Putting the heart in art therapy



Allbery Web

“Kids are still kids, even when they’re sick, so it’s even more important to provide opportunities for creative expression when their environment is so limited, like in the hospital.”

When kids are in the hospital, arts and crafts might not be top of mind for families or medical professionals.

But Riley Hospital for Children art therapist Emily Allbery will tell you that art activities are an important part of a child’s treatment plan.

In fact, she said, the value of the creative activity actually increases when a child is hospitalized.

“While the arts are still helping with a child’s growth and development, they are also simultaneously providing a much-needed sense of normalcy and control,” she said.

A young patient in Riley’s heart center is benefiting from that kind of therapy now, Allbery said. The little girl misses her home and all the things that make up that feeling of home to her. So she is using art to express those feelings.

“During our most recent session, she made a house that she could put all of her toys in and add all of the comforts of home that she missed so much,” Allbery said. “She made a blankie and a bed for her toys to sleep in and even a TV for some entertainment.”


Allbery, an art therapist at Riley for five years, loves her job. She loves playing a role separate from the medical side of treatment. She loves helping kids and their parents process unique life experiences. But most of all, she loves seeing kids’ faces light up when they know it’s time for art therapy.

“Kids are still kids, even when they are sick,” she said, “so it’s even more important to provide opportunities for creative expression when their environment is so limited, like in the hospital. The arts can become an emotional outlet for a child who is in the hospital as well as a way to process this experience at their own pace.”

Art therapists at Riley provide mental health counseling through art-making to ease anxiety, depression and psychosocial and emotional difficulties related to illness, trauma and loss.

While almost all children could benefit from having the counseling piece from an art therapist while hospitalized, parents can also help encourage using art as a coping skill, Allbery said.

Working on something together can also help strengthen the family bond, she said.

“I frequently have caregivers report feeling calmer while making art alongside their child or during one-on-one sessions.”


Not only are the arts inherent within our culture – from the way we dress and style our hair to the music we listen to and the food we eat – the arts are also key to early communication, Allbery said.

“We typically spend the first two to three years of our lives communicating through movement, sound and imagery. Art is a way for children to express their inner being without having the appropriate words to do so.”

Art in all of its forms can be a safe way to express what we’re feeling. As children get older, arts and crafts are also a way for them to form words and a complex vocabulary to describe the world around them.

The arts also are a way for kids to learn visually and practice problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

“As an art therapist, I am keenly aware of the role artistic expression plays in a child’s life, especially in adolescence when it can be hard to express your inner world. The arts give an outlet for children to find ways to cope with everyday experiences and will hopefully build what we call a ‘coping skills toolbox’ they can pull from as they grow older and become more independent.”

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist
Email: mgilmer1@iuhealth.org