Clay Field Therapy as a Sensorimotor Art Therapy

In recent years “sensorimotor” has emerged as a term to describe body focused psychotherapies that use a bottom-up approach. Instead of a cognitive top-down strategy, Sensorimotor Art Therapy encourages the awareness of innate motor impulses in the muscles and viscera. Focus can also be put on the heart rate and the breath. In the context of art therapy, however, the observation of hand-movements and the way objects such as paint, crayons and especially clay are touched has become of particular importance as haptic perception, the perception through touch. In our visually dominated world the sense of touch has been barely researched except in the context of design, robotics and as an aide for the blind. There is virtually no literature about touch as a therapeutic modality in the context of the expressive arts therapies.

Clay Field Therapy In action

Clay Field Therapy In action

Touch is the most fundamental of human experiences. The first year of our life is dominated by the sense of touch. Tactile contact is the first mode of communication we learn. Our earliest stages in life are dominated by oral and skin contact between infant and caregiver. Our earliest body memories and our core attachments were formed when we relied on sensorimotor feedback to feel safe and loved. Love as well as violence is primarily communicated through touch. Our boundaries are invaded through inappropriate touching. Sexual experiences are overwhelmingly ruled by the sense of touch – and so are medical procedures, as well as all other events that happened to our bodies.

Work at the Clay Field involves an intense tactile experience – it can link us to a primordial mode of communication, to a preverbal stage in our life. This is the truly beneficial quality of clay in a therapeutic context. Its regressive qualities will allow a therapist to address early attachment issues, developmental setbacks and traumatic events in a primarily non-verbal way, contained in the safety of the setting.

Toddlers may pile simple building blocks on top of each other and then enjoy knocking them down over and over again, thus learning creative destruction as a way to achieve object constancy (Winnicott 1971). Such play prepares children to cope with the real world as a continuum of constant change, of encounter and separation, of comings and goings of loved ones and events, of endings and beginnings. Trust is gained from the ability to survive such changes intact. Work at the Clay Field involves a continuous process of destruction and creation, because the material is both limited in its amount and unlimited in its possibilities. We can create at the Clay Field only if we dare to destroy the smooth surface and continue to have the courage to take something apart that we have put together before. We can learn to survive change; to grasp and handle it. In this manner the work can assist in dealing with the emotional injuries we suffered from overwhelming change and destruction in the past.

Pre-school children learn primarily through touching and handling objects. During the evolution of mankind the cognitive brain was shaped through skilled hand movements; with our hands we learned to understand the world (Wilson 1999). These innate language skills become reactivated through handling things and through observing the hand-gestures of our caregivers, as a recent study at the University of Chicago showed (Rowe 2008; 2005). 

School children will create three-dimensional representations in the clay – ‘real objects’, figures, scenes and landscapes that have meaning and emotional values attached to them. At the Clay Field adults and children alike weave these developmental layers into a complex web of biography and formative kinesthetic body memories. A safe environment encourages the search for more authentic impulses and holistic structures, where frustrated or traumatized action patterns of behaviour have compromized the child’s development.

Due to the texture, weight and resistance of the clay, the material demands physical effort. Very quickly the head – and with it our cognitive conditioning – is pushed aside to make way for the more “ancient” urges of our libido. There will be no finished product, no art work to show to friends, no sculpture to be fired in a kiln. At the end of a Clay Field session, only intense body memories will be taken home. The kinesthetic motor action combined with sensory perception will have lasting therapeutic benefits, especially in cases of developmental delays and trauma healing. 

From C. Elbrecht, Trauma Healing at the Clay Field 2012

Clay Field Therapy in action

Clay Field Therapy in action

Clay Field Therapy is a sensorimotor, body-focused, trauma-informed art therapy approach. It is not necessarily concerned with an image-making process, but supports the awareness of body memories. While these memories are always biographical, the therapy itself is not symptom-oriented. Not the specific problem or crisis becomes the focal point, but the option to new answers and solutions as they are embedded in the body's felt sense. Haptic perception at the Clay Field works primarily with implicit memory systems, the action patterns we learnt during the formative early childhood years. Insecure attachment styles will, for example, manifest as the inability to ‘have’ clay; such clients will scratch on the surface of the field, unable to take the material. Practicing to appropriate the material on offer safely and with confidence is capable to re-inform the entire sensorimotor base. This will have implications for every higher structure in the brain such as behavioural and learning abilities. Sensorimotor achievements are remembered similar to learning how to swim or ride a bike. They are lasting achievements that can transform even early infant developmental set-backs; they assist in finding an active response to traumatic experiences. They allow us to rewrite our biography towards a more authentic, alive sense of self. The expression of these motor impulses followed by their perception through the senses, allows the development of new neurological pathways that can bypass traumatic memories; such an approach is capable of restoring wholeness and well-being.