Creativity and self-expression are important for all people. Being creative and engaging in art, including visual arts, performing arts, music, and creative writing, provides a number of mental and physical health benefits. Art is proven to reduce anxiety and depression and improve cognitive abilities like memory and reasoning. It may even reduce the risk of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
These benefits are for everyone, but children with disabilities like cerebral palsy may be left out of art experiences. As inclusion becomes more popular, though, these children are being included, are being given adaptive tools, and are getting the many benefits of art. They can also benefit from guided therapies that make use of art, music, or dance.
The Importance of Inclusion
Children living with disabilities have a right to be included in activities and learning experiences as much as any others. However, for a long time these children have been excluded from activities it was assumed they could not do, such as sports and sometimes art. Inclusion is growing as a movement and it is important because all children deserve to have art in their lives and to benefit from it. Inclusion is also necessary for many other reasons: to promote self-esteem and confidence, to increase socializing with peers, and to give every child the best opportunities.
Art Allows for Non-Verbal Expression
Making art is a way for anyone to express emotions, especially those that are difficult to talk about. For a child with a disability, the need to express negative emotions like fear, shame, and anger is strong. Being given the tools to be creative and to make something, these children can learn to express and communicate these feelings in healthy ways. For a child with cerebral palsy who struggles to communicate verbally, art is a particularly powerful tool, not just for expressing and releasing emotions, but also for communicating with others.
Art Boosts Self-Esteem
Living with a disability has a big impact on self-esteem and can limit what a child perceives as his or her abilities. A child may not think that creating art or participating in theater or dance is possible, but with programs that are inclusive and include adaptive instruction and tools, they are. Knowing that making art is not only possible, but something he or she may be good at is a big boost for a child with so many other limitations in life.
Being able to see a completed work of art is powerful for confidence and for a child to see what he or she can really do in all areas of life. It helps a child to focus on what is possible, what his or her abilities are, rather than focusing on limitations. Also beneficial to confidence is the ability to share creations with others who appreciate them.
Art Supports Academics
Children with cerebral palsy mostly have intelligence levels equal to or superior to their peers. Some, however, may have lower IQs, but even those with average or above average intelligence, performing well academically can be challenging. Studies with disabled students and their teachers have found that those who regularly participate in art classes are more academically successful. In one school studied, state test scores went up significantly after several years of implementing arts curriculum for all students.
Art Supports Language Development
Cerebral palsy can cause speech and language difficulties, but participation in arts programs has been proven to help support this development. Specifically, participating in theater and drama programs can be beneficial for developing speech and language. It may be a challenge for a child who struggles to talk, but active participation actually helps improve speech. Theater programs that are specifically designed to work with disabled children and adults are available in a lot of locations.
Art Promotes Social Activities
Art is varied and can be done on an individual basis but also in a group setting. It may be a group in which everyone works individually, or a class that uses collaboration to create works of art. The possibilities are endless, but most give children who are often socially isolated the chance to get involved and spend time with peers. This is one reason that inclusion in all areas of school and extra-curricular activities is so important. It gives children more time with their peers, which in turn helps them see that they are not so different and gives them all the positive benefits of being social.
The Benefits of Dance
For a child with a physical disability, dance may seem a million miles away. Children with cerebral palsy may have physical disabilities ranging from a slightly altered walk to being wheelchair-bound. All can be involved in dance, though, if modified and adapted for their needs and abilities. In fact, adapted dance can be beneficial by improving flexibility, strength, balance, and other physical measures. In terms of inclusion, socializing, and building self-esteem, dance can be very powerful.
Art and Dance as Therapy
Participation in the arts does not have to be formal or specifically therapeutic for children with disabilities to see benefits. However, art, music, and dance can also be powerful tools used in therapy guided by trained professionals. Working with a therapist that specializes in using some type of art can provide a child with a safe place to express feelings, thoughts, and worries, and to work through problems that are difficult to talk about.
Trained art therapists use the creation of art to allow patients to open up more easily and to express emotions that may be hidden. Creating art can bring out these feelings that a child did not know how to express otherwise. Dance and movement therapy can be used in a similar way, but has the added benefit of providing physical activity. Even children with severely restricted movements can benefit from working with a dance therapist for self-expression, exploring emotions, and for improving physical condition. Dance therapists work based on the philosophy that the brain and body are connected, so physical movements benefit both the body and the mind.
Art is truly for everyone, and as the inclusion movement gains momentum more children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities will be able to find the joy and self-confidence that comes from creating. Anyone can do art, and that can be in formal setting such as a classroom, as part of professional therapy, or just more casually in a group of friends or with parents at home. Children with cerebral palsy, like anyone else, can and should benefit from creating art, finding self-esteem, seeing their abilities, socializing with peers, and using a creative outlet for expression and communication.