two years on

April 12, 2011

community work

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I have been facilitating the expressive arts group at school for two years now.

My colleague and I have been reflecting recently how the group has evolved.

The group has gone from organised and contained chaos with up to 27 students attending in the early stages of the group, to bliss. Right now, we have about fifteen children attending. About 75% of the children have been coming for two years. We have some Kindergartners and new students to the school attending the group now. Although students are required to enrol before each term, the group has always been open and we have some children come and go depending on their circumstances.

I used to run one directed art activity per session, and the worry bin. After these directed activities the students were free to do non-directed activities. I used to ask the children to do scribble drawings on the first session back each term.

Late in 2010 and this past term, the group has evolved to being non-directed. I started running out of ideas for the directed activities, and I also started to see benefit in the children being free to do what they felt they needed. Initially, the group was so big it needed to have some direction, but as the group became smaller and the students became familiar with the process it became no longer necessary.

The expressive arts group has become a designated safe place for children. The students grin from ear-to-ear during the session and they talk about how much they enjoy the group.

Some individuals have only just started to test how safe the group is. One student who has only drawn happy themes for two years, recently drew a picture which had themes of violence and death. The student was nervous about the picture, didn’t want to talk about it or show me. Interestingly, this student has constantly protested about one of my golden rules – no taking any artwork home.

Last term, I made up a folder for each child, and put sheets in the folder with a direction on the top of what to draw on the paper, for example, me, my family, my home, my friends, my neighbourhood, feeling states, etc. Some children, the newer members of the group have enjoyed this.

I did manage one directed art activity this term. It was a mask activity – one mask for a strong feeling they experienced recently, one mask for calming down feelings. Half the children rebelled – they drew one line and moved on to do other activities. For a few, the activity lasted the whole session.

I try to make everything as transparent as possible to the children, explain what I am doing and the reasons why. Next time I do a directed activity I will explain the concept of directed and non-directed activities, and give the students the choice to participate or not.

I recently attended a child centered play therapy workshop. From that workshop I learnt some new responses to children that we can use to make limits clear but express them in ways that children still feel accepted. We have been doing a great job, but there is always room for improvement.


For more posts on expressive arts or art therapy, go to


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About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

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24 Comments on “two years on”

  1. Karyn @ kloppenmum Says:

    Congratulations on the milestone. How lovely to reach that place where everything seems to flow and you can just tweek the details. I’m really interested in the child who has drawn ‘happy’ themes for two years and only now feels safe to draw other things.


    • hakea Says:

      Yes, we definitely can pinpoint where the group has gone through Tuckman’s stages of group development – forming, storming, norming, performing. New members seem to fit right in and advance to performing rather quickly.

      I have long suspected that the happy themes were a defence mechanism. I know there are difficulties in the child’s life.

      Garry Landreth advises that we can only support the child in his growth, and uses the analogy of a bean plant. When the bean starts to break the surface of the soil we can only provide the right conditions for its growth. If we try to straighten the crook of the bean before it is ready, it will snap.


  2. Karyn @ kloppenmum Says:

    Great analogy. I suspect it’s the same when supporting adults.


    • hakea Says:


      The practitioner has to be extremely careful when working with techniques that access the unconscious. My art therapy teacher warned us about pushing people to where they are not yet ready to go. She related a story where a therapist asked a patient to draw his dreams, which at the time were terrifying and incomprehensible nightmares. It pushed him into psychosis.


  3. Geoff Ferguson Says:

    Thanks for the post about the group and its evolution. I liked the way that the group was safe enough for half the children to rebel when asked to take part in the mask activity. Were some of them pacing themselves, not taking part in something that would touch areas that they were not ready for? Whatever the reason, I admired their independence of action and the facilitating space you’ve made.


    • hakea Says:

      Hi Geoff

      Good to see you.

      I think the older children had got so used to not being directed and enjoying it, that it was an affront to them to suddenly be directed. It was another feelings activity and we have done a lot of that, especially as I taught those kids in their classrooms with the Second Step programme. The other children (younger) who stayed with the activity appeared to be engaged in it.

      Thank you for your reflections.


      • Geoff Ferguson Says:

        Hi hakea

        It made me smile to think about the kids being affronted at being directed – good for them. In my earlier comment I’d been thinking about working with adults and going at their pace, trusting that they have learnt to have defences for a reason and waiting for them to feel safe enough to explore outside those a little.

        I’ve enjoyed following your blog. I haven’t had much time to post myself – the agency I run is keeping me very busy at the moment and any blogging has been in that context –

        All the best.

      • hakea Says:

        Thanks Geoff for taking the time to comment.

        It was a great reminder wasn’t it? I’m glad that I understand the process well enough that I didn’t feel rejected by the students, and was grateful for the lesson. I also thought that those children must feel safe enough to feel they can let me know what they think. It is difficult in a group (especially an open group) to organise a directed activity which is suitable to everyone and where they are at. However, I enjoy the group process so much that I think I would find working individually a little less challenging. Any directed activities next term will be optional!

        I have been looking into psychotherapy training. Wow, it is a rigorous and expensive process. I would enjoy the rigorous but can’t manage the expensive at the moment. I bought a Freud reader recently, and will have to be content with that.

        I have subscribed to your other blog.

  4. eof737 Says:

    Good to read that things are coming together with positive outcomes… You have done the work well.


  5. Santo Says:

    Hi hakea,

    I love this post, and was happy to learn about Landreth and read the article you linked to. You seem to have bautifully embraced Landreth’s idea of nurturing children to grow at their own pace. “The group has gone from organised and contained chaos … to bliss.” Beautiful!

    We have so much to learn at the post-secondary level. Universities are typically so inhuman, despite the presence of many humane teachers. Students are blitzed through courses at high speed, with very little personal attention. There is absolutely no “nurturing students to grow at their own pace” and very little space to explore.

    We have a lot of work to do …

    Thanks again, hakea, for a very inspiring post!


    • hakea Says:

      Thanks for dropping in and commenting Santo.

      I feel sorry for teachers. They have to get all those students behaving and conforming enough to learn and achieve. There is a style of teaching called “Learning by Design” (Kalantzis & Cope, 2005) where the teacher and students engage together as a community of learners. When I was studying education units the lecturers constantly talked about the need for students to direct the learning process (rather than the teachers) and to be involved in learning by doing, but I see very little evidence of it in schools.

      I provide children with art and play materials and they follow their natural instincts to do what they feel they need to. I provide a few limits and an emotionally safe environment. I always think of myself as a lazy practitioner, like the lazy gardener trend of about ten years ago (no digging). I’m always trying to think of ways for me not to be the centre of attention or the source of all knowledge, and support people to grow and learn for themselves.


      • Santo Says:

        I can only imagine what a great experience children would have with mathematics if we provided the same safe and rich environment that you do, but all the way up to high school as they grow. That’s a worthy goal to work towards.

      • hakea Says:

        Yes, especially maths.

        My boys love maths. I ask them if they ever do any experiments or practical exercises in their maths groups. Very rarely. They sit at desks, working individually, and answer questions in workbooks. The teacher will explain the concepts if the students ask for assistance.

        No hum or buzz. Very sad, and easy to see why kids become disillusioned with maths.

      • kaet Says:

        This (having to corral a class full of kids) is precisely why I never wanted to be a class teacher, although I really enjoy working with kids one-on-one and in small groups. Even when I’m trying to teach something specific to one person, there’s room for two-way feedback and suggestion. It’s possible to do that with a large group, but it’s definitely harder.

      • hakea Says:

        Hi Kaet

        I totally agree.

  6. Karyn @ kloppenmum Says:

    …and science and art and music…
    So many teachers are not willing to even attempt things for fear of loss of ‘control’. We have a fairly flexible curriculum here in NZ so theoretically there should be great learning going on in every classroom, but there’s not. I worked with many people who simply didn’t do Phys. Ed or Art or Music because they felt out of their depth. Or did those subjects in such boring ways that the children became disinterested. sigh.


    • hakea Says:

      Sad but true. Everything is so prescriptive.

      They have a dance group at my kid’s school. They get the kids doing basic steps. Why can’t they get the kids doing choreography? What’s an issue that’s close to the kid’s heart? Tease out the topic. It doesn’t have to be serious, it could be about skateboarding. What movement could they use to convey their ideas? What music could they use?

      I asked my boys if they ever do drama. Nope. They could use a book like The Island by Armin Greder as a catalyst. Write a script. Rehearse. Sell tickets. Make posters and backdrops. Perform. Write about their experience. Analyse what went well and how they could do things better. How many components of the curriculum does this activity cover?

      Oh, I could go on for days. As I’m sure you could Karyn.


  7. Karyn @ kloppenmum Says:

    This is exactly why I am balking at returning to the classroom, and why I thank our lucky stars that the kids have the chance to be in a good Stiener school.
    Yes, I certainly *could* talk about it all day. And then some.


  8. blaxter Says:

    I’ve only just found this post and I couldn’t agree more about the evolution of your group. Sounds wonderful! I too have to step back mentally if some of the kids refuse to do what has been suggested (I do suggest an activity each time for lots of good reasons, and of course it’s not an art group though lots of art happens). But the thing is, the process happens whichever activity they do so it doesn’t really matter. The other week they took to drawing fancy cars instead of something they recently enjoyed doing! But it started a conversation on Grand Theft Auto which gave rise to much more important things, so that was good.

    And I do agree with other posters above that seeing them exercise their muscle to choose to NOT do something is great. I hate to see their spirit wilt at school under the regime. After they finished painting something one day, they ended up painting their hands in wonder and delight and doing hand prints as well, like children much younger. I was glad they felt safe to play in this way. They certainly needed to!

    Great post. Sorry I came to it late!


    • hakea Says:

      Hi blaxter

      You’re always welcome, early or late.

      Messy art is a feature of this group. Lots and lots of messy art. They love throwing paint around. Hand prints, finger painting with so much paint and water that the paper disintegrates. It’s tricky because I have to emphasise that they can’t get paint on their school uniforms – parents get upset about it, and I don’t want the kids getting in trouble at home for something they enjoyed in the group. We use paint shirts, but kids have the uncanny knack of getting paint under the paint shirt. Parents don’t remember to send clothes to change into.

      Last term, they started painting their faces with the acrylic paints. We had up to 32 children in the group, painting their faces. One little boy, painted his face all black, and his mum was a bit startled when she picked him up. He had done it just before finishing time, and wanted to keep it on. Luckily, his mum was so happy with his progress in the art group that she trusted that was what he needed to do. The problem with the face painting was that some paint got on the school uniforms. So, this term I will provide the kids with face paint crayons and a mirror. I know that the crayons will not be as satisfying as the acrylic paint but sometimes there has to be compromise for the children’s safety.

      Thanks for your comment!


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