Parents of kids with type 1 diabetes have found lots of great uses for arts and crafts time, from waiting out high blood sugars to upcycling old test strip containers and insulin vials. Another major benefit can be helping children express emotions about diabetes. Says art therapist Lee Ann Thill, M.A., working creatively on a diabetes-related project can help kids develop positive feelings about their condition, safely explore negative thoughts and feelings associated with it and foster problem-solving skills that can be applied in day-to-day situations. That’s why she founded Diabetes Art Day, held each year on the first Monday in February. But you don’t have to wait for a special occasion: Here are three thought-provoking projects Thill recommends doing with your child to spark dialogue and discussion, plus a bonus project from Lilly Diabetes’ Camps in Color activity book.
Project 1: Diabetes Robot (or Creature)
Goal: Through metaphor and storytelling, express diabetes-related feelings and experiences. Develop positive association with diabetes supplies.
What you’ll need:
Discarded diabetes supplies (such as boxes, bottles, expired test strips, tubing, and/or wrappers)
Assorted craft supplies (yarn, felt, sequins, craft stick, pipe cleaners, and/or colored/patterned duct tape)
Glue, masking tape, or a hot glue gun
This is an open-ended project that encourages creative thinking and problem-solving through play. Suggest creating a robot or creature with your child using saved diabetes trash and craft supplies. Parents should assume the role of assistant, allowing the child to direct the project. This might include holding components in place until they’re secure, cutting, handling the hot glue gun, or getting pieces of tape off the roll and ready to apply. Limit the creative input you give unless your child asks for it or shows signs of frustration. Offer suggestions in a way that presents the idea as a choice, such as: “What do you think about trying…?” or “Maybe [fill in the blank] will work.”
Once the art project is complete, suggest giving the robot or creature a name and a back story. Allow the child to develop a narrative about it, which can include telling or writing a story.
Project 2: Diabetes Superhero Comic Book
Through metaphor and storytelling, express diabetes-related feelings and experiences.
What you’ll need:
Drawing supplies (markers, colored pencils, crayons)
Before beginning this project, create a comic panel template on white paper. You can do this on the computer so copies can easily be made, or you can draw it manually with a ruler and thin black marker. With the paper lying horizontally, create two rows of three boxes. Each box will contain a scene. Some children might need multiple pages; some might want to also create a cover for their comic book. Allow your child to use his or her imagination to develop a narrative about the superhero. In addition to making a comic book, the child might also want to write or tell stories.
Encourage the child to imagine what a diabetes superhero would look like and what kind of costume the superhero would wear. What would the superhero’s name be? What powers does the superhero have? What is the superhero’s secret identity? Encourage your child to create a visual story about the character. Focus any questions or discussion on the character itself.
Project 3: Diabetes Supply Painting
Develop positive associations with diabetes supplies.
What you’ll need:
Large heavy paper (such as12x18 inches), or a roll of paper
Tempera or craft paints
Old plates (or something else to use as a pallete for paint mixing)
Discarded diabetes supplies (such as infusion set insertion devices, bottles, tubing, pods, wrappers, adhesive backings, caps, cartridges, etc.)
Apron or old shirt to protect clothing
Place a selection of paints on plates. Have your child dip various objects in paint, then stamp the object on paper. Experiment with stamping in succession, rolling or dragging objects, layering images, and mixing colors. It’s especially important to keep the focus of this activity on the process, not the finished product. Work alongside your child on your own painting and be open to working together if your child wants to experiment on your painting. Model ways of using the materials and encourage your child to try your method if they appear interested in what you’re doing. Younger children will mix and “muddy” the paints, but that’s developmentally normal and part of their play and learning experience. Provide positive feedback and more paint if your child seems engaged in the process.
Ask your child if he or she wants to tell you about the painting when it’s finished, but refrain from asking “What is it?” (It’s a painting!)
Bonus Project: Masking the Truth
Adapted from Lilly Diabetes’ Camps in Color activity book, part of the Lilly Camp Care Package program providing resources to diabetes camps across the country.
This activity is designed to help children understand the difference between who people think they are and the truth. It also emphasizes opening up to others in appropriate situations.
What you’ll need:
Paints (appropriate for skin contact)
Piece of canvas or heavy paper
Help your child cut out small holes in the canvas to make it into a mask. Ask your child to think about things people think they know about him or her (but that are not true). Have him or her draw pictures or word art to represent those characteristics on one half of the canvas. Then ask your child to think about characteristics about him- or herself that are true or that he or she wants to be true. Have your child draw pictures representing these things on the other half of the canvas. Finish the mask by making a hole on each side and tying a piece of ribbon through each hole. (Your child doesn’t necessarily have to wear the mask.)
Ask your child to describe the mask and what the drawings represent. Discuss how opening up to others about having diabetes can help people get to know your child better but doesn’t have to define him or her. Talk about situations where your child has hidden his or her disease and other times where it has helped others gain understanding, feel compassion and create unity. Encourage your child to keep his or her mask as a reminder of who s/he is, who s/he is not and who s/he wants to be.
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.