No small matter

Children’s drawings can be a lot of fun and will, more often than not, bring a smile to the adult who encounters them. There is however one thing that experts seem to agree on, and it is that these images are not to be taken lightly, most of all when it comes to sharing with a child. As children reveal themselves candidly, it is everyone’s responsibility to welcome self-expression in a safe and supportive environment.

We share this video presentation recorded in October 2020, and produced by the Discovery Museum (Boston), in which Dr. Ellen Winner, Professor of Psychology at Boston College and Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education, shares her findings on the subject.

The Psychology of Artistic Behavior in Children. By Discovery Museum. Source: Youtube, 2022.

TEDx Talks also has a few short conferences on children’s drawings. This lively one, The Power of Children’s Art, by Dr Martha Skogen, designer, researcher, with a Phd is in Visual Communication from NTNU, has also a lot to show and to think about.

Pet portraits

For many people with domestic animals at home, having an artful portrait of them made and proudly hung on the wall, is just one more fun thing to do with their pets. Others might instead wonder “Pet portraits, what in the world is going on?”

No matter which of those tribes you belong to, and whatever the size of your household, with or without a pet, take a moment to consider the impact domestic animals may have or have had in your life. It is true that nowadays, pet “parenting” has been largely promoted by commercial interests by what has become a huge business. At the same time, it is also true that genuine environmental concerns have impacted our way to relate to the entire animal kingdom, including species living under our roofs. As our way to relate to the natural world evolves, so does the perception of ourselves and how we relate to one another.

If you are interested in issues of lifestyle, domestic life, or parenting, we found a research paper filled with fascinating observations and conclusions about the emotional attachment with pets during childhood: “Spotlight on the psychological basis of childhood pet attachment and its implications“. In this research, published in Psychology research and behavior management (vol. 12 469-479. 28 Jun. 2019), the five authors clearly examine the notion of emotional attachment. While they confirm the benefits pets can bring to children and the whole family, in terms of teaching moments and mutual care experiences, the authors provide key insights about important factors such as the size of the family and the timing of integrating pets to the family dynamic. They do not fail to remind us that emotional attachment can also come with potentially problematic fear of loss.

On a lighter note, there is a plethora of artists available for pet portraiture. Three of them have caught our attention for you: Zann Hemphill of PawsbyZann, Astrid Colton of PetPortraitsCanada, and Lisa Howarth of TheLonelyPixel. Google Arts and Culture also offer a mobile application to make your how digital pet art. Furry, feathery, or scaly… grab your pencils and brushes and have fun.

animal, cat, pencil, paper, 2020s
Pete the cat. Pencil on paper. By Sahana, 2020. Source: CDIC-CIDE.

Drawing child abuse

Just a year ago, Frontiers in Psychology journal published a revealing article by Limor Goldner, Rachel Lev-Wiesel and Bussakorn Binson: Perceptions of child abuse as manifested in drawings and narrations by children and adolescents. Their study will not fail to captivate school and family psychologists, art therapists and researchers in this domain.

In their preamble, the three scholars begin by reminding us that “child abuse is an underreported phenomenon despite its high global prevalence.” Studies such as theirs are pointing in the right direction, for clinicians certainly, but also for parents and citizens to become better equipped in recognizing signs of child abuse and making reporting more prevalent.

This is by no means a large scale study. A mere 97 Israeli children and adolescents aged 6–17 participated. The authors judiciously gathered and analyzed the narratives which accompanied the drawings. The perceptions of both physical and emotional or psychological abuses are under scrutiny. There are brief comments about the differences between children and parents in their perceptions of abuse.

The results become quite interesting with the presentation of dissociative techniques used by children in their drawings. This can be expressed through a discrepancy between the image and the narrative, or going as far as refusing to conform to the task at hand. Dissociation may result in a colorful image with no visible negative element. That is to say, an innocent looking drawing may in fact shield emotions difficult to express or provide a coping mechanism. This is a reminder that the simple act of drawing have an intrinsic powerful impact on our thoughts and emotions. The high prevalence of such mechanism found in the study is a lot to think about.

Perceptions of child abuse as manifested in drawings and narratives by children and adolescents. An example of drawing and narrative of parent-child abuse drawn by a child. ©2021 Goldner, Lev-Wiesel and Binson. Source: Frontiers in Psychology, 13 February 2022.

Meanwhile in adolescence

If we judge by the vast scientific and non scientific literature about the analysis of children’s drawings, it is safe to say that art therapists mainly use drawing analysis in their work with young children and their families. It is also safe to say that, in general, adolescents draw less than younger children. This is for various reasons which are not the subject of this article. Instead, we have a first glance at art therapy in the treatment of adolescents. Literature on that subject is scarce by any standards.

Three researchers based in Israel, Adi Barak, Nurit Wolk and Dani Yaniv, published just last April, the results of their qualitative study of adolescents drawing from observation. Titled Different shade of beauty: Adolescents’ perspectives on drawing from observation, the article was published on the Frontiers in Psychology‘s website. It includes some interesting illustrations and quotes from the participants. It provides practical comments directed at art therapists. The observations about aesthetic judgement and self-acceptance will not be lost on them. Drawing from observation, combined with practice in mindfulness and a shared sense of empathy and reality, seem to be an effective approach in art therapy.

Another article drew our attention. It has however no illustrations and is quantitative in its approach. Prepared by Katherine Bottinelli, Cecilia Cheung and Yena Kyeong, the article is available on the ResearchGate website: Adolescents’ drawings and divergent thinking – Does culture matter? Here is no place to dive into what divergent thinking is, but you might find interesting that this study compares American and Chinese adolescents.

tree, pencil, paper, 1970s
Spruce and pine branches. Yvon, 14, c1972. Source: CDIC-CIDE.org

Write down to write it up

Children draw, paint, assemble and build, but they also write a great deal. Primary school children are often given the opportunity to describe their drawings in writing. This can be the beginning of a long string of personal writings involving homemade comic strips, diary entries and poetry creation.

There are plenty of personal journal products on the market and it is a most significant and enduring present a young person can receive from parents. In fact, diary or personal writing is an activity proven to be beneficial for anyone. So, why not start early in life? Have a look at Dr Melissa Madeson‘s advices for Self-esteem journals, prompts, PDFs and ideas published by Positive Psychology. Her “8 Self-Love Journal Prompts” are sure to help anyone get through what feels like a bad day. If you want to dig a little deeper into the subject, see Dr. Christian Jarrett‘s well-referenced article To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life, published by the British Psychological Society.

Writing about or for oneself, however, might not be everyone’s cup of tea. So be it. Writing about anything that one cares about is always a good idea. Writing it on paper rather than on screen could make it more memorable and fun to go back to in latter life. We recently discovered the fantastic Canadian Science Fair Journal. A great place for kids to realize that they too can write about their science projects and discoveries!

A rabbit dreams of an eagle, by Mathieu, c2000. Source: CDIC-CIDE.org.

The eye of the beholder

Thanks to their own perseverance and that of dedicated educators, therapists and policy makers, visually impaired and blind people have been increasingly able to appreciate the visual arts. Not only as spectators but also as creators. It will be a surprise to many that visually impaired and blind people can also draw. They do and it can even be quite interesting for everyone in a classroom to discover some of their techniques and materials. It can be a real eye opener for everyone and foster empathy and inclusion in the community.

A good place to start for educators is the well established Art Beyond Sight organization which has been bringing “arts and culture to all” for well over 30 years. They published a Handbook for Museums and Educators full of inspiring sample programming descriptions, though it is undated.

Teacher turned consultant/publisher Carmen Willings also has much to offer on her website Teaching Students With Visual Impairments. Registration is required but free. Jump straight to the Creating Tactile Graphics page and see for yourself.

Australia: Annual rainfall, sample tactile drawing. Source: The Braille Authority of North America. Guidelines and Standards for Tactile Graphics, 8 February 2021.

Discover the Wordbank

CDIC is better known for its interest in images from children, be it drawings, collages, paintings or mix media. Keep in mind that we also have a passion for photographs and digital expressions by children. They can be digital drawings, video and audio files. The more items we collect and preserve, the more useful our collection can be to scholars and authors who wish to access it in the future.

We recently found out about a fantastic research project on language acquisition in infants and toddlers. Initiated by cognitive scientist and developmental psychologist Michael C. Frank, the Wordbank is an impressive database of audio files from over 75 000 children and 30 languages. Frank and his research team from Stanford and Chicago universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published the latest of their findings in a book available at Random House and MIT Press: Variability and Consistancy in Early Language Acquisition, the Wordbank Projet. The Language and Cognition Lab at Standford University made the document available on GitHub. This is valuable material for all early childhood specialists interested in language acquisition.

Stanford Magazine published a nice review by Deni Ellis Béchard, in its March 2020 online edition, What Kids Are Saying These Days. It gives an account of how Michael C. Frank came to developing his research and provides highlights from the book.

Wordbank website header. Source: Wordbank: An open database of children’s vocabulary development (stanford.edu) , 22 December 2020.

Chill out, a doodle at a time

Numerous articles have been written about the benefits of the arts, be it visual or musical, for mental fitness and good learning dispositions. We came across a surprising article in which researchers ask (and answer) a question that goes a little deeper: Which of coloring, doodling or free drawing is more rewarding? Don’t we all want to know which one, if any, brings more satisfaction?

The research team is extensive: Girija Kaimal, Hasan Ayaz, Joanna Herres, Rebekka Dietrich-Harwell, Bindal Makwana, Donna H. Kaiser and Jennifer A. Naaser. They seriously and carefully looked at this issue and presented their results in an article with the funkiest title: Functional near-infrared spectroscopy assessment of reward perception based on visual self-expression: Coloring, doodling, and free drawing. A non-initiated could not come up with this.

The article was published by Elsevier in 2017 in The Art and Psychotherapy (Vol. 55), and can be accessed online on Science Direct. An interesting read for anyone, and a must for art-therapists looking for new insights. To paraphrase author Diane Alber, I’m not just a… doodle, and we add to her voice that “doodles are here to stay”. Have some fun, draw a neuron of your liking, doodle around it and color it beautifully. Feel free to share it with us.

Neuron – annotated. Source: Commons.wikimedia.org, 1 December 2020.

In the arms of Morpheus

Halloween is coming up and so is the time to set back the clock. It is certainly a time to make the celebrations as normal, fun and COVID-proof as possible for the kids and the loved ones. Add something more 2020 related this week and invite people around you to reflect on sleep hygiene.

Round up the household in the evening for a meaningful discussion about bedtime “rituals” and habits. Share likes and dislikes about noise, screens, temperature, snacks, the beds, the pillows and bedtime itself. Do the same in the morning. this time to share if sleep was good, long enough and how wake up strategies work, or not. See if someone had dreams overnight and can remember them. See if everyone knows the difference between a bad dream and a nightmare. Have kids draw their dreams, good or bad. Don’t over analyze, simply appreciate how inspiring sleep is.

There is plenty of literature about sleep. An excellent source is the Sleep on it public health campaign and web site. It is led by four prominent Canadian health organizations. For more medical insights about Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children, see a short article on the American Association of Family Physicians‘ web site.

Me dreaming, by Valerie, c1982. Source: CDIC-CIDE.

Drawing siblings

Whether you are a parent or an educator, it is a good idea from time to time, to ask a child for a family drawing, and to pay attention to the depiction of siblings. The image may reveal aspects of the child’s emotional and social life that you would like to discuss with the child, or with another adult involved in the child’s education.

Siblings may have constant and intense interactions (think twins, but also school mates) or have only family time together with parents, like during meals, and only sporadic joint activities by themselves. Age difference, interests and affinities have of course an impact on sibling interactions, but circumstances, parenting, neighborhood, extended family and even interior design may impact on how siblings grow together.

The family drawing will be particularly useful while mommy is pregnant, when a sibling begins or changes school, or after major changes such as moving, separation or marriage. On the family drawing, look for specific activities siblings do, how they dress, size and place on the page, in relation to parents and self. For further reading on this subject, see the research article by Özge Metin and Elif Üstün of the Department of Early Education, Hacettepe University, Ankara. This analysis of seven drawings was published in 2010 in Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 2, Issue 2.

Figure 5, Reflection of sibling relationships into the kinetic family drawings during the preschool period. By Özge Metin and Elif Üstün. Source: Sciencedirect.com, 4 October 2020.
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