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Why art matters in early childhood

It is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self – or so Donald Winnicott, the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, said. His theories underpin most arts and play therapy trainings, and after all my experience working with creativity over the past 35 years, I’m inclined to agree with him. Art-making helps us discover our social and emotional world. It helps us develop fine motor skills and understand physical control. And it makes us symbolic thinkers with flexible cognition.

As a visual artist and art therapist, I’m constantly amazed by the power of art to help give us a sense of control of our world, to calm us, bring us into the present, and sometimes to express things that cannot be articulated in words. There is something tangible about art-making that goes deeper than words, and something magical about working with our hands to create previously unseen things.

The importance of the visual system is key in much of what occupational therapists do. We use it to help children see the impact of their bodies on the world as they make a handprint or draw in the sand. We encourage the use of visual schedules to help children with memory problems to organise their thoughts and follow what is happening in class when they cannot focus, making learning visible, concrete and tangible. And we help them develop the motor skills they will need later for handwriting through messy play and play-dough. Understanding 3-D shape and form in early infancy underpins the ability to speak and read and write, and children see and understand before they build the skills to express through language and develop higher cognition. These pre-verbal visual skills help wire the social, mammalian part of the brain, the limbic system, which helps children understand feelings and think symbolically. Being able to visualise our physicality and recreate ‘tadpole men’ stick figures builds an internal body schema in our mind’s eye, and helps form the foundations of our social understanding.

In 2012, I came up with my own art-making stages as I realised that many theories only saw art-making as being able to draw symbols. But through my work with children who were differently abled, I realised that art-making begins a long way before that, and is far more significant for physical, cognitive, social and emotional aspects of development than it is often given credit for in the early childhood sector. There is so much focus on reading and writing, we forget that young children use art-making processes first. They don’t differentiate between numbers, letters and symbols until we educate that creativity out of them – often without realising that when we limit their visual thinking, feeling and experimentation, we lose something wonderful on the way.

In my book Fighting the Dragon Finding the Self – Why Art and Play Matter in Early Childhood, I expand on the importance of art-making. Much of this expertise has also recently been brought together in our new Developmental Art-Making course launching in April 2021 on our academy. If you would like to find out more about why art matters and how it works from a psychological, sensory, neuro-scientific and creative art therapy perspective, do join our first cohort. www.createcatt-academy.

This course is for teachers, clinicians and parents. You will have three live 2.5-hour webinars on Zoom plus eight online units on our academy with lectures, podcasts, worksheets and reflections which you can view for three months.

You will learn why art and creativity matter, the Essame art-making stages, principles of art therapy, art in education, and art for social, emotional, cognitive and physical development, as well as lots of creative ideas for activities to do with children.

Join us on our creative journey to give ALL children the best start in life for the best chance in life.

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