The power of illustration in a psychiatric hospital

In my time as a teacher in a Child Psychiatric Hospital, we used drawing and illustration as a way of engaging with the children and getting an ‘in’.

As you will imagine there was a wide and diverse range of ability and capability and of engagement and interaction, from children who would not initially engage at all, who were traumatized by events leading up to admission, to those who coped well with the transition.

Establishing trust and rapport with the children was fundamental to all our work. From their first visit to the classroom the children were encouraged to draw, whether copying pictures, drawings, drawing themselves and their families or drawing imaginary characters. From these beginnings we would either scribe explanations or get them to write a few sentences about their drawing. We would always read to the children from stories and weA character description from one of the children would look carefully at picture books. The children were always encouraged to ask questions or relate a story to them.  On Monday mornings an hour was spent on news-time talking about their weekends and then drawing or writing them up. In their drawings and write –ups there would often be an element of fantasy.

With more directed writing drawing became an important element in giving the children a start to their writing. For older children we would, for example, either use a scene they had drawn for more descriptive work or for poetry, or we might brainstorm ideas around characters in confrontation, and we would encourage the children to visualize and draw the characters prior to describing them and their actions. This could be a straightforward drawing, cut out characters from magazines, clay models, or wildly fantastical characters that developed and ‘grew wings’ as they drew. I would sometimes also reverse the process and get the children to draw ‘Gustavs’. This involved me describing a character named Gustav and them drawing him. He might, for example, be black and yellow and furry with six legs and eight eyes with a penchant for spider sandwiches….the children really enjoyed this activity and comparing their results.

Older children would often be into fantasy figures and comics and, in particular, scenes where a superhero was all-powerful.  They would enjoy drawing out the action and then describing it in brief, snappy sentences. Style of writing and ways of making writing simple but exciting were often discussed.

Overall our attempts to get children engaged and writing were successful. There were certainly some children who were reluctant to comply and they would often simply draw or model. Interestingly once the drawing or clay model was there, had been established as a character created, these children would often talk about their character in great detail. Most of the children on the unit had a need to tell their story, or a fantasy around their lives and how they might want things to be in the future. Drawing, making characters or modeling provided an outlet for this and tapped into a creative impulse. Children recognized that listening to a story and imagining it, visualizing it, allowed them access to other worlds and that creating your own story gave you power and control over how the story could go and what the character could be like. In some cases, these children had been very much the victims of power and control, writing drawing and modeling enabled them to gain some control themselves and in some cases freed them up to speak about their own lives and what had happened to them.

The children were always keen to show their drawings and stories to nursing staff and, with great poignancy, to their parents.


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