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It Lets the Sad Out: Using Children's Art to Express Emotions
By blank author

Several years ago, an exhibit of children's art work which was being displayed in the rotunda of the national Capitol building was covered by one of the television networks. Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services, was shown viewing the artwork and stopping to visit with the young artists, each of whom either had AIDS or had tested positive for HIV. One of the children with whom she stopped to talk was a little girl about five or six. Shalala asked the child if she liked to do art work. The girl answered very emphatically in the affirmative. Shalala then asked her, "Why?" and the child responded,  "Cause it lets the sad out." 

Those few words convey a profound message for everyone who works with young children, for all children have sadness that needs to be let out. Whether they are afflicted with a disease; are victims of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse; have lost a parent to death or divorce; live in poverty; frequently witness violence; or merely experience normal childhood fears, children are seldom prepared to cope with such traumatic events. Consequently, they often end up feeling helpless, anxious, and fearful (Schaefer, Millman, Sichel, & Zwilling, 1986).

Unlike adults, who are more able to find appropriate words to express their feelings, young children's vocabularies are limited, consisting mainly of nominals (words used to refer to things) and action words, with only a very small percentage of words that express affective (emotional) states (James, 1990). As children develop their sense of self as well as an awareness of others, and as they experience new depths and heights of feeling (fear, joy, awe, frustration, humor, sympathy, anger),...[their] language grows to find more adequate ways of expressing those feelings (Lindfors, J.W., 1991, p. 369). But until children's vocabularies and semantic understandings are adequate to express their feelings, they need additional modes of expression.

Communicating Without Words

To demonstrate to adults just how difficult it is for children to convey complex affective concepts, a group of early childhood education students at the University of Central Florida were asked to conduct an experiment. The students paired up and one member of each pair was given a description of a scenario and particular emotional responses elicited by that event. Below is one example of a scenario used and the consequent emotional responses:

Last night you and your husband got into a terrible row over the time you spend preparing for school. He thinks you are not paid enough to work outside of school for hours gathering materials for art projects, cutting out pictures from magazines, taping music segments, sewing hand puppets, and the like.

You were sitting at the dining room table absorbed in making a chart for a song you were going to teach the children. You had some really fun ideas for pictures that would give clues for the words and had just started to sketch them in when your husband, who had been trying to get the dishwasher to work, came over to the table and said, "What the heck are you spending your time on now? You could be washing the dishes instead of letting them pile up! But no, those darn kids are more important to you than your own family! Why can't you do for us like you do for them?"

You said, "Don't blame me for the piles of dishes! If you had spent Monday night working on the dishwasher instead of watching the football game, the dishes would be done. But, no, your darling Dolphins mean more to you than I do. You don't care that I work all day and then have to come home, cook supper, do the dishes, clean the house, do the laundry, help the kids with their homework, and still get ready for school! I wish just once you'd do something when you were supposed to!" 

The verbal abuse went on until you were in tears and your husband was so furious that he took one of your favorite china cups and threw it against the wall. You haven't spoken to each other since. You are feeling angry and hurt that he doesn't understand your desire to do a good job of teaching. You are also ashamed of the way you behaved and the ugly words that you said. You wish you could go back to last night and erase the whole thing, but of course you can't. You are definitely dreading going home.

Each student who had been given a scenario to describe was also given the vocabulary he or she could use to convey the problems and the feelings. The words provided for this scenario were 'Daddy, ouch, pretty picture, frowny face, me, bad, book, big, little, jump, go, fast, look, see, make, sorry, no-no, bowl, TV, home, and scared.' The students were also instructed that they could use any necessary articles, conjunctions, and 'to be' verbs to construct simple sentences. Additionally, they were told that they could not write anything, use gestures, or play '20 Questions.' The speaker had to attempt to convey the message with words only. The listener was to be an active listener, attempting to understand the message.

The students had considerable problems with the task. While some were able to convey at least a part of the message, others were totally unable to communicate the various components of the scene or the feelings involved. Next the partners switched places and a new scenario was given to the partner. However, this time the new speakers were allowed to draw pictures or use gestures to help communicate the events and the emotions involved. Nearly every listener got the message and many understood vivid details.

In the discussion that followed, the students shared the frustration they felt as they tried to describe their scenarios and their feelings with the limited vocabulary allowed. Several students said that if given the option, they would have chosen not to attempt to share, since it was so difficult. One or two of the students talked about their desire to scream at the listener because the partner wasn't 'getting it.' When asked what relevance they saw in the exercise, the students quickly concluded that educators need to make it easier for young children to express themselves in numbers of ways, especially through art. Another observation was that the 'listener/viewer' has to be particularly attentive and an active participant in the process, but that it was easier to get the message when additional modes of communication were used.

Emotions and Learning

Many educators of young children may be willing to accept that their classrooms are filled with little people whose vocabularies are limited, but whose hurtful experiences are not. And most agree that children have limited verbal skills for expressing those hurts. Some, however, may wonder about the significance of these understandings in terms of the educational development of the child.

To help early childhood education students answer this question, they were asked to conduct another experiment. The students were asked to shut their eyes, quiet their thoughts, and then go back in time to a hurtful experience. They were told to remember the experience in detail, picture the people involved, and feel the emotions they felt at the time. Once the students had been given several minutes to be in that memory, they were asked to open their eyes and respond to the following:

Describe Piaget's developmental stages. Be sure to include the approximate ages for each stage.

Although the students had just been studying Piaget, they had a very difficult time responding accurately. The general consensus was that they just couldn't 'think.'

What these students experienced is typical of how children respond when they are overwhelmed by hurts. They just can't think. If children are going to do their best in school settings - or any settings, for that matter - they are going to have to have opportunities and skills for dealing with their feelings, their emotions, their pain. Research has shown that when children are in their limbic system, meaning that they are processing in the portion of their brain which modulates motivational, emotional, and sexual behavior (Wittrock, et al., 1977), they are not able to concentrate on learning tasks. All of their energy is focused on dealing with their pain, their emotions, and their overall feelings of fear.

How Art Can Help

One way for children to get out of their limbic system is by communicating their feelings through words, drawing, or movement. Another way is simply by using a mode of expression, such as drawing, as a catharsis to cleanse themselves of overwhelming emotions.

Judith Danoff, in an article in Children Today, tells the story of a five-year-old boy who was painting a picture of a store hold-up he had witnessed. As he painted he talked to himself about what he had seen and what he was painting. At one point he had a very realistic-looking painting, complete with a storefront, cars, a robber, a gun, and bullets flying. As he continued to paint, he got more and more excited, talking about the blood and bullets. This excited talk was accompanied by sweeping brush strokes across the page. Soon the page was covered with a brown, runny mass of paint. The little boy stood back from the painting, exhausted. He had used the creative process not so much to create a picture as to deal with the emotions elicited by a terrifying event. His art work became a healing process for letting out the fear and anxiety caused by the frightening experience.

In a time when "back to the basics" has placed increasing pressure on early childhood educators to stress academics or at least pre-academics (Elkind, 1987), it is important to provide adequate time for children to express themselves through the arts, an appropriate place for the expression, plenty of materials, and a safe and accepting environment. If we truly want our children to be successful, they must first be allowed and in fact encouraged to "let the sad out." 

Dr. Barbara Rodriguez is an early childhood resource specialist with the Palmdale School District in Palmdale, California.


Danoff, J. (July-August, 1975). Children's art: The creative process. Children Today, 4 (4), 7.

Elkind, D. (1987). Miseducation: Preschoolers at risk. New York: Knopf.

James, S.L. (1990). Normal language acquisition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Lindfors, J.W. (1991). Children's language and learning. 2nd edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Schaefer, C.E.; Millman, H.L.; Sichel, S.M.; & Zwilling, J.R. (1986). Advances in therapies for children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wittrock, M.C.; Beatty, J.; Bogen, J.E.; Gazzaniga, M.S.; Jerison, H.J.; Krashen, S.D.; Nebes, R.D.; & Teyler, T.J. (1977). The human brain. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.