work alongside each other without coming too close, how to be aware of what the other is doing, can places be swapped? How are brushed swapped for different colours? Are small gloves worn, or are the brush handles cleaned in between. These are not things I have worried about personally, we washed our hands first, then if children touched their faces (in particular their noses) I asked them to wash their hands again - the children 3 and over got good at reminding each other and noticing themselves too. Usually I would have had up to seven or eight children here, the process being dialogue and interaction, problem solving and conflict resolution. Sometimes I would change the thickness of the paint, or add scent to the paint for extra sensory input, or change the kind of paper.

The second image is one large artwork that the children worked on together in small groups by gluing on layers and layers of ripped up tissue paper. The ripping process was therapeutic and also building up finger strength, we were creating a big thorn bush as part of our sleeping beauty story telling... when finished we allowed the children to use the artwork in their play as a prop for their roleplaying around the theme of Sleeping Beauty that was prevalent at that time amongst the children. In fact, I think Sleeping Beauty would be a good theme to explore the pandemic... but I will write about that more in the post about storytelling...

The final image in the below slides are using a box and the children are moving an egg (or a ball can be used). The original idea was to help my preschoolers learn to collaborate with each other. To be aware of of non-verbal communication, of understanding we don't all have the same perspective or thinking the same thing at the same time. If I was working with children that needed to physically distance then I would choose a box or container that was the right size for distancing so that the children could play and create together and also learn about the distance policies are requiring them to keep... and that this distance does not have to limit interaction or fun.


Process rather than product.. There are so many processes when it comes to art.. The process of experiencing the paper, its texture, colour, smell... and how it interacts with the materials that are being used... If it is painting there is the choice of brush, the type and thickness/length of the handle, the bristles. The kind of paint you use. If it is water paints and there is a need for a pot of water, making the decision about what kind of pot... maybe a clear pot so that the interaction of the bristles being cleaned in the water can be watched, possible bubbles and swirls observed. There is the process of what happens when the paint comes onto the work-surface (floor, table, easel etc). How is the paper angled... will it create pooling or dripping? Will the choice of paper mean the paint is repelled or absorbed, are holes easily made, or will a child need to paint in the same spot over and over and over before a hole is created? Then, of course, there is the process of the colours, mixing in to each other, creating new colours, also different viscosities mixing and interacting... the art studio becomes a science lab for budding alchemists...


Below the series of photos

1. colours being mixed. This was a part of creating a magic forest, the first step was creating a background, a small group worked around a table and they had a piece of cardboard each, and we had talked about what colours were needed to make green... these colours were squirted on in different amount on each piece and the children could work with their hands to mix them and create magic of new colours, the process of making colours, which seemed appropriate to create a magic forest. These backgrounds were then continued with a different process by another group of children, the idea was to create community and a sense of ours rather than "mine". I chose the children for each stage based on my knowledge of their needs, difficulties and joys... so, for instance I had a mix of children in this session that needed the hands on messy play painting for the sensory processing, some where this was a source of great joy, and others that found getting messy was a challenge (but not the ones I knew that this would be too much a challenge at this time). The idea being creating a safe space filled with joy for those children who thought getting messy was not so much fun, the joy was contagious and gave children the ability to overcome fear and give it a try, if they did not like it, they could choose a brush, the idea was to create a safe space to test things out. 2. the second one was about gravity and colours and viscosity. Of encouraging some children who did not usually engage in the creative side of things for long to be given the chance to explore through colour... this was actually paint being poured down a slide (we had papered the slide). We had different viscosities (watered down and thickened, I thickened ordinary ready-mixed paint in a bottle with cornflour, as that is what I had available). The children could feel how they needed different pressure on the bottles to get the colours to squeeze out, colours ran down in different ways, they observed and made decisions about where to pour next. This was science and art and hand strengthening all rolled into one... I thickened and watered down the colours I knew would be the most popular with my children, as a way to allow them to have the longest experience with the colours they liked the most... This actually used a lot less paint than I had expected and had been putting it off for years as I always thought it would be a waste of paint... but getting over my own fears about wastage and the cost allowed me to realise that we used the same amount of paint as we did when doing big together paintings that I had never once considered a waste. This comes back to permission... that even as teachers we need to give ourselves permission to try things and explore.

3. in this image I had created water colours by mixing pigment with water and aroma... we were creating decorations for the Gingerbread house... we made an enormous paper/cardboard house which was then decorated with sweets and candies. To add to the sensory processing I added peppermint, cocoa, coconut, lemon, rose and orange-blossom aromas to the paint so that it created a sense of making real sweets for the house. The scents did not last long on the actual paintings, but again this is all about the process. I also moved everything on to the floor this time, rather than on the table as I wanted to see how this would influence the movements of the children - different areas of the floor had different colours and smells... so the children could move up and down and across the room to access this in small grouping of max four at each colour station. This would, again, work well in pandemic/post-pandemic times... clusters of children spaced out in the room. The children needed to keep checking for when a space opened up in another area... I made sure that there were more spaces than children so that there was always somewhere to move to... ie if there are 12 children I had four stations (with 4 children at each)... meaning that that was a potential extra space at each station (depending on how the children moved). If there were no free spaces then the children would have had to keep asking others when they were done. The idea here was to create flow and awareness of others as well as the sensory and creative benefits.

4. This image is of a 18 month old painting with a feather... (I use ethically sourced feathers, to avoid perpetuating cruelty to animals). The photo is a detail of a photo showing one child's relationship with the paint and the feather... taking the time to explore how the paint drips, how the feather changes with the paint on it. There were so many processes that this small group of one year olds experienced with the feathers... at first each engrossed in their own process and then noticing each other and trying each other's idea out... not all painted first with the feathery side down, some painted with the point. Each child had two colours to paint with so that they could also see the interactions of the colours as well.


On one of the together painting we used a background created in another together process and then started to draw self portraits. We had been doing portraits every now and again in the previous 3 months in different ways, so the children came to the paper with skills they had been acquiring (these were 2-4 year olds). I sat with them previously while they did their self portraits - individually - so that I could have the time to listen to their portrait making (I sat in a quiet corner of the room, the rest of the children played and my colleague was there to support that process, I was in the room should anything out of the ordinary happen, but only as emergency back up... my focus was the individual I was with - again this is about giving yourself permission as an educator to take the time to truly listen to one child at a time).

But doing the portraits together I noticed how the children were now learning from each other... sharing skills they had been developing, but also watching to see how others represented themselves and how they achieved this. What fascinated me the most was that one child did not watch and copy visually, but copied the auditory process. One of the children had VERY long hair, and she was busy with rapid movements creating her hair, it made a very specific sound. Within a minute, another child was replicating the sound on her own portrait, and lots of hair was being created, although I am quite sure that the child was not aware of it being hair until another child chirped, "but your hair is not that long in real life". The child paused, looked, saw what was happening, paused again. Sighed. Then replied "but in my portrait I have decided to have long hair" - the other children paused, looked at me, and asked if that was OK - to which I replied, as I always do, that in art they could make the decisions (this group was still fairly new to me at the time, and once we have created our relationship based on trust and respect, this question of being allowed to experiment stops being asked... as they know that they have permission, and that my role there is to keep them safe and offer inspiration). Most of the children, boys and girls, then proceeded to create that sound and make long hair. Below is from that session... but before the long hair was created... (as I can see the head is just being drawn)



As you can see when I am in the art studio I use the floor a lot. But basically what I strive to do is get the whole body involved. Sometimes sitting at tables, sometimes the tables are use with no chairs, so they are stood up and moving around, sometimes at the easel sitting or standing... sometimes dance and movement were a part of the art experience. The idea was to allow the children to explore the many ways creative processes can be accessed and enjoyed, to include as many children as possible, not just the ones who like to sit down and create, and to use as many of their hundred languages as possible... it was not just painting and drawing on the floor... clay-work would often end up there on a big plastic mat, so I could wrap up the clay afterwards while not in use.

Getting the whole body involved was a great way to learn more about the children and their needs, and a great way for the children to process their emotions through art. Big movements are great for big emotions and worries. The children's processing gives me the clues as to what more I could offer.

In the slide-show below...

  1. was a small group of five children and this was the third stage of a process artwork... we had created the background, created flower stamps... now they were making flower patterns on the background. I hung the background deliberately high up on the wall so that they would need to be on a table to do the printing... they could stand, kneel or sit, whatever felt the safest for them, Before starting they needed to make a selection of which printers to use, which colours and how many (a choice of between 3-5 was offered - this was so that they had time for multiple turns, that would not only mean they did not have to wait long for their turn, but also gave time to observe others and be inspired to try something new, or dare to stand, but also to reflect on their own choices). Not all children were comfortable standing. Some waited close by, some to the side, some under the table... they all had their own waiting strategy. The aim of this was to help this group with their ability to take turns and find joy in each other's processes too, to face fears and participate with the bravery they possessed... and that this would mean different things for different children... they learned that for some they did not need to be brave, because it was just fun, while for others it was being very brave to sit on the table, and standing was not something they were ready for. EVERY art session always comes with dialogues, they do not occur in a vacuum... they either occur at the time, just before as preparation or after as we reflect immediately after, or a bit later as we look at the documentation together...

  2. The mirror was used to draw a line together... (with a washable pen) the pen passed from one child to another and they completed the line part by part... They then had to interpret the line with their body... walking along the line moving the body like the line along the length of the mirror. Each child had several turns... and there were high levels of "copying" - which frustrated many children at first, but then when I explained about the word inspiration the children realised it was an honour for people want to emulate what they had done, and not an insult. This activity would be great in distancing... the line could be drawn on a long piece of paper on the floor, or a series of shapes, either by the children one at a time completing the line, or by the adult... for the children to interpret. The audience could be spaced out enough for policy makers to be happy, yet they are all participating in the same activity. Chalk could be used on outdoor walls and surfaces.

  3. This was teamwork building, a together painting that required collaboration (and an audience - which helps with learning strategies and the feeling that the painting belongs to all of us). The brush was tied by string to the middle of a pole... and the children held an end each and needed to dip the brush into paint and create patterns. definitely whole body interaction and movement, lots of focus, and it was both play and work at the same time.

But it is not just about paint or drawing, there is working with the paper, with art, beads, water... creating art has so many different possibilities and materials... the idea is for you to choose a material that allows your children to engage fully, and to be able to express themselves. When introducing a new material I always give time for the children to play and experiment with the material first. To quench their curiosity. Then I will teach them some techniques (unless techniques are necessary to be taught first for safety reasons), this is before I even try to think about creating "something".

So for instance with clay I will let children feel it, squeeze it, break off bits, roll, flatten, add water, see what happens when it dies out. I often play alongside, rolling, scoring (once I have introduced tools, which I do not at first) using slip to put things together.. and let the children learn... so my teaching is not like direct lessons where all watch me and then they try... it is through a sense of togetherness and community and play. By watching what they can do, I introduce a new technique, or a new tool for them to master. And it becomes clear when they want to start making things, and then I can start using clay as a tool to explore other ideas. It's a process, and I am in no hurry to make that process go faster. I want them to enjoy it, to master it and understand how, in this case clay, works and can be manipulated, used and formed to express the ideas, theories that they have within them.

Below are a series of clay play photos, on the floor, on tables, inside, outside, for the sensory experience, to create a product, to experiment and discover with...


Interestingly one of the topics that is often explored through art and play is death... and this is something that is often pushed aside by educators... but I feel it is so essential for children to explore this topic safely so that they do not build up unreasonable fears, and also so it allows us to understand what the children are afraid of, what aspects and to be able to listen and respond appropriately instead of sweeping it all under the carpet... this theme I will return to in the other posts in this series (storytelling, philosophy, play etc). I would also like to point out at this stage that art is only one of the languages that I use to explore a topic or themes that the children are fascinated by. As I wrote before, the art explorations do not occur in a vacuum... and I used philosophy, story-telling, movement, play etc as tools for the children to explore their interests and the world safely, and in a way that allows the children to get a whole picture and not just one perspective. I always strive to avoid the pitfalls of the single story, and to allow children to broaden their understanding of the complexities of this world... that does not mean throwing them into the deep end, but it means exploring the whole shore, the whole water's edge and not just one tiny area before going into the deeper waters...

The preschoolers I have worked with explored death through dinosaurs, fossils and making beautiful funeral arrangements for their dead dinosaurs... they also arranged dead flowers, or what they called dead flowers - as this changed over time.. What I learned the most about their explorations of death, was that the vast majority were not scared of death itself, but of pain and mostly, being alone - so we as educators focussed on togetherness, on taking care of each other, of loneliness and how we could help each other with that... rather than tell the children "what would happen is.." which we could never truly know... we empowered the children with ideas of how they could help and be helped. I think teaching children how to ask for help and receive help is important. So they learn how to ask, to know they can ask, and also know not just to expect help, but that help is there when needed and they can feel appreciation and gratitude.


Fear has been something that art has been so useful to explore and overcome - of course this starts with dialogue and listening, discovering what the children are afraid of and why, and then setting up activities that allow them to explore and overcome their fears... as the below images show... all my preschoolers have said they are scared of the dark (which in the end came down to loneliness and not knowing if their parents were still there, and imaginations running riot) so we had art sessions in the dark... at first there was a lot of screaming, and about half left after a short time (you need be 2 adults to do this, so that one can take out the children that get overwhelmed) but the second time there was less screaming and most stayed... the third time only laughter and all the children stayed... we continued over several years... but after the third time (over a period of three weeks... so once a week) we asked the children about the dark and what they felt and they all answered that they were no longer afraid of the dark because they could play there.

We used lights in the dark to create art with... which the children could see after their play... so the air-light art become more intentional with every attempt.

I have also done art at great heights using a step ladder so they children could challenge themselves appropriately... again the idea is always for the children to feel safe, brave and to test their own limits, as well as see we are all scared of different things, and that is OK.



Sometimes I like to work with just paper - big, whole pieces that they can use their whole bodies to fold, create tunnels and houses, and eventually rip and create smaller pieces and piles... this is part of permission... being allowed... at first the children would not even stand on the paper I had put on the floor (a different group from which I usually worked with) but once they realised they could walk on it they started to sock slide, then they realised they could pick it up and make tunnels and they could feel how the paper started to change, becoming softer and more pliable... then it ripped and they looked at me to see what would happen (I sit and make myself visibly invisible during such explorations... only seen when they need me) I smiled, they asked if they could rip it more, I said of course, but check if the others were ready for the paper to change shape and size.. they all agreed and the room was filled with the sound of ripping, the smell of ripped paper and small pieces and large pieces of paper flying in all directions. I chose a big room so that they could make a big mess. It was snowing, there were piles. There were arrangements of stepping stones... was this play or art? I took photos of their creations, before it was undone and a new one created.. At the end we picked up the paper and put it all in a box. The bigger pieces could be used for drawing, or more play and eventually it was soft and small enough to be mixed with water and became paper pulp and a new experience and turned into something completely different... the process took months... But the children got to see how a piece of paper could be transformed in many ways... as a large piece of paper... to smaller, to a papiermaché landscape...

Strips of paper can be weaved, made into shapes, origami... sometimes we just sit with lots of strips and see how many different shaped we can make, how different folds work with different paper types.. and then putting these together to make a collective artwork. This is a great physically distanced art approach too... each child making their own shape, and that it gets put together into one art... whether it be drawings on small squares, or paper folding, or clay trees that get put together to make one forest... or paper constructions that can be put together to make a landscape or a town... no-one has to do the exact same thing, that each piece is unique, like the individual, and then put together it becomes something new again... just like society, or the classroom...


Digital tools have opened up artistic exploration and expression in completely new ways... younger children are not dependant on their fine motor skills to be able to express their ideas and emotions through art as art apps and touch screens can allow a completely different dexterity in expression.

Films can be made, and edited... photographs taken and can be edited and also layered over each other to create impossible scenes... another way for children to share their ideas or process their emotions... I have done this with children from the age of 2, depending on their interest and readiness to use these tools... Below are a series of photos where digital tools have enabled children to experience or express themselves in different ways...

I will share another post in the future with more details and information about digital play and art

In fact I realise that this is becoming a much larger post than I had imagined, and I don't feel anywhere close to being finished with sharing processes that could come in handy when using art as part of the healing and support process with children during pandemic and post pandemic times... There is the thinking about drawing and symbols, and there are so many materials yet to consider...


But if you cannot wait until my next post then I recommend you checking out Nona Orbach's book "The Good Enough Studio". Nona is an artist and art therapist and has much more knowledge and wisdom to share in these matters than I do... In future posts I will share more photos and also some films of the processes... of materials, of drawing of outdoors (yes, art is amazing outdoors, and in all sorts of weather types) But before then I will complete this series. There are also films being shared on my Facebook page on this topic of outdoor learning and play on a weekly, sometimes daily basis... Interaction Imagination

Most importantly

Slow down, look closely ( I use these hashtags a lot on Instagram... and also talked about it for Storypark - you can catch that on Youtube)

Don't be in a hurry to get back to what was, or back to where the children were... take the time to observe the children, to listen to their stories. What have they learned? What have they experienced? What are their fears and their joys? What do they need to process these? How do they need to process this... and give them the time, the space, the resources to be able to do this... and then they will be ready. And they will be ready for different kinds of learning at different times... learning is always happening...whether it be learning coping strategies, or building relationships, or learning about their impact on the world, and the world's impact on them..

We, as educators listen... to when they are ready for us to teach, how that teaching is best shared and how much time they need to process that through play.

We need to put our agenda aside... and allow the children's agenda to take the space... whether it be the agenda to heal, or the agenda to connect, or the agenda to learn... play is at the heart of all of this...

This is core to my theory of Original Learning. Play is essential, for all ages, and teaching and instruction can be a part of the learning process as long as there is enough play to process it... not playful lessons (that is part of the teaching) but hands off, children's play. I will be writing more about this in the post about Play in pandemic/post pandemic time.

Interaction Imagination

© 2017 Suzanne Axelsson. Interaction Imagination. Stockholm, Sweden.
suzanne@interactionimagination.com 

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