How to help a child with disabilities enjoy their art
In my post of 'Do’s and Don’ts' the other week, one of the things I said was "Don’t draw for the child". I then received an email from Sally in the UK whose 10 year old daughter, Jessica, has severe disabilities. Sally wrote, "How can Jessica do art if I don’t help her?" I started to reply to her email and I realised that maybe my response would be useful for other families who have a child with a disability. So here’s what I wrote …
My sister recently went to a seminar on 'Unlocking every child’s genius'. One of the messages she relayed to me was the idea that we want our kids to learn particular things but the child isn’t always ready to learn that skill. My sister used the example of her 4 year old son and how she wanted him to learn to ride a bike. She encouraged him endlessly, but he just didn’t get it. Then one day, he just did it himself: when he was ready. It made my sister realise that her encouraging him was pointless because his growing brain simply wasn’t ready to take on the challenge of a bike yet. When his brain was ready, he was ready. I think this is true for all kids of all ages and abilities, especially with drawing and art.
With drawing and art, I think of my toddler son and what his brain is ‘up to’ (capable of). Currently his level of ability is lines and dots. I don’t show him how to draw lines and dots; he’s just picked it up himself because that’s what his brain is ready for. I don’t show him how to draw landscapes or things way out of his ability range because he doesn’t care. He cares about the noise the brush makes when it squashes the bristles on the page and the splat the colours create. I still continue to draw things on different pieces of paper to show him what’s possible … and when he’s ready, he will try to draw his own face or his favourite toy. He’ll do what interests him at the time and my job is to encourage and support him when he’s ready.
So, how do you work with a child with a disability wanting to do art? Simple, the same as any other child! You figure out what their abilities are, and you work with that. I remember once when I worked at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital for Starlight , there was a little girl who had broken both her arms. I asked her if she wanted to paint, and she just looked at me as if to say “Are you serious? Can't you see both my arms are in plaster!?”. We ended up taking off her socks and doing a toe painting; it was so much fun! As always, art is about the experience, not the outcome of the artwork.
Here are some tips on helping a child with disabilities enjoy their art ...
1. It could get messy, and that’s OK!
Your aim is to make it completely enjoyable, so don’t worry about the mess they make … think 'more mess = more fun'.
2. Find out what the child is capable of.
Can they hold a brush? Do they have movement in their foot? Could they hold a paintbrush in their mouth? What about a tennis ball in their hand instead of a brush? Find objects that you could replace a brush with or just use fingertips!
3. Give the child as much control as possible.
Your job is to set the child up in a situation where they have control. Put the paints, paper (anything they’ll need) in a spot where they can reach them. Your aim is to be completely hands off (except for maybe switching or cleaning the brush, or equivalent, if required).
ACTIVITY - Narrating the child’s artwork story
You are the narrator to the child’s artwork story. Here you need to use YOUR imagination to light up the child’s artwork story.
1. Find 2 tennis balls (or other objects they can hold, perhaps in their toes/mouth, depending on their abilities)
2. Put 2 different colours of acrylic paint on 2 different plates
3. Get a large (minimum A3) piece of paper
4. Position the plates of paint and the paper in places where the child can reach themselves so you don’t have to help them
5. Start talking! “Wow, look at these 2 colours we’ve chosen! Purple and Yellow! Who loves purple? Your sister loves purple; we could pretend this colour is for her! And yellow, ooh, you know what’s yellow? Your favourite teddy bear!” Use a calm, slow-paced and happy tone and try to imagine what the child would want the story to be about. If the child can verbally communicate you can ask questions and get them to respond.
6. Encourage the child to dip the tennis ball in one colour and touch it to the paper, remembering that the aim is for the child to do it themselves and mess is ok! “Oh, you've got lots of beautiful purple on there. Does it feel squishy? Your sister loves purple, doesn’t she? How many purple spots are you going to put on the paper? Just one? Lovely, that could be her head. Oh, lots of spots! She could be having a party and they are the balloons! Would you like a different colour now?” (**A tip here is to switch the task - different colour paint - before it goes over the top. If they go too nuts and the whole thing becomes covered in one colour, it’s harder to look at and appreciate for the child later.)
7. Switch colours and start talking about the next ‘character/colour’ in your story. “Yellow is your teddy. Is that right? Teddy looks like he might be going to the party with your sister. Oh! Yellow circles for teddy; they could be balls that he’s brought to the party! 3 balls for your sister’s party; that will be fun! They can play with the purple balloons floating up in the sky, and the yellow balls could be bouncing on the ground! That would be so much fun, wouldn’t it!”
8. Point out the things in the artwork and story “Let’s have a look. You’ve got your purple dots here for your sister and remember all those balloons you painted for her! She’s having a party, isn’t she? And then here’s the yellow: that’s your teddy coming along to the party too … What did your teddy bring to the party? I forget …! Oh, yes, that’s right. he brought some yellow bouncy balls along! You’ve done such an awesome job. Shall we hang this one up and do another one?”
9. Make a big deal about where you’re hanging this artwork and who you’re going to show. “We’ll put this one over here to dry and then where should we hang it when it’s dry for daddy to see?” Remember the child is in charge. If they can’t verbally respond, still have full conversations out loud so they can soak it up.
10. Do another one if the child is up for it. “Would you like to do another one or have you had enough? This time, the purple could be me and the yellow could be you …!”
11. Re-visit the artwork story when people are around “Jessica, should we tell your sister about the artwork we did today, with her in it?”
Sally, I hope this is helpful for you. Send my love to Jessica,
Happy drawing, painting, creating.
*Names have been changed