Through Crafting to Core Needs

Marlene van den Berg

Mental Health Occupational therapist and Gestalt Play therapist. B.OccTher (UP) M.Psych (NWU)


We all carry a personal vocabulary with us. This mini internal dictionary holds about six or seven words that most often fill our head and our heart space. They define the quality of our thoughts and existence and, because we repeat them so often, they seep into our everyday behaviour. Your vocabulary might consist of positive words: independent; free; helpful; authentic. Or perhaps of some less desirable ones: ineffective; lonely; misunderstood; failure.

The thing about this personal vocabulary is that we have actually inscribed it with words from a very young age. As adults we can take responsibility for the words we believe about ourselves. We can be aware of them, understand them and transform them. As adults and societal elders we are also responsible for the words that children adopt. Due to developmental and self-preserving patterns, children receive input from parents, teachers and society and then adapt to best preserve themselves and accommodate the adult. In this process they develop the words that define them. 

If children are brought up in a world of instability and confusion, they will develop a vocabulary that is infused with desperate attempts to rectify this world. Perhaps a child becomes very quiet so that no attention or conflict is drawn to him/ her or perhaps a child becomes rebellious through claiming premature autonomy, when no-one stands up for him. If we can provide a stable, supporting and validating world a child will be able to feel secure enough to create an affirmative, balanced vocabulary.

The counseling couple, John and Karen Louis, made use of Schema Therapy Theory to reveal the basic core emotional needs of children (Good Enough Parenting: An in-depth perspective on meeting core emotional needs and avoiding exasperation, 2015). In meeting these needs, we can assist children to find a more grounded footing in the world from where they can develop a healthy sense of self and patterns of interaction. We would love to raise the children of the world with a vocabulary that says: loved; validated; understood; safe and empowered.

In order to do this, we need to, as adults, parents and elders, heal some of our own wounded vocabularies so that we do not transport these hurts onto our children. We also need to provide an environment, activities, interactions and opportunities that allow children to experience this safe and stable world. This is where psychology meets occupational therapy and finally also meets your everyday life! Arts and Crafts is an amazing platform to meet your child’s core needs. Here is how:




John and Karen Louis name the first core need: Connection and Affection. A child that experiences affection receives empathy and care, but also validation from the world. This child grows up to know that they are important and loved and then feels free to be compassionate to others. In an arts and craft session there is ample opportunities for validation and care. When we praise a child for the “most beautiful picture ever” we create confusion and mistrust, but when we affirm their process: “Wow, that is wonderful use of colour” or “You thought very creatively to add that…” we start to build the child’s identity and internal validation. Our caring input supports them in times when things don’t go as planned so that perseverance and an attitude of learning is acknowledged and co-opted: “I can see that it did not really come out as you wanted it, but I am proud of you for not giving up…how will we try it differently the next time?”

The very nature of an arts and craft session is one of connection. Whether we connect over doing the same activity, or having to pass the scissors, or helping each other to master a skill, we have to work together. In contemporary society with a massive drive towards self-sufficiency, individuals are often left feeling like isolated outsiders. Through the collective participation of creative activities we can develop a sense of belonging and interdependence in children that will set the foundation for healthy relational networks in the future.

How often do we make decisions on behalf of our children or take a task over from them when we are frustrated because it is taking so long? All children need to have a sense of self-determination. Autonomy is an important core need as we cultivate a child’s ability to consider options and then chose for themselves. This possibility of freedom in actions and decisions encourages a sense of responsibility in a child. Once a child feels capable and responsible for their own actions they are able to translate this into a promoted self-esteem. Autonomy also promotes eagerness to master a task or skill. When I really want to make my own green paint, I am going to work very hard to get it right, because it was my personal choice to do so. Autonomy thus leads to mastery and mastery finally leads to performance. We see this clearly in individuals who are not able to assert their own needs in the world and therefore, often don’t have the internal motivation to set about achieving a goal. In the arts and craft space, these are foundational principles. Every child has the right to decide about the elements of their own projects and are encouraged to explore different choices and experiment with unique and creative methods of their own making. A sense of pride rises when you can invent an idea, contemplate its execution, struggle through its production and finally claim it as your own.

This brings us to importance of empowerment. As much as we permit independence and autonomy, we need to be back of stage, ready to whisper if they perhaps forgot their words. When a child struggles we might suggest wood glue, rather than stick glue or quickly demonstrate an action, maybe even more powerfully simply letting the child know that we believe they can. A creative activity offers a safe space where children can be allowed autonomy and power, whilst gently be guided should it be needed. This ‘one hour a week’ affirmative influence will effectively flow to all the other areas of a child’s functioning.

I know that speaking about independence and freedom often makes parent’s anxiety skyrocket. “How can you allow a six year old to do this…; How can you let an eight year old make that choice… it’s simply too dangerous.” The answer to this lies in the foundational core emotional need: reasonable limits. Boundaries provide the perimeter of the container that creates a danger-free exploration zone for our children. These outlines are not to limit a child and thus not controlling, punitive and unreasonable; but enable age-appropriate and developmentally sensitive demarcations within which a child can grow. Reasonable limits can therefore not be implemented without realistic expectations. If we have no limits children feel unsafe and uncontained; if we have too rigid limits children lose their ability of assertion and independence. If we have too low expectations, we do not allow children to be challenged into their full potential; when we have too high expectations we create anxiety and a sense of failure in the child. The balance of these aspects should be just right and uniquely applied to each child’s personal developmental stage and emotional needs. An arts and craft session is a space where facilitators can finely tune their input and expectations for each child. One child’s challenge might be to try to work with the glue gun, under safe support, to enable them an increased sense of mastery. Another child might be encouraged to try a simpler task and not be so hard on themselves. In these sessions, safe and reasonable boundaries with the limits of an allocated time slot, specific activities and expectations of respectful behavior, can be provided. So when a six-year-old does something that might make the adult in us panic, we explain: “Now this is safe…and that is not…let’s see you try it!”

When we meet these core emotional needs of a child in life and in the exciting creative class space, wonder and magic happens. A child that feels safe due to boundaries and appropriate expectations will start to feel more secure. This security will bring about the courage to risk autonomy and the motivation to master a task, ultimately producing results and building value. If this is done through healthy connection and identity based validation a child will flourish, leading to the cherry on top: creative self-expression


What is more beautiful than the smile of a child with a completed art project in his hands, proud of all the effort, the choices, the failures, the challenges and finally this cardboard mess? What is more life-changing than a child whose personal vocabulary speaks of ownership, capability, confidence and joy?