August 2006



Clay art as therapy

Children with special needs are finding analternative source of self-expression and gaining confidence by playing with clay.



Eleven-year-old Kervyn has come a long way in his speech and communication skills since he was first diagnosed with autism at six. His homemaker mother, Felicia Chua, 43, credits his improvement to four, things -accurate diagnosis, parental support, his special school, as well as the clay art classes that he has been attending for three years.

When Kervyn was younger, he could only make "baby noises". His mother remebers having to change childcare centres because the staff simply could not handle him. She could not even enrol him in Primary 1 when he turned seven because of his speech problems. It was only after a visit to KK Hospital and a private psychiatrist that Kervyn was diagnosed as autistic, and recommended to attend a school for kids with special needs.

DEFINING AUTISM * Daniel Koh, a psychologist withInsights (www., explains that autistic children often have issues with communicating and relating to others. In addition, they tend to have learning difficulties; impairments in their social interaction such that they find it hard to make friends; frustration issues caused by their inability to do certain things and even comforting behaviour; as well as anger problems.They are also sensitive to touch, sound. smell, sight and taste, and much prefer to be left alone in their ownworld. ( Page 52 )

It was only when Kervyn started attending his special school that he began to improve in his speech. Then, his teacher advised his mother to enrol him for art classes, or for any other hands-on activities so that he could improve further ."My son has always liked to build things and do hands-on work. When he was young, he enjoyed using Blu-tac to make small toys like dinosaurs, or play with complicated Lego sets. So I signed up for Garie's Play Clay classes, and Kervyn enjoyed them so much that he started going for classes three to four times a week!" shares Felicia.

CLAY PLAY FOR KIDS Unlike traditional clay and pottery classes in which children learn to use earthen clay to make into ceramics, Garie Sim, artist founder of Play Creation (, runs Play Clay classes in which children learn clay modelling with colourful polymer clays. Compaired to earthen clay, these man-made polymer clays are softer and easier for children to handle.

Garie teaches them how to mix colours and create textures for creatures, animals, figurines, their favourite cartoon characters, and anything from their imagination. Even though he is not specially, trained to deal with children like Kervyn, he has no problems reaching out to them. " I use clay as a motivating factor for them to speak up. I always ask them, ' what do you want to do? ' I just have to go down to their level. Even if there is no verbal communication, I just show them how to do it, either by demonstrating or by holding their hand," says Garie.

Felicia agrees that clay art has helped in Kervyn's communication skills. "Now, when I talk to him, he will think about what I say, then respond. For example, when I asked him to help me pour water into the fish tank, he replied by saying ' hold on, I'm drawing '. Previously, he only gave monosyllabic answers," says Felicia Chua.

" Children learn to mix colours and create textures for creatures, animals, figures, their favourite cartoon charactors, and anything from their imagination. "

NO SEGREGATION * All Play Clay classes are " mixed", as the special children are not segregated from the normal ones. "Everyone benefits from such an arrangement. The special children can definitely teach the normal ones something - I myself learn things from them because they stimulate me. I treat them like any normal child, because I've found that as long as we treat them normally, they would feel better about themselves, and improve!" says Garie.

Such an arrangement can be beneficial for autistic children because it helps the child avoid social isolation; while placing the focus on art, it does so in the company of others. " This helps the special children model or learn their behaviour from other kids. It also gives them a chance to practise their communication and social skills. For instance, they have to speak up to ask for help or equipment, and they can also see how others react in a given situation, " explains Daniel. ( Page 53 )

Most importantly, these special children are learning and practising new skills in a safe and supportive environment, and engaging in sensory motor play that involves touching objects and his own body. " This helps the child form an internal locus of control rather than an external one. As such. he develops a positive self image and increased confidence when he he sees that he is able to do or create something," explains Daniel.

Not only does this give the child a sense of identity, it can also change their, perspective from being a " disabled child " to one who is " creative " or " imagnative ". Garie agrees, and believes that his Play Clay classes "help" these children because it offers them an alternative source of self-expression and confidence. " They become confident when they see what they can create with their own hands. " explains Garie.

NORMAL CHILDREN SHINE TOO * In fact, this holds true for normal children as well, which Linda Tan, 37, secretary and mother of two, found out when she enrolled six-year-old Jimmy in play Clay class. Her son is perfectly normal, except for a confidence issue. He does not talk when he is outside, or in unfamiliar surroundings.

When he was younger, he refused to talk to his classmates and his teachers in school, look at them inthe eye or even join in activities that children his age generally enjoyed. "He wouldn't even talk to me when we were at his school," says Linda. His behaviour was so disturbing that she decided to take him for an assessment. The results concluded tlhat, Jimmy was normal, but simply lacked confidence and selfesteen.

A friend whose child's dyslexia improved from attending Play Clay classes then recommended her to them. " He's always drawing, so I thought that clay classes would be good for him, not only in terms of his interests and motor skills, but also for social interaction. 0n his first visit, he refused to talk to Tresa (Garie's wife who helps run the classes), but by his second lesson, he was hugging them! He was even willing to look and listen to Tresa! He's very happy now, and looks forward to eachclass." shares Linda. "In fact, he's so comfortable and confident that he now attends them on his own! "

HOW ELSE CAN CLAY ART HELP YOUR CHILD? * Garie feels that the benefits of clay art apply to every child, as the skills it impairts are essential to the development of the whole child, whether special or normal. " Play Clay lays the foundation of critical thinking in the kids, and prepares them in the long run for many occupations like engineering or even medicine, because it teaches them one fundamental skill - problem solving with visualisation. Children learn that there are many solutions to a single problem! " shares Garie.

Daniel agrees that clay art helps children,whether normal or special, in developing their problem solving abilities. " For instance, they have to think about what they have to do to make a car, which requires tlhem to make use of visual memory, to recall what a car looks like. It then stimulates their minds, senses and imagination as they come out with their own designs and versions of something, " explains Daniel. It also develops the kids' fine rnotoir skills and coordination when they use their fingers to press or a rolling pin to roll the clay.

Clay art can benefit the child in terms of creativity, imagination and expression, too. "For example, if a child has an attention problem, having something that is interesting and stimulating to the mind may help to train his attention and focus." says Daniel. In fact, it has helped hyperactive Kervyn in this aspect. He enjoys his clay art classes so much that he is able to sit down for hours on end.

Daniel explains that clay art can be particularly beneficial to special children such as Kervyn as it teaches them to focus ( Page 54 ) and not be distracted by other things around them. But it has also helped parents of normal active children as well. Homemaker and mother of two, Raadhika Manoj, 38, whose older child has been attending Play Clay classes for the past five years, agrees that clay art has helped her daughter prepare for, preschool by improving her attention span. " When she was younger, she was always running around. But during Play Clay classes, she started to pay more attention and could focus." This helped prepare her for preschool, as her daughtermanaged to "sit down and not run around all the time".

Felicia also notices that Kervyn has become more independent. For example, he is able to go to the toilet, and remembers to switch on and off the toilet lights. He is also able to do simple chores like washing the pet turtle by himself. " Whatever he does, he will think about what he has to do first, and then the entire procedure of how to get it done," shares Felicia.

Daniel explains that clay art encourages the children to learn to work independently or under limited guidance, as they constantly make their own decisions on what and how to create in every class. For example, if they want to make a dinosaur, they would have to think of what they would need to do in order to create what they want. Mary Yeo, 33, finance manager and mother of three, was also similarly surprised by how independent her seven-year-old, who is normal, has become after attending these classes. "In the past, he would wait for me to get home before starting his work. and I would have to sit next to him while he completed it. But now my son can sit down and finish his work all by himself'. "

" Clay art encourages the kids to work iindependently, as they constantly make their own decisions on what and how to create on every class. "

TAILORED FOR YOUR CHILD'S NEEDS * Clay art can also be used to teach subjects like maths or science through a graphic or practical way, which would make them more interesting to the kids. "If the child has interest in the subject, he will be more motivated to learn. However, we need to assess the child to determine what form of learning difficulties he may have, and tailor the artsession or art therapy to his needs," explains Daniel.

Garie agrees that every child, special or normal, is different. So, he customises his teaching method to suit each individual child. " Clay art simply helps realise any child's dream. They decide what they want to make, and it instills confidence when they realise that they can make it, " says Garie. This is the reason he feels that clay art can help any child.

But some parents disagree, as they believe that it is the teachers who have made clay art work for their children. " Garie and Tresa just have the 'magic'," says Linda who best sums up the real deciding factor, " Enrichment classes are so commercialised and plentiful nowadays, but we decided on Play Clay for our kids because of the couple's passion for the children. It's difficult to find any teachers who have so much passion for the children and the arts. " YP

HOW CLAY ART HELPS CHILDREN * Clay art is a powerful and therapeutic activity. Physically, a child uses his muscles to mould and shape his creation. These actions work his fine muscles which in turn sharpens the dexterity in his fingers. Cognitively, a child learns about proportion, space and shape when he creates from clay. He experiences cause-and-effect when he sees changes made due to the pressure applied. Socio-emotionally, he is calmed by the process when his hands touch the clay, enabling him to express his emotions through his art. ( page 55 )

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