Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How An Art Break Helps Kids Learn

An innovative school counseling program lets kids get creative

Katherine Ziff
Source: Katherine Ziff

This guest post was contributed by Katherine Ziff, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University.

In 2008 I began a journey with twenty-nine children in the rural Midwestern elementary school where I spent six years as school counselor. This journey led me to integrate play into the school day for children referred to my office, most of whom needed help with stress, life transitions, struggles to behave appropriately in the classroom, and other social emotional support. I modeled this program after a small-group art studio taught by Mary Anne Bartley at the Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Her studio was designed to be a creative and restorative place to support medical students’ learning. There medical students, “dragging their cares and woes,” relaxed, expressed themselves, allowed creativity to flow, and emerged as active learners “ready to tackle whatever they confront from new and more productive directions.” When I heard about this program, I wondered, “If an art break could do this for medical students, what might it do for school children?” The resulting program eventually served a broad spectrum of 150 K-6 children referred by their teachers, their families, and themselves for social emotional support, stress mitigation, arts enrichment, and the opportunity to develop creativity and problem-solving skills. We offered over 350 weekly, 40 minute small-group sessions that met for five years in multi-age groups over the school year.

The idea of fun and joy as a companion to (much less a condition for) learning is often a suspect notion in schools. For quite a while I felt that our ArtBreak work bordered on frivolous, as children continually described ArtBreak as “fun,” until I began reading the research on the educational benefits of fun. Fun creates engagement, meaning, purpose and joy. As neurologist and classroom teacher Judy Willis argues, “The truth is that when joy and comfort are scrubbed from the classroom…students’ brains are distanced from effective information processing and long-term memory storage.” Back in 1977, social worker Edith Cobb wrote that a sense of wonder, manifested as joy and surprise, is a prerogative of childhood and essential to the development of creative thinking.

Katherine Ziff
Source: Katherine Ziff

The ArtBreak groups taught me about the natural and joyful dedication that children bring to play. During a session in which children were using cardboard and assorted doo-dads to construct lots of objects (drums, dolls, small vehicles), hurrying to finish so that they might take them home, I asked, “What do you do with them at home?” The children put down their scissors and tape and cardboard, looked at me with disbelieving pity and chorused: “We play with them!” Of course, they were making toys! And they were incredulous that I could not recognize what they were doing. Absorbed in spontaneous mental images of things they wanted to play with, and inspired by the materials at hand, they were completely engaged in bringing their creative visions into form.

Play is critical to learning. Elise Belknap and Richard Hazler’s article, aptly entitled Empty Playgrounds and Anxious Children, reviews the growing research documenting the role of play in supporting the development of divergent thinking, practice with numbers concepts, literacy skills like creating narratives, prosocial behavior, expression of feeling, and problem solving. Peter Gray in Free to Learn discusses the foundational role of play in child development and cites the importance of schooling that features a playful state of mind, choice, and free age-mixing. Children can conceive of just about anything, including working with art materials, as an opportunity for play. It is through play with material like paints, clay, drawing media, blocks, and cardboard that children can begin the work of developing creativity that emerges and flourishes over a lifetime.

The ArtBreak program offered a way to integrate guided play into the elementary school day. Its framework integrates a way to relate to children (using child-centered educational principles drawn from the work of psychologist Carl Rogers) and expectations in terms of group dynamics (the stages of group process). We also considered the potentials of art materials based on the expressive therapies continuum, a theory from art therapy that describes the functions of media according to their degree of fluidity or resistiveness. For example, fluid media like watercolors and finger paint help children relax and express feelings, while highly resistive media like collage and construction develop problem-solving skills. Throughout the program we undertook research to fine-tune our operations and understand how ArtBreak benefited children. We learned that children relax in the sessions. For two years we measured changes in fingertip temperature (a reliable biomarker of stress levels) among students as they entered the studio and then about two-thirds of the way through the session, before they began to wash their hands and clean up. We found an overall significant increase in fingertip temperature, suggesting that the program reduces child stress.

We also asked teachers to reflect on the ArtBreak program. Among students who participated, teachers noted gains among seven out of ten participating students in areas of social, emotional, and cognitive growth. When we asked students to describe ArtBreak and what they learned, children reflected on fun, imagination, and joy. Many spoke of self-direction. “We aren’t directed. Your mind is not in a can.” “We don’t get told what to do, what to make. We have ideas.” Children also spoke of emotional regulation – “If you’re mad, you calm down”; community – “We help each other and that’s fun”; and skill development – “We learn about tools, what you can make with them, being careful with them.” “You use your thinking, you think about what you make.”

Katherine Ziff
Source: Katherine Ziff

ArtBreak is essentially an island of play incorporated into a school day, within whole classrooms and small groups convened for the purpose. Through choice-based guided play with art materials, children have access to breathers in the midst of a stressful day, have opportunities to enjoy the challenge of problem solving that can occur while making art, and experience a restorative art-based play environment.

Any school can incorporate such a program into its curriculum. With the ArtBreak “how to” book as a practical guide, all it requires of teachers, school counselors or others is a willingness to offer children art based play in a community of freedom and order that encourages expressiveness, problem solving, and creativity.

Katherine Ziff is the author of ArtBreak: A Creative Guide to Joyful and Productive Classrooms. An assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University and a licensed practicing counselor, her research interests are visual art and counseling, arts based research, and community mental health.


Bartley, M. A. (1997). Creativity and medicine: An atelier in medical school. International Journal of Arts Medicine, 5, 36–39.

Belknap, E. & Hazler, R. (2014). Empty playgrounds and anxious children. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 9, 210-231.

Cobb, E. (1977). The ecology of imagination in childhood. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York: NY: Basic Books.

Hinz, L. (2009). Expressive therapies continuum: A framework for using art in therapy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing.

Willis, J. (2007). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning: Insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Ziff, K. (2016). ArtBreak: A creative guide to joyful and productive classrooms. Athens, OH: Ohio University/Swallow Press.

Ziff, K., Ivers, N., & Shaw, E. (2016). ArtBreak group counseling for children: Framework, practice points, and results. The Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 41, 71-92.

More from Darby Saxbe Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Darby Saxbe Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today