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Creating Combats Stress and Anxiety

By: Art Teacher Erica Spangler

January 4, 2021

I remember meeting with Mrs. Zurlinden before spring break in March of 2020. We had discussed the very real possibility of moving to remote learning after the break, and I wondered what that scenario could possibly look like for art. How could I teach art remotely? Mrs. Z told me one thing I’ll never forget, “Your job is to bring joy to the kids.”

Bringing Joy

I left that meeting with a huge weight of responsibility on my shoulders. Bring joy. That was my goal for the spring, but I realize it is and has been my goal each day as an art teacher.

The highlight of teaching art on a cart comes from two words I hear at least six times a day. As I roll into each classroom, a child inevitably proclaims “Yay! Art!” Those two words are music to my ears. Students are eager to engage in creativity, and the arts are a wonderful place for children to get lost in the creative process.

This fall I read Rebekah Lyons’ book Rhythms of Renewal: Trading Stress and Anxiety for a Life of Peace and Purpose. In her book, Lyons suggests four rhythms we can incorporate into our lives to replace stress and anxiety with peace and purpose. One of the rhythms she focuses on is “create.” Lyons suggests that through creativity, we can take a break from stress, anxiety and boredom. This got me thinking about my role as an art teacher — the primary encourager of creativity in children.

Process Over Product

For some, the idea of creating art can produce anxiety. That is in part because we live in an age of social media, where everything seems to be posted, “likes” tallied, and the importance of product is valued more than process. In the book, Art & Fear, the authors suggest that some people won't even begin creating because they are afraid the outcome won’t be good enough. The creativity Lyons talks about is creating for the sake of creativity. It’s making something for its own sake — not to be judged, compared or shared on social media. The goal of creating to relieve stress and anxiety is focused on process rather than product. In the art world, we call that art for art’s sake.

The Art of Distraction

Creating can reduce stress and anxiety in both children and adults for many reasons. Sandi Schwartz, author of the “Happy Science Mom” blog, shared that “[Painting] helps me get lost in the moment and forget my worries.” She suggests that art serves as a distraction, it creates flow and mindfulness, and is a form of self-care. I see all of these at play when children are in art class — whether in the art studio, at their desks in homeroom, or at the outdoor painting studio.

Distraction is a strategy that helps reduce stress and anxiety. “...when distracting themselves, children are not actively avoiding their feelings but rather temporarily shifting their thoughts and attention to a more pleasurable activity. According to Skinner and Zimmer-Gemback (2007) distraction is considered a form of accommodation in which children use flexibility to focus on another topic and thereby adjust their emotions” (Drake & Winner, 2012).

Distracting ourselves through creativity is different from distraction through entertainment. Entertainment, such as video games, binge watching Netflix, or scrolling through TikTok videos doesn’t actually require brain involvement. When you create a work of art, your brain is engaged as you are distracted from stress and anxiety. Whether you are creating a drawing or painting from scratch, or coloring in popular relaxing coloring books, you are making choices about your art. It is my joy to watch students become distracted from the stresses of the school day — especially this year — through art. They are so concentrated on what they are making, that they get 30-45 minutes free of worries about masks, social distancing, the pandemic or even how well they did on a recent test.

Schwartz listed both flow and mindfulness as positive benefits from art. She wrote, flow is “the state of being completely engaged in an activity. Mindfulness occurs when you are absorbed in the present moment” (Schwartz, 2016). My favorite moments in art class, and they occur daily, are when students get lost in their art. They are so absorbed, that they forget their surroundings. They are not distracted by other students or the final product. They are excited and busy creating. This is a vital part of your child’s day.

Say Yes to Mess

I know as a mom of three with busy schedules (in a non-COVID year), that the last thing we think to do is take time to create. COVID-19 has drained us as parents, so the thought of building a fort (and then having to clean it up), baking a cake from scratch (and then having to clean it up), sitting down to build with Legos (and then having to clean it up), can be at the bottom of our list ... because we’ll have to clean it up! Not to mention painting or making recycled sculptures! However, I urge you to take a risk and say yes to the mess if it means your children can create with you.

One of my friends does not enjoy a messy house, but she still creates with her kids. They scrapbook together and recently got interested in intricate paint-by-number kits they ordered through Amazon. Many enjoy intricate coloring books or making zentangles. These are creative options that are less messy, equally engaging, and give us, as parents, opportunities to encourage creativity by partaking in it with our children. Children learn by example, so if they see us create, they will join us. If they see us on our phones or in front of the TV, they will do the same.

Art for All

Everyone does not like to create in the same way. My 13 year old is eager to build out of Legos. My 10 year old loves cardboard construction and baking. My 16 year old daughter creates music on her cello. (Music and art both relieve stress and anxiety achieving the same effects of distraction, flow, mindfulness and self-care.) I would argue, however, that everyone is experiencing a level of stress and anxiety at this time. The pandemic has affected us all, including our children, and we all need to find positive ways to work towards peace and purpose. I encourage you to seek out a way to connect and create with your child on a regular basis. It is a fun and positive way to deal with the hard emotions we are all facing. We all get to bring joy!

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Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in St. Louis, is a private preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills.​ Request a free Rossman School brochure here.

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