Tools of the Trade

As Tracy’s Kids art therapists, we are lucky enough to be able to offer the kids a wide array of art supplies every day. In addition to these hand-selected fun and colorful tools, as medical professionals we also have access to a whole other world of resources – medical supplies! Kids love nothing more than to blow up latex gloves and make puppets, or throw rolls of exam table paper on the walls for a mural, or squirt paint onto paper with a new syringe. The novelty of using these supplies always gets the kids excited, but it also gives them the opportunity to interact with the medical environment in a positive way.

Six Days A Week

I joined Tracy’s Kids Art Therapy Program at Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC) in May of 2008.  I worked Monday through Friday during traditional daytime 9-5 hours.  Then in January of this year I had a baby.  I transitioned into working part time after my return from maternity leave and requested that one of the days I work be Saturdays.  I knew that this would make it possible for a family member to watch my son, but what I didn’t know was how different, and wonderful, it would be to work at the hospital on a Saturday.

 During the weekdays at CNMC there is an incredible wealth of services and activities available to patients and their families.  When I came in to work on my first Saturday I was shocked at how incredibly quiet the unit was.  There were no activities for the kids to participate in and most of the children spent the weekends sitting bored in their rooms.  When I first started going into patients’ rooms on Saturdays they would become incredibly excited and almost always one of their first questions to me was, “is the art room open?!!”  Now the children are frequently waiting at the art room door for me when I arrive on Saturday morning.  I even had one child who, upon entering her room at 8:45 in the morning, greeted me by saying, “you’re here! Finally! I’ve been waiting.  These are the things I need for my project.” 

 Another especially rewarding aspect of having the art room open on Saturdays has been that it has enabled so many more families to be together in the art room.  Many children only get to see their siblings in the evenings and on weekends.  Being present on Saturdays has enabled the art therapy program to really reach more children who are in need of services.  And shockingly, Saturdays have actually become my favorite day to work.  I did not previously realize that there was such a void on the weekends, but I’m so happy to get to be able to bring a little more enjoyment to our patients outside of the usual weekday hours.      

Transformation: Lemons into lemonade

I was thinking today about what our programs teach the kids. People don’t come to the hospital expecting to make art, and at most hospitals art is not part of the process. But healing and creativity have a lot in common. They are both about transformation—making lemons into lemonade.

We start by meeting kids and families where they are, literally. We are part of the hospital staff. We know the routine, who’s who, and how to find your way around. We are there to help them find a way to just “be” in the treatment space. We invite them to let their imaginations, their stories, their interests and personalities help them through. And what they learn, I hope, is to trust their imaginations.

This summer at Lombardi we’ve been working on a group project that involves making “Big Heads” out of cardboard boxes. They’re part of a bigger project, which I’ll tell you more about in a later blog entry. But what is cool about the process so far is that kids can look at a cardboard box and see cheetahs, birds, monkeys, people, characters—and with  duct tape and tempera paint we work together to make them come alive. Spending an afternoon transforming a box into a graceful, beautiful, funky piece of art gives a kid a real feeling of accomplishment.

When I was in fourth grade we had an assignment to create a 3-D moth or butterfly out of paper. We were given two large sheets of white paper and told to draw our chosen butterfly as big as possible. We cut out the shape, traced it onto another piece of paper, and colored both pieces to show the markings of the butterfly. We then stuffed them with crushed paper and cotton balls and stapled around the edges. I made a luna moth, which was beautiful with its pale green wings, brown body, fuzzy antennae and graceful shape. It felt like a huge accomplishment when I was done. To me, it looked like a real, giant luna moth. The teacher hung all the butterflies around the classroom for a while, and they looked great. That was over forty years ago, and I still remember both the beauty of the object and how great I felt about making it.

I hope that many of the kids we work with will look back and remember the wonderful things they made, the solutions they figured out, and the feeling of accomplishment that came from the work. It’s a surprise—you never know what you can do until you try.