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KidsPeace Introduces New Art Therapy Program in PA Residential

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KidsPeace Introduces New Art Therapy Program in PA Residential

By John Muraco, Art Therapist


At the Inventor Center on the Orchard Hills campus in Orefield, PA, art therapy is a fairly recent addition to an already dynamic expressive and recreational therapeutic program. If you ask an art therapist, “What is art therapy?” you are sure to receive a different response from every individual. Some views on this creative therapeutic modality have been shaped by the vision of the art healing process that offers individuals a way to self-understanding, behavioral change and emotional reparation[1]. This vision, coupled with specific therapeutic goals and clinical understanding, can guide a therapist in presenting a client with a way to process emotions, explore his or her life story and build self-esteem.


KidsPeace has provided the expressive team with an opportunity to develop ways of fostering creative growth, emotional awareness and self-expression. As an art therapist, my intention has been to provide our teens with a safe therapeutic space that allows them a degree of free and healthy exploration of their adolescent impulses. Such a space provides clients with a platform for choice making: It gives them the time necessary to gain some mastery of a chosen medium, and encourages the use of images to express emotions that cannot be communicated in words. The sessions even allow them the freedom to sit silently and rebel. As an art therapist working within the residential milieu, I have grown increasingly aware of the importance of striking a balance between the developmental teenage need for freedom and a respect for the structures and boundaries. In the search for approaches that encourage this balance, I began to incorporate the use of photography in art therapy sessions.


In her very useful book[2] Judy Weiser explores the use of photography in therapy. She specifies that clients who utilize phototherapy techniques do not need to be camera-savvy and that personal exploration and discovery are welcome while using this medium. A client can use photography as a stepping-stone for creative expression, insight and emotional communication, thus promoting personal emotional communication as central and to encourage it in every way.


To accomplish a photography exercise, I dug up three digital cameras at home that I had received from friends and brought them into a session. Working in groups of three, the girls spent the first session getting used to their cameras at their own pace and with freedom of choice: They were able to take as many or as few pictures as they wanted. The theme for the second session was “Relationships.” The girls were asked to first think of a relationship they have with another person, positive or negative and then to take pictures of subject matter that represented them and the other individual. They were allowed to explore their outdoor environment, making certain that they were within my visual field but still able to walk a distance ahead of the pack if they wished. They marveled at their surroundings and focused in on details in nature.


A number of them used the camera and pictures to process major events in their lives. Client M wrote a letter to her friend who had died and then buried the letter (that contained what she wished she could have expressed to this person) in a ceremony that she photographed. She was able to use the photography sessions as a way to “say goodbye” to her friend who passed away during M’s stay at KidsPeace. Another client, S, took pictures of the clouds, sky and sunlight that prompted her to start a conversation with her about death and loss. S was also able to write down some of her feelings about this process in a piece she titled “Heaven.” She wrote: “In photography, I have learned ways of expressing my feelings in photos, I’ve learned what some meanings to things are and I’ve learned that some things in nature can relate to others relationships.” Through their images, these teens are confronting deep emotional truths that will help them move forward. The process of taking photographs and the physical evidence of their accomplishments, build self-esteem.


Photography is the first digital medium these teens have explored in art therapy, and their emotional responses to it have been important (strong and rewarding). I look forward to watching our expressive team grow and bearing witness to the emotional communication of the boys and girls at KidsPeace.


[1] Malchiodi, 2006

[2] Phototherapy Techniques, 1993

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