Play and creative arts help children in care explore their lives

Social workers can use play and the creative arts to help looked-after children explore and discuss their experiences. The Social Care Institute for Excellence explains how

Social workers can use play and the creative arts to help looked-after children explore and discuss their experiences. The Social Care Institute for Excellence explains how

For children in the care system, the effects of abuse, neglect, trauma and insecurity of attachment may leave them less able to convey their feelings and concerns to social work professionals.

Some may not understand what is being said or may have guilty, unclear or ambivalent feelings about the issue being discussed.

Sometimes they will be difficult to engage in direct conversations because their experience has been that adults do not understand them, are not interested in what they say or don’t take them seriously. Until they trust their workers, they are less likely to communicate issues of concern.

Children’s feelings of fear and powerlessness may also be an issue. Many will feel wary of speaking to adults they don’t know. They may also have been told by their parents not to speak to social workers about family problems.

So social workers may need to use different ways of communicating with children, other than talking.

Depending on factors, such as their age and stage of development, children do not always have the words, cognitive concepts or emotional awareness to name and convey complex feelings and experiences. Instead, they make sense of and communicate these through more symbolic languages.

The impact of certain disabilities may mean a child does not use spoken language, or has limited spoken language, or uses language in an unusual way. They may use augmentative or alternative communication methods, such as sign, symbols, pictures or electronic communication aids. Help may be needed from an interpreter or someone who knows the child well.

Sometimes workers may not have the experience or training to successfully communicate with a child, particularly if that child has complex communication needs. It is vital that workers can recognise when they need additional professional support so they can ask for advice or supervision from a manager or for help from an expert, such as a play therapist or specialist teacher.

Workers always need to think about the child’s communicative age and stage of development. This means:

● Thinking about the kinds of words and sentence structure to use.

● Ensuring what is being said is expressed at the right level.

● Seeing whether non-verbal forms of communication, such as visual images, metaphors, or other creative arts might help a child express him or herself more freely, in their own ways, and on their own terms.

Games and activities can provide children and their workers with what paediatrician and psychiatrist Donald Winnicott called the “third thing” or “third object” – something else to focus on when a difficult issue is discussed or something that can help a relationship to develop so that children feel safer.

The “third thing” can include artwork, toys, board or computer games, playing with pets or animals, or chatting about the child’s hobbies or any shared interests to help establish a connection.

The approach used will be unique for each child. With younger children, a period of non-directive play may indicate the child’s natural way of communicating their experience.

With some children and with teenagers, spending some time together without any agenda and suggesting activity may provide a way into communication.

Speaking to adults who know the children well – parents, carers, teachers – can also be invaluable in gathering information on their interests and communicative style.

Visual imagery and artwork can be used in several ways with children and young people. For example:

● Diagrams can help explain things more clearly.

● Assessment tools can help make sense of children’s experience.

● Encouraging children to draw and paint can help them to express themselves.

The use of artwork can also create a relaxed environment in which to engage the child or young person.

Creative writing may be a safe way for some children and young people to communicate their feelings in written form, instead of talking. The aim should be to enable children to explore and process their experience, not to produce a “good” poem or story.

As with all artistic and creative work by children, their writing should be treated with care and respect.

Using a story as an illustration can be a way of giving information and explanations to children who are too young or distressed to make sense of what they have been told. Exploring characters and situations from stories can also help children work through difficult feelings and not feel so alone with their experiences. Storylines and characters from films, soaps or computer games as well as books are a good source of stories.

Music is like a language: it is a way to communicate feelings, relationships and “internal world” experiences.

Music can be used in many ways, including listening to music with young people, creating music together and supporting young people in writing songs.

Communicating with young people using non-verbal means is the difficult option. Workers must involve themselves fully as individuals in an engaged relationship if this approach is to work.

Personal qualities will be needed as well as knowledge and skill. This includes a capacity to be playful, creative, fun, real and emotionally warm – and not to mind feeling silly.

These ways of working aren’t just restricted to children and young people. Many adult users of care services will also find it helpful to express their views, concerns, thoughts, feelings and inner experiences through creative means.


Further information

Communication skills e-learning through Scie 


CASE STUDY: Piecing together Mindy’s life jigsaw

At age14 Mindy had been in 11 foster placements in the past 10 years. There were many complex reasons for the moves and it was nearly impossible for her to develop a coherent narrative about her life.

Mindy has settled in her current placement over the past six months and her social worker and foster carer have talked with her about doing some life story work to try to put together some of the pieces of the “jigsaw that is her life”.

Mindy had a computer in her room and began to type out fragments of memories, some only a few lines long, which she began to share with her worker and carer. They suggested she might want to print out and keep the pages in a folder that could be added to as more memories emerge. They also encouraged her to experiment with fonts, colours and illustrations.

Over the next two years. Mindy added more to her life narrative. She and her worker visited places she had lived and took photos. She pasted in letters from significant people containing reflections on her history, and notes she had taken from accessing her social services file.

Now 16, Mindy is moving out of the placement into independent living. She talks about how important this autobiography is to her now – her most precious possession. It has helped her finally to make some sense out of her life and it will have pride of place in her new home.



● Verbal ways of communicating with children and young people can be supplemented by a range of play and art-based approaches.

● Games and activities can provide children and their workers with a “third thing” on which to focus and defuse tension when something difficult is being discussed.

● There are no hard and fast rules about what approach to use for different situations, age groups or cultures. Find the best approach for the individual child or young person.

● Always consider whether a child might benefit more or additionally from some direct verbal communication about issues of concern to them.




Title The contribution of music therapy to the emotional well-being of children in residential child care

Reference Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, 8(2), October 2009. ISSN paper 1478-1840

Abstract This draws on the experiences of the author of providing music therapy for five years in a residential home for young people with learning disabilities, many of whom have additional emotional needs.



Title Communicating with children during assessment: training pack

Publisher National Children’s Bureau, 2006

Abstract This aims to improve the competence and confidence of practitioners in communicating with children during assessments.


Author STRINGER Berni

Title Communicating through play: techniques for assessing and preparing children for adoption

Publisher British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2009

Abstract This aims to help adoption workers consider how the relationship between children and their carers can be enhanced through play.


Author LEVY Alan J

Title The therapeutic action of play in the psychodynamic treatment of children: a critical analysis.

Reference Clinical Social Work Journal, 36(3), September 2008. ISSN paper 0091-1674; ISSN online 1573-3343

Abstract This paper critically appraises the therapeutic action of play in psychodynamic child therapy and identifies obstacles to using play therapeutically with children.


This article is published in the 29 April 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Artistic licence for children in care” 

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