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Julie Liddle: An Art Therapist’s Perspective

by Jean Van't Hul
July 21, 2008

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I interviewed Julie Liddle, art therapist and art teacher, who runs Art in Hand, a unique art program for toddlers and preschoolers in the Washington, DC area. She is also an artist and the mom of two boys, Ben and James, who will be turning 9 and 6 this summer.

Note: Readers will have a chance to win an art activity set and a set of Julie's notecards at the end of the interview…

JEAN: First, can you tell us a little about your background as an art therapist?

JULIE: Well, to become an art therapist requires a master's degree in art therapy. Many people have never even heard of art therapy let alone realize that a graduate degree in the field exists! One comes to art therapy with a background in psychology and human development as well as art. An art therapist needs to be well versed with a wide range of art materials and techniques in order to support her clients in their creative explorations. And of course one has to have the theoretical background in psychology and psychotherapy. Generally art therapists are dealing with emotional health, although practitioners approach their work from a wide range of theoretical perspectives.

The one tenet that I can safely say is shared by all art therapists, however, is the fact that in art therapy the PROCESS of creating is paramount. This isn't to say that the product may not also be important, but a good art therapist would never consider the product without considering the context of the process that accompanied its creation. Contrary to popular belief, art therapists do not possess a crystal ball for interpreting artwork; rather, a responsible art therapist makes interpretations based on careful observation of the client's process in creating the work as well as the client's own comments about the work, in addition to the observable features in the actual art.

In addition to offering technical support to the art process, an art therapist provides emotional support by creating a safe, non-judgmental "holding environment" for the art-making to take place, and offers commentary on the process as it unfolds. Prior to starting the ART IN HAND program, I worked for nine years as an art therapist at a therapeutic school for children and adolescents aged with a wide range of emotional and learning disabilities. One-on-one art therapy sessions were a wonderful modality for allowing many of these children to express, explore, work through and contain emotions, experiences, and ideas within the context of a safe, supportive, trusting therapeutic relationship. For many of these children, achieving that sense of trust and safety was the primary goal of therapy, given the many losses and traumas they had experienced in their lives. Art therapy often provided the added "bonus" of boosting self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment in kids who hadn't had much experience with success in the past.

JEAN: How did you decide to change your focus to working with toddlers and preschoolers?

JULIE: After my first son Ben was born, I became more interested in the developmental aspect of art. I couldn't wait to watch those developmental stages I had learned about in my Child Art Therapy Class unfold before me "in real life."

As soon as he was old enough to sit up and grasp a marker, I had him perched in his diaper in the middle of the kitchen floor on a large piece of butcher paper making marks…on the paper, on his fingers, on his pudgy thighs… At the same time, the work that I had found so rewarding for the past nine years, suddenly began feeling much more draining, as my new full-time job of mothering left me with a deficit of nurturing energy for these highly challenging children at work.

Meanwhile, Ben was attending daycare 3 days a week in a fabulous program that was run and taught by folks who really understood early childhood – everything was developmentally sound practice. I learned so much from them. I would come in and see them doing all these great creative things with art and sensory materials with one year olds. What resonated with the art therapist in me the most was the fact that the emphasis was always on the PROCESS, and suddenly – click – on went the light bulb and the idea for my ART IN HAND program for toddlers and preschoolers began to take shape!

So while I'm not doing therapy per se in my art classes for tots and people don't come to my classes because that's what they are seeking, there's a unique feel I think to the way I lead my classes, because my training is that of an art therapist rather than an art teacher. I don't have this tendency toward technique where we have a goal as far as teaching this or that skill. It's really more exploration and imagination based and about supporting people in their emotional, spiritual, and developmental growth.

JEAN: Can you tell us more about Art in Hand?

JULIE: My art classes are for young children under the age of five together with their parent or caregiver. I offer the classes to two different age groups: eighteen months to three years old, and three and a half to five years old. Each session is inspired by a children's picture book, because I want to not only expose kids to language and literature and a love of books, but also because there are so many beautiful books out there that expose them (and their parents) to such a variety of ways that people can use art to express themselves.

I also try to, in the books we read and in the art we do, to reflect themes that are meaningful to young kids. So an underlying theme of the program is the idea of making connections, so that toddlers and preschoolers can begin to connect to things that they can relate to in their own lives and in the world around them. And when they make their art they can make the connections between their art and the story or images in the book we read, or to some aspect of their personal stories or experiences… whether it is something they have observed in nature, experiences related to family, friends, or their community, or things they have experienced or noticed through their various senses…all things that are important to little ones, that they can relate to on some level.

While the art activities that I introduce for the two age groups are not dramatically different, the dynamics of the classes are, because developmentally they're in such different places. Toddlers revel in the pure sensory, motor, and cognitive discovery that goes hand in hand with exploration in art. They are delighted by the effects they are able to achieve and the feelings of mastery and control that go along with being able to make their own choices.

The older group is much more verbal; they are creating with intent (which sometimes takes the form of recognizable images, sometimes not); and they have fascinating stories to tell about their creations. I often choose more sophisticated stories to read to the older group since they are much better able to focus on a more detailed story line. In either case, the focus is still very much on process.

I do like to clarify, that even though we focus on the process, that doesn't mean that the product is something that we don't value. There is inherent value in the product, by the simple fact that it was a particular child's unique creation. It's just that we don't want to have a prescribed end product – an expectation that it's supposed to turn out looking a certain way. I think it's important to introduce materials that offer the opportunity for "success", while allowing for each child's unique approach to the materials. There is satisfaction in creating something that we can look at and about which we can have interesting things to say. But we don't always have to have a finished product. Sometimes it truly is just about the exploration.

Another crucial piece of the ART IN HAND program, is helping to educate parents so that THEY understand all this talk about "process vs. product" and what it means to do art that is developmentally appropriate for young children. I really enjoy bringing this kind of mindful, creative approach to parents, opening them up to truly "hearing" what their child has to say, both verbally and nonverbally through their art. So this is where my theme of CONNECTING comes full circle-that connection between parent and child, through shared experience and careful listening and observing.

JEAN: Do you incorporate art therapy techniques in your everyday classes?

JULIE: I try to give parents the tools to create that "holding environment" that I referred to earlier, that space within which their child can feel safe and comfortable to express himself with materials. I also think my years of leading art therapy groups has helped me to know the importance of establishing rituals, of sensing how and when to make transitions, when to introduce something new to extend the experience and keep the kids engaged in art-making.

The interesting thing is that while I don't want to go back to that work now, I feel that I've learned so much about materials and ways to use the materials from the field of early childhood development and from the toddlers themselves, that I wish I had known when I was working with the adolescents and elementary school kids. These kids, whose early childhoods were impoverished, missed out on those kinds of stimulating experiences. I wish I had allowed them to have those experiences that they never had. Yes, if they were painting with acrylics and they put their hands in the acrylics and finger-painted with them, that was fine, and we would let them do that. But given what I know now, I would allow them use some of the art materials geared towards early childhood. Like liquid watercolors and finger-paints and shaving cream, and salt…materials that are so forgiving and so readily accessible for pure sensory exploration while still allowing for visual expression. So, while art therapy informs my work in early childhood, I would say the converse would also be true, if I were to go back to practicing art therapy.

JEAN: What are your favorite art activities for toddlers and preschoolers?

JULIE: Every time I think about this question, I come up with a different answer, but I think my favorite activities tend to be the ones that incorporate nature materials into the artwork. Each one is my favorite as we do them, so right now my current favorite is one we did last week. I read them stories that evoked images of the beach and ocean (All You Need for a Beach by Alice Schertle and Barbara Lavallee for the toddlers, and Out of the Ocean by Debra Frasier for the preschoolers). Then I gave them each an apple tray (the wavy blue cardboard things that the produce guy saves for me at the grocery store) and pans of tempera paints with various combinations of blue, white, and yellow, which mix into shades of blues and aquas as they paint on that curvy, wavy surface.

Once they've had their fill of this step, then I set out trays filled with beach-y treasures and materials that evoke the sights and sensations of the sea and sand…seashells, fish netting, glass beads (for the preschoolers), tissue paper in blues and greens, green cellophane, silver paper, sandpaper…Each child is then armed with a bag for collecting treasures and a glue bottle so they can affix them to their painted surface. As a final touch, I offer them coarse salt to sprinkle on their pieces. I think they are exquisite! Of course, I get equally excited in the springtime when we collect nature materials to build our own nests…

Another more traditional all-time favorite for me, the little ones and the parents is painting with liquid watercolors on coffee filters. The coffee filters are wonderful because they can get so wet and they don't disintegrate, and the colors spread and blend on them making a lovely tie dyed effect. They're really fun. And they are really beautiful. Even the kids with sensory aversions to messy paints are usually comfortable painting with the watercolors. Then I bring out the kosher salt and they sprinkle the salt on them, and it not only seems to hold universal sensory appeal to eighteen month to five year olds, it results in a spectacular visual effect as the pigment dries. And you can brush the salt away and collage with your paintings when they are dry (in fact this is MY personal art medium of choice these days).

Some great books that I associate with this project include Lois Ehlert's Waiting for Wings and Red Leaf Yellow Leaf or Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar. I have to admit that sometimes I do cut them into shapes, which is the most directive of anything I do. But still there's no way to paint on them wrong.

JEAN: I noticed on your website that you interweave children's books into your art lessons to encourage "emergent literacy". Can you tell us more about that and also share a few of your favorites?

JULIE: For me, it seemed natural to tie children's books to art-making. It all comes back to that concept of making connections. I feel much more comfortable introducing an art activity that is connected to something meaningful. It also helps give the group (and me) a sense of groundedness, a rhythm and routine that helps participants know what to expect, and it gives them the opportunity to make connections to what they have seen or heard in the story.

Again, the "favorite" question is always tough for me, but I suppose I would have to say that two of my favorite authors are Lois Ehlert and Leo Lionni. Ehlert's art work is gorgeous, from her watercolors to her mixed media collages, and I love that most of her books have a nature-related theme. Leo Lionni I love for his whimsical illustrations and brilliantly clever use of materials, and the wit and wisdom of his allegories, even though sometimes they leave me scratching my head! (Jean's note: you can find Julie's list of recommended books, by going to her website and clicking on the book list link.)

JEAN: What is your favorite aspect of teaching art to young children?

JULIE: Now this "favorite" is easy for me to answer, although I think I have to change the question a bit…because truthfully, I don't believe that I am "teaching" them art. I am giving them materials and tools, and inviting them to do what comes naturally. So…I would say the thing that I enjoy most about witnessing the art process of toddlers and preschoolers is how unselfconscious they are about it. How spontaneous.

That they don't have a preconceived idea going into it that it's supposed to be a certain way. So there is this complete freedom in their expressiveness. I get so excited when I see them doing their art. I'm just blown away by how beautiful it is. Those brush strokes that are so unselfconscious; I don't think an older child or an adult is capable of emulating that no matter how hard they try (and I guess that's the point)! I've thought about this a lot in the past year or so, as I've had a bit more time to reflect on the evolution of ART IN HAND.

I was the kid who was always worried about coloring in the lines. As a child I was fairly skilled artistically but I was so critical of myself because I had to get it right. I struggled with that my whole life. I don't think I ever really blossomed as an artist because I was much too self-conscious. It's only in the last few years that I have opened up in my own art-making and found a way to be more expressive and less self-critical. I think doing this work with toddlers has been my way of coming full circle. By giving other kids the opportunity to be totally free and spontaneous with the materials, I get to experience it vicariously as an adult-that wonderful freedom. And it has been fun to see how that has translated into my own art (which I still don't have nearly enough time for).

But when time allows, I create torn paper collages, and I incorporate those coffee filters, the liquid watercolor paintings, along with colored tissue paper, and images from magazines, photos, etc. No one can tell me if it's right or wrong. And each one tells a story. I usually work large, then turn the whole thing over, draw a grid on the back, and cut them into segments, so the end result is always a surprise! I make lots of note cards this way, but have ventured into making some larger pieces as well. I don't have much time and I don't do nearly as much as I would like. But I feel like I have finally found my medium and for the first time in my life, feel that freedom and spontaneity when creating. I have the toddlers to thank for that.

JEAN: Any ideas for parents wishing to incorporate art therapy ideas into their family's everyday life?

JULIE: These ideas aren't exlusive to art therapy, but I think it is important for parents to be mindful of how they respond to their children's art and art-making. It is so tempting to lavish our children with praise for what they are doing, and our intentions when doing so are usually to boost our child's self-esteem and motivation to continue. However, as parents, we do far more to encourage our children and enhance their feelings of worth and competence, if we comment qualitatively rather than quantitatively on what we see. The very act of stating what we NOTICE about what they have done or what we see ("You're using your whole arm to make those red brushstrokes across the page!" or "I see you've collected all the shiny pieces for your collage. The page seems to shimmer.") implies that we value what they are doing and motivates them to continue for the inherent pleasure derived from the process.

Evaluative comments such as "That's beautiful!" and "Great job!" have a couple of shortcomings. First of all, developmentally speaking, we know that toddlers do not set out to create something pretty when they are doing art…art-making is a sensory, motor, and expressive modality for them, having nothing to do with aesthetics. We inadvertently impose this notion on them prematurely when we talk to them about how pretty their picture is.

To confuse matters more, they have no way of understanding what exactly it is that makes this picture "pretty." We also fall into a catch 22 where they begin to seek our praise, and the internal gratification derived from the art-making itself becomes superceded by the desire for the external gratification of the praise. This ultimately results in decreased motivation and creativity, and increased dependence on external approval.

It takes a bit of practice to break the knee-jerk habit of making blanket praise statements, but just try to think descriptively. And when all else fails, you can always simply exclaim, "You did it!" It works like a charm every time!

JEAN: Anything else you would like to add?

JULIE: I think I've probably said more than enough already! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me and include me among the other inspiring artful interviewees on your blog. I really enjoy reading your entries and the responses of your many artful readers out there. I'm so glad to have discovered a place to share with so many like-minded folks. Keep it up!

JEAN: Thank you Julie! I really appreciate your willingness to share your expertise and your enthusiasm with me and with my Artful Parent readers. What a treasure trove of great information you just gave us! I think the paragraph on how (and why!) to talk to kids about their art is wonderful. And I love your beach art activity. I may be copying you on that one soon…

To learn more about Julie Liddle and her Art in Hand program, you can visit her website or read her articles in the Washington Parent on art for little kids (The Magic of Creative Discovery, The Art of Springtime, and Cool Art for Hot Summer Days.

* * * Readers who leave a comment to this interview by Friday, July 25th at 12 midnight EST will be entered into a drawing for a summer beach art activity set (everything a family needs to make Julie's current fave art activity mentioned above: three wavy apple trays, cellophane, shells, coarse salt, fish netting, tissue paper, etc) as well as a set of four of her collage notecards.

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