In this post, one of our facilitators, Kate Johnston, contributes an important message about the benefits of using art in experiential education. She is a young artist, freelance experiential educator, and wonderful human being. Growing up in the international school setting in Singapore, Kate brings generous value to JUMP! Foundation. Enjoy this read of her research and perspective!
The Benefits of Using Art in Experiential Education
Not only can creating Art outdoors encourage a connection with our environment, but also inspires a deeper connection to ourselves.
Not everyone sees themselves as an artist, or as being creative, but the beauty of using Art as a form of expression is that you don’t have to be. It is the process of creating and innovating that are important. Especially in this context, and here’s why.
Art started becoming a part of mainstream therapeutic practice back in the 1960’s in the form of Art Therapy. Since then, it has been developed as a tool to engage the “mind, body, and spirit in ways that are distinct to verbal communication alone”. Where it may be difficult to express feelings and traumatic experiences verbally, art therapy allows people to communicate through their art – whether by imagery, colour, texture or material.
Studies have shown that Art Therapy, when conducted by certified therapists, can have a positive effect on individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, trauma, and can increase a person’s sense of self-esteem and self-awareness.
The process of art-making itself is also seen to have benefits, thanks to its ability to tap into the body’s relaxation response. It is believed to facilitate children’s verbal recall of emotional events by reducing anxiety, allowing them to feel more comfortable in their environment, increasing memory retrieval, helping organise narratives, and encouraging the child to share more details than with only a verbal interview.
If the benefits of Art Therapy include a better ability to recall events, construct a narrative, and increased sense of self-awareness, then why should we not try this as an alternative to verbal reflections in experiential learning?
How can we transfer this knowledge to using Art in our field?
I would just like to make clear that we are not trying to replicate Art Therapy as a practice, but merely borrow some of its benefits and apply them to our field.You could think of it more in terms of Therapeutic Art as opposed to the more clinical Art Therapy.
Debriefing is an incredibly difficult process for some students. Those who are less verbal, or struggle to identify particular emotions they have experienced may find a debrief circle around a campfire one of the most intimidating things about a program. In circumstances like this, many students end up parroting each other instead of developing their own self-awareness and voicing their own thoughts. Reflecting on one’s personal experience is one of the most important aspects of what we do as experiential educators (Kolb’s Cycle), and so should be included as part of any experiential learning program. So, if a group is struggling to articulate something verbally, why not try to have them express their experience visually?
In exploring their surroundings and trying to identify objects, colours, or textures that represent certain emotions or experiences, students are encouraged to use the external world as a prompt for understanding their internal feelings and experiences. The object itself doesn’t matter, but it is the process of making the connection to oneself that is important. For example, if a student chooses stones to represent the challenges in their experience, the stones themselves don’t matter. What matters is that the student was able to identify that they faced challenges, and understand the associated emotions.
Another benefit that this reflective activity can have for the students is encouraging presence. They are required to be physically, mentally and emotionally present in order to identify the world around them, and this can provide a form of grounding in an age where these students are often overwhelmed by external stimuli (computers, phones, TV, homework, peer pressure etc.).
Not only can incorporating art-making into your debriefs help on a psychological and emotional level, it could also provide a meditative experience for your students. A skill they can take home and apply when they feel overwhelmed in their daily lives.
This sounds cool, but I’m an educator/facilitator without a single creative bone in my body – so it’s intimidating and I don’t know how to even start!
Don’t panic! As with any act of facilitation, this can be broken down and simplified.
Firstly, start by explaining what you are doing with your students, giving instruction like:
– “This is an art-making activity; even if you don’t think you are creative you can still be innovative.”
– “Create something that represents the experience you have had this week.”
– “It doesn’t matter what the final piece looks like, we’re not asking you to create a masterpiece.”
– “The important part is the process of creation and being able to share your work with us.”
As with any activity, students should be given a choice to describe their artwork. It can be incredibly personal and self-revealing to express yourself creatively, so when it comes to describing their works, some students may choose not to. And that’s ok. The hope is that they were still able to develop personally from the experience.
Here are some artists you can have a look at or share with your students for inspiration:
“We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So, when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.”
[Images Credit: Andy Goldsworthy]
His art often focuses on the ephemeral aspect of nature – everything changes and nothing lasts. In describing his practice, he says: “It’s not about art […] It’s just about life and the need to understand that a lot of things in life do not last.”
“The simple act of placing stone upon stone in the sand is very therapeutic. I’m sure we all enjoy a walk on the beach but this process I find to be more immersive; being there in nature, losing myself in the work, having left behind all the stresses of day to day life.”
[Images Credit: Jon Foreman]
You can find more of Foreman’s work here: https://sculpttheworld.smugmug.com/About
[Image Credit: Walter Mason]
“I used to paint, and the pictures I created were influenced by surrealism. For me, land art is similar to surrealism insofar as that it can change how we look at the world by questioning what we usually take for granted.”
[Image Credit: Walter Mason]
If you can take a moment to look at the world around you, and try to think outside the box, then anything can be used:
Heather Jansch – Driftwood
Susanna Bauer – Leaves
So give it a go, and get creating!
1: American Art Therapy Association: About Art Therapy – https://arttherapy.org/about-art-therapy/
2: Colour Me Cautious: Don’t Mistake Adult Colouring Books for Art Therapy – https://columbian.gwu.edu/color-me-cautious-don%E2%80%99t-mistake-adult-coloring-books-art-therapy
3: Systematic review and economic modelling of the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of art therapy among people with non-psychotic mental health disorders. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279641/
4: Handbook of Art Therapy, Second Edition, Cathy A. Malchiodi, Guildford Press, 30 Nov 2011 – https://books.google.com.sg/books?id=y6PY4hv47I0C&vq=benefits+of+art+therapy+in+children&dq=benefits+of+art+therapy+in+children&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s