Category Archives: holding environment


  • To create and settle into a warm and secure refuge
  • A container or shelter made by a bird out of twigs, grass, or other material to hold its eggs and young
  • A snug retreat or refuge; resting place; home

Every spring new mama birds build nests in the nooks and crannies around my house. I am always wowed by these beautifully woven structures. I have amassed a good collection of abandoned nests over the years.





Sometimes I use the nests, or inspiration from the nests, in my own work.

playroom detail 3

Playhouse (detail)

image 021

Family Tree



These amazing structures inspire meditations on themes of love, nurture, liberation, loss, and rebirth.


Liberation Mandala


Sometimes a child creates art that feels like it’s crying out for a container, sort of the way a child can be crying out for a hug. It can be very helpful to give a metaphorical hug to that child by framing their art. Framing lets children know they’re valued and accepted, in spite of whatever messy or bad feelings they might have inside.


In this work, some pieces remain contained, or hidden, and some have fallen out and lie exposed. This child and I worked together to place her work in the shadow box frame, so whether the exposure was intentional or not, it was her choice to leave the pieces the way they fell. Perhaps this exposure was a reflection of her safety in opening up, and perhaps the containment of the frame added to her safety. It’s hard to say, but In a non-verbal process with a younger child, thinking about metaphor is invaluable.

This kind of collaboration between child and art therapist is a powerful example of how a metaphorical art process can create trust and safety and strengthen the therapeutic relationship.

If you’re interested in reading more, two earlier blog posts address art therapy work with containers in general and frames in particular.

Zigzag books

book boxI’ve written before about the importance of containers in art therapy. Books are great containers for all kinds of expression. Fortunately, journals and sketch books, recycled books for altering, and paper for handmade structures are all readily available.

There are many easy ways to make simple books from one piece of paper. A basic zigzag (or accordion) book is just a long, narrow piece of paper, sharply folded back and forth in any shape or proportion. Any relatively sturdy piece of paper works for this.

zz examplesThe books can be used to display a collection of drawings or photos, or used as little journals. I glued a collection of  little mandalas on the pages of this 3X3 book.

mandala zzIf you want an accordion book to close, both side edges have to be secured somehow. I love finding different clasps and ties for these.

purple square

cartoon zzYou can also work directly on a blank book, and the space, whether horizontal or vertical, becomes like a little mural. So this space is great for longer or wider designs, poems, graffiti, boyfriends’ names, etc.

dots zz

dots zz coverYou can use one or both sides of the paper. I put a cardboard cover on this one and lined the other side with brown paper, because I used Sharpies and they soaked through.

dots zz open coverKids love working with zigzag books, particularly if they are mounted (after completion) in small boxes, which can also be decorated. Boxes make them special, gift-like, precious. Any small box you can collect works well. I use photo corners to mount the book ends in the box, but glue works fine too.


happy happy day



zz3Whether or not you decide to make some zig zag books, please remember this important advice about life from illustrator Maira Kalman:

Bottle jar box can

Bottlejarboxcan was the name of an old blog that I kept for awhile. It got its name from my penchant for constantly collecting all kinds of containers, which I use a lot in my own work.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAContainers also figure big in art therapy. A lot of importance is placed on the establishment and maintenance of a therapeutic container or frame. Therapists strive to provide a place of containment, a safe space to explore, express, and experience all feelings, a relationship of trust and collaboration. This is an important component of all therapeutic theory, particularly for those working with children or others who become easily overwhelmed by affect because they lack internal controls. An important theoretical concept here is D.W. Winnicott’s holding environment.

In the particular context of art therapy, the artwork itself also acts as a container, something outside of the artist that safely holds and reflects emotions. Sometimes providing a concrete metaphor by supplying  an actual container to work with can help a child to feel more safe in expressing difficult feelings.

The possibilities for containers are endless. To bottle, jar, box, and can, add book, frame, nest, teacup, basket, egg carton, or pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s pretty easy to accumulate tons of great containers without spending a cent. Any recycling bin is filled with them.