This article is written from the perspective of aiding the recovery process of children with cancer using art and play. However, art and play are not restricted to children and can be beneficial for the recovery of patients of all ages. Additionally, it can also form a means of self-care for caregivers who face the daily stress of caring for a cancer patient.
What is art therapy?
Art therapy is a form of mental health care. It’s purpose is to make the participant feel an improved sense of wellbeing.
Art therapy is usually used with cancer patients to help them explore their own feelings, reduce anxiety and improve their self-esteem.
Art therapy does not require those who practice it to be artists of any kind. Anyone can use art therapy. It involves freestyle drawing, colouring, doodling, painting or anything else that might fall into the broad and vague category of art.
How can play and art therapy help with cancer?
Psychologist Bona Colaco explains why art and play are crucial for children with cancer. Cancer usually puts the child under physical and mental stress owing to multiple hospital visits, extended hospital stays and medical treatments. Children generally are yet to fully form their verbal intelligence and have a limited vocabulary to express emotions like fear or confusion. In the absence of verbal aids, the children benefit from using play and art as an outlet to express themselves and to interact positively with an adult.
There is evidence that art therapy reduces depression and anxiety in children suffering from cancer. Studies show that children who participate in art therapy better express underlying emotions and are able to bond better with their caregivers, improving trust and overall quality of life. It also improves their communication and contributes towards better treatment outcomes.
Furthermore, art and play distract the child from the physical pain that they might be experiencing. Most forms of art and play require a basic level of concentration that absorbs the child and takes their mind away from other thoughts.
How to use art and play to help children with cancer?
It might seem counterintuitive to get a child who is suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation to involve themselves in any form of exertion like art or play. But most caregivers find that it puts the child in a positive frame of mind and reduces irritability and discontent in the child.
- Try and pick a time of the day when the child shows more energy.
- Look for props or playthings that are lightweight and can easily be used at hospitals or at home.
- Provide the child options of different types of toys, pencils or brushes to choose from. Making a choice can in itself be empowering and positive.
- Allow the child the freedom to make their own rules. Follow their lead by doing what they want, rather than insisting that there is a right way of doing it.
- The purpose of this task is not to improve their art but to help them relax and enjoy themselves. So all forms of judgement need to be positive in nature.
- Spend that duration of time with them, giving them your attention and showing that you value what they are doing. This will boost their confidence, creating a positive self-image in their minds.
- Make eye contact with them, showing them that they have your attention and that you are interested in what they are doing or saying.
- Use appropriate forms of touch during the play to establish trust with the child.
Try and have fun with the child. Doing silly things like making funny faces, or funny noises can be relaxing for the child.