The Art of Experiential Therapy
We know kids learn by doing (hands -on learning). As adults, I am not sure it ever enters our mind that a silly art activity can serve as a tool for growth we too can gain by experiential (art) therapy.
Oh, let me guess…”we are adults now”.
We are smart, educated, mature, knowledgeable, sophisticated, established, successful and feel the need to appear as though we have it all figured out. We don’t need therapy…until the bottom of our world crumbles beneath us, and we can’t stop it from happening.
Kid acting a fool, spouse high tails it out, crisis knocks you on your butt, police officer decides jail will surly get your attention, a sudden loss, death, or the desperately needed wake-up call orchestrated by God himself.
The burlap bag.
Years ago while sitting in a child development practicum class with several other students at Texas Tech, my full tenured (older) professor says in her crackly voice, “Look here, all of you out there who think you know it all, remember this…You damn well better have something in your bag of tricks when you are working with kids”.
With this, the professor picked up a tattered burlap bag and slowly walked directly over to me and handed it to me. I immediately felt that awful feeling you get when you are suddenly put on the spot…the one where your heart feels like it has surly sunken to your stomach and of course I could feel my face and neck light up in big red hives for everyone to see. The professor looking straight dab into my eyes said, “Open the bag” then “Take anything out of the bag you see fit and teach the class a life lesson”.
The contents reminded me a junk drawer you find in a kitchen. The catch all drawer, full of all kinds of stuff. The odds and ends we throw in the drawer when we are either in a hurry, don’t want to go put away, think we may need later, or just stuff.
“Welcome to experiential art, Becky,” she gruffly stated while returning to her worn comfy recliner in the corner of the classroom.
My cheat sheet tool.
Looking back on that experience, I realize the amazing professor I now hold in high esteem taught me a valuable lifelong lesson in working with people. Over the years, experiential art has become my “go to” and has proven to benefit many people…not only the patient but the entire family. It gives me a tangible item to utilize what is trying to be said many times acting out behaviors. I laughingly call experiential art my “cheat sheet tool” in therapy. It is my side kick and partner in crime. It is my technique to “cut to the chase.
Introducing and implementing art (as simple as a stick man glued to a piece of paper and a list of “feeling words” to identify with and use) and a few markers invite individuals to:
- Search, discover and clarify feelings
- Communicate these feelings to another individual
- Determine the issues needing to be addressed in therapy.
They have created a “take-away” tangible object to either remind themselves or communicate their feelings to individuals who are important in their life.
Individuals, as young as four years old begin to explore and realize the negative feelings of anger, hurt, resentment, shame, guilt, bitterness, and humiliation remain to be buried deep down in the soul. The same feelings we tend to block, deny, hide, not identify, or shove under the rug. The feelings affecting our relationships, behaviors, life, family, and career.
Using experiential activities open the doors we were certain were tightly closed…leading to growth, understanding, clarity, and change.
A simple 3×3 subway tile:
- Serves as a tangible communication tool. Either to ourselves, partner, family member, child, friend, or anyone else involved in our life.
- Creates a platform for an unheard voice or unexplainable behavior.
- Enables parents to gain a clearer understating when a child draws a picture, writes a word, or expresses themselves.
- Allows kids, teenagers, and adults to draw or write something they otherwise would not verbalize to a parent.
Experiential art therapy is often used in the treatment of:
- Eating disorders,
- Behavior disorders,
- Anger management,
- Body image and self-esteem,
- Grief and loss recovery,
- Sexual addiction
- Sexual identity
- Substance abuse
- Various types of physical and behavioral addictions.
Experiential art therapy has no age requirements or restrictions. It lives in old worn out tattered burlap bags with lots of random stuff shoved in them. It evolves when the random stuff is used in self-discovery, accountably, clarity, and understanding unlocking the door we thought we had closed and addressing its contents.
In a sense, experiential learning is simply learning by doing — but there is more to the process.
Not only do individuals process or discuss a thought, event or behavior, they reflect on, learn from, and take new action based on a concrete experiential experience.
- The learner reflects on the experience by comparing it prior experiences.
- Based on experience and reflection, the learner develops new ideas about the content being taught.
- The learner acts on her new ideas by experimenting in an experiential setting.
When the new ideas are put into action, they become the basis for a new cycle of experiential learning.
CRT, CCDC, CACC | Counselor & Life Coach
Empowering individuals, families and communities to grow and heal through advanced approaches in Creative Arts Therapy, setting the standard for treatment, practice and training within the field.