Pink Palm Trees & Blue Pumpkins

In my mid 30s I was enrolled in a workshop to incorporate Play/Art Therapy into treatments for children experiencing trauma. I knew the world of art had been a great tool for healing in my own life and although, I am not an art therapist, I wanted to be able to use techniques in my teaching that might help a student. The instructor handed us each a small brown paper bag containing a myriad of odd things. As a homework assignment she said to take the bag of objects and create something, and if we wanted to add other things we could, but we weren’t required to use all the contents. That was it. She gave us a few minutes to review the items but answered no questions as she moved on to another subject.  I peered into my bag and eyed two pieces of card stock in different colors, a slice of microfiche film strip, a button, a piece of green sea glass and a couple of other random items. These were not materials I would have chosen, in fact, I could not even assimilate them into groups. I quickly put everything back in the bag, mortified. Embarrassment and anger filled my mind. How dare a teacher give us an assignment without adequate instructions! Self-doubt began flooding my being. What if I did this assignment incorrectly? How would I be judged by the results of what I created? I was so preoccupied by my own destructive demons and invisible rulebook, that I probably missed some great creative nuggets from the workshop.

Art derived from the mind of a young child is pure and untethered by “rightness” or “wrongness”. They have not been corrupted by the world of “shoulds” and it allows them to just create. Art allows self-expression, encourages decision-making and creative problem-solving. I had missed the whole point of the homework assignment. Just take what works for you, add something if you want to, delete what is unnecessary and create something. It’s really a lesson for life.

This was all stirred up as I brought out fall decorations. I have a ceramic pumpkin that my oldest son made when he was three. Our children had an opportunity with an amazing home-based care-giver to get messy and be creative. One year she had all six of her students, ages 18 months to 4, paint pumpkins. My son chose to paint his blue and yellow, which in some places turned green when the two colors met. He topped it with a sealer containing glitter. Now some nearly twenty-five years later, it still glistens on my counter every fall.

A few years later I had a young girl, maybe seven or eight years old, in my art class. She sat there terrified to start her drawing. We were working from a reference drawing of a beach scene. Much of the class were well into crafting their rendition, but she could not start. Working one-on-one with her, she finally gathered the courage to begin. Within a few minutes she had loosened up and was having fun creating a Caribbean blue ocean and hot pink palm trees, when her mother came into the classroom. The mother stood over her not only telling her the trees should be green but taking the markers from her and “correcting” the piece by drawing over the vibrant pink trees. I was mortified. The girl was completely deflated. There is a delicate dance one must do as a teacher. Being an art instructor and respectfully honoring a parent’s views on what they say to their child has to be approached carefully, however, I did intervene. Sadly, the child never came back to my class.

Recently, a question came about with our ceramic Christmas trees. “How do you instruct a young child in the right way to paint these trees?” The answer is simply, you don’t. You let them create. There is no wrong way or right way to do it. You allow them the creative expression, the ability to make decisions and the opportunity to problem solve. Pumpkins can be blue and yellow. Palm trees can be pink.

And, by the way, I still have the brown paper bag with all the odd objects in a box. While I didn’t complete the assignment over twenty years ago, I did learn so much from the assignment. It has taught me to be brave, to take risks and to not fear judgement. If you find you are in need of an art therapist, check out my former colleague, Anna Reyner with Studio Art Therapy. Her website is

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art exploration, art education, children and art