About Expressive Arts

The expressive arts combine the visual arts, movement, drama, music, writing and other creative processes to foster deep personal growth and community development. IEATA encourages an evolving multimodal approach within psychology, organizational development, community arts and education. By integrating the arts processes and allowing one to flow into another, we gain access to our inner resources for healing, clarity, illumination and creativity.

Expressive arts is based on the premise that we are infused with the gift of imagination.


You can learn more about expressive arts in early childhood develop by reading our research project called “Whole Child Left Behind”. 

Research Publication

Expressive arts can be a primary tool for self-discovery and self-actualization, and it can also be used for developing effective methods for helping children and adults process and make meaning of their experiences.

Expressive arts is process-oriented work, in other words, like the old adage of giving someone a fish versus teaching them to fish: which is most likely to keep that person fed for life.

Keys for expressive arts

  • Heuristic research
  • Emotional appeal
  • Empathy, attunement, theory of mind
  • Belonging, safety
  • Critical-thinking AND feeling/sensing
  • Cause and effect
  • Curiosity
  • Unconfounded/confounded
  • Tolerate ambiguity
  • Real-time evidence and information
  • Challenging beliefs system and epistemology

When people ask me “what is expressive arts?” I tell them that it is a way of learning that begins in early childhood development. In some form each of us engaged in expressive arts! The early years of learning  (in an educational environment) consist of exploratory play while using the arts. Inside a classroom children have unobstructed access to ‘learning stations’ — art-making, drama, a place to dance, a reading/storytelling room, music room, even a nap room, just like the traditional alchemists back in the day, who would work/explore and then sleep –to simmering in the psyche. The arts in this way, is a vehicle for social, emotional, mental and physical development. There are many layers involved with learning such as; visual, auditory, tactile and more. The arts are so varied that the process-work meets you where you are at! In others word, it begins with a tailored learning focus. That’s the emotional appeal aspect – it has to be meaningful to you.

Expressive arts is the practice of using imagery, storytelling, dance, music, drama, poetry, writing, movement, dream work and visual arts in an integrated way to foster human growth, development and healing. Expressive arts is based on the premises that each human being is inherently creative and infused with the gift of imagination. It is in this creative capacity that everyone can express and shape their experience into creative expression. Expressive arts is holistic and is rooted in a humanistic perspective — it illuminates diversity as gift.

Expressive arts help us to envision solutions and harvest resources that can release us from personal fundamental sticking points. The process in the art making (not the product) can heal and help us cross the boarders between personal and collective issues (social, cultural and more). Expressive arts activities emphasize artistic experience as a tool for self-discovery and self-expression for the integration of physical, mental, emotional and social functioning. Using the arts in this way empowers the artistic experience: We develop the capacity to give shape and form to thoughts, emotions and life experience.

The transformation of expressive arts practice involves a variety of ingredients including movement/dance, drawing, painting, music, songs, and writing. It is the way these elements are combined which make an expressive arts practice unique and rich and varied. There is an alchemical process that is involved in the shifting back and fourth between drawing, music, moving, writing and reflecting.  Engaging in the arts in this way results in a practice that can  illuminate our internal world of thoughts, ideas and dreams. It is important to note that expressive arts work is a practice with a purpose: To heal the body and mind and to educate, while developing multiple facets of the individual. We acknowledge the basic and enduring principles of Maslow’s Hierarchical Needs, the human condition is multi-faceted — and expressive arts allows us the space to explore, discover and describe our needs and wants.

In my work with expressive arts I emphasize the tool of movement, but this does not mean that I value movement over writing or art. For me, the body leads us to a vast banquet of knowledge, and movement gives us purpose. The body precedes language and abstract thought during individual development. A child first comes to know the world through his or her body, and later developmental steps build on top of that understanding. Our capacity for abstract thought is grounded in conceptual metaphor. We reason about abstract domains in terms of more concrete, embodied domains. “The very words which form the building blocks of explicit thought are themselves all originally metaphors, grounded in the human body and its experience” (Lakoff & Johnson 1999, p.73 ).

Our ancestors relied on the authenticity of the body’s signals to interpret the world and understand their needs. To survive meant being successful in communication, whether hunting, finding mates or forming political alliances. To this day, all that happens to us and every action we take passes through the body. The body is distinctively positioned to deliver truthful signals. This helps explain how nonverbal behavior works and why it is such a potent predictor of human thoughts, feelings and intentions. The limbic system is the part of the brain that reacts to the world around us reflexively and instantaneously – and without thought.  And perhaps most critically for learning, the body is connected to emotion. When I am sad or feeling defeated my slumped-over posture and drooped head are the shape of my emotions.

pd move 3_1

Movement-based expressive arts practice is an un-stylized movement that is directed by the body. The practice furthers the emotional, cognitive and physical integration of the self. My premise is that movement – the ways and whys and hows of movement – are one’s “core body of knowledge”. In other words, movement is the unique and artful expression of who we are and it is a door that opens to realms of new learning. Working with expressive arts develops self-awareness and provide answers to the  deepest and most tender questions. All this comes to you from your body with the help of the tools we use in Expressive Arts.

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For me, an Expressive Arts movement practice might go something like this: I arrive in a space, the room is warm and there is just enough light, there is plenty of clear, open space. At first my body feels watched, but there is no one watching. Then I lay down on the floor, suddenly I feel held, I’m safe. I close my eyes and listen to some of my brain chatter, some sounds from the environment, I’m not alone. I notice my breath as my belly rises and falls. My chest feels heavy even though the floor is holding me. I take another breath into my chest and another till I’ve surrendered to what it is saying. I’m listening now. It’s not a debate, and my body doesn’t want my mental counsel, my big ideas. It just wants to breathe. I don’t know what will happen next, but I have learned that often my brain will be surprised.

slider 3 shaping clay copy 2Unfortunately, like other forms of expression, movement carries a stigma. Drawing is for artists, moving is for dancers or athletes, writing is for writers. We can use these social exclusivities to give credence to our fears about expressing ourselves. Rather than that, I encourage all to recognize the opportunity – in anything we do – to express who we are and thereby learn more about how the larger world becomes our world.

More ways to learn more about expressive arts in education and therapy

Take a workshop — get hands-on, real-time experience with the work


Learn about our 500-hour professional/credentialing training program

PDX EXA!  – Embodied Expressive Arts Education and Therapy

Internation Expressive Arts Therapy Association IEATA


Johnson, M., & Lakoff, G. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its
challenge to western thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Siegel, D.J., (2008). The neurobiology of “we” how relationships, the mind, and the brain interact to shape who we are.

The International Expressive Arts Therapy Association.