Creative activities stimulate the brain

by DR. JUDITH K. WEINSTEIN, MD

Exposed from childhood to creative activities such as arts and crafts, music, writing, dance, and more recently, computer graphic design, we seldom realize the tremendous importance of actively engaging in creative activities.

For those who see themselves as “creative,” (although, truly, we are all gifted with creative potential), the pursuit of each individual’s chosen craft can be as essential to one’s well-being as the oxygen we breathe. Unfortunately, creativity is often thought of as unimportant and not taken very seriously. Art and music classes are often first on the cutting list of many modern-day school systems plagued by fiscal crises.

Mitri Hadid

Mitri Hadid weaves a “hula hoop rug”, using strips cut from colorful old tee shirts. SunGlow Media photo

Whether for the person who is neuro-typical or has a developmental disability, the myriad of important positive effects creativity has on our brain function, our overall sense of well-being and on the learning of many important skills sets should not be minimized.

As a physician who became disabled in 1996 by a severe upper body nerve injury and chronic pain, I returned to my creative roots to pick up the pieces of the life I had lost and to attempt to “start over.”

A powerfully healing experience, I opened a retail craft store, Jubili Beads & Yarns®, in June 2003. Since “the doctor had to leave medicine, but medicine never left the doctor,” my new mission in life became helping others find and nurture their own creative spirits, helping them overcome their own personal battles as well.

As customers began sharing their personal stories of how my store helped them heal through crafting, I realized that my goal of providing a haven for creative healing for others was being realized. The idea for Jubilation Creations® Inc. was born!

After becoming a provider in the New Jersey Division of Developmental Disability’s Life After 21 Program in fall 2008, our first arts and crafts class to individuals with developmental disabilities and other special needs began later that year, with one enrollee.

After becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit by the Fall of 2010, we grew steadily and now have 20 people who regularly enjoy our classes, from one to six hours per week!

Sharing the joy of creativity with many people of all different levels of function, I am tremendously proud of their amazing artistic accomplishments! Equally gratifying are the noticeable improvements in many of their social, cognitive and other important skills.

The brain must be stimulated

Sadly, creative activities are often overlooked for those with special needs because the average person doesn’t realize the many profound benefits of doing anything creative! Much like a voluntary muscle that needs exercise to prevent atrophy, from infancy to old age, the brain must be stimulated so that essential nerve connections and pathways are developed and maintained.

Vital centers of function remain underdeveloped if they are not used, proven by medical imaging techniques, such as MRI and PET scans. Problem-solving itself is in large part based on creative thinking! Even more important for those with developmental disabilities, brain function and many life skills can always be improved through fun, purposeful, creative activities.

I will analyze for you the project we always do for someone’s first class, a decorated picture frame. Many important brain, motor and human skills are enhanced, exercised and improved by enjoying this one simple craft project!

1.  Picking the frame shape, paint color and type of decorations to use

Brain functions impacted: shape and pattern recognition, executive functions such as decision-making and procedure planning

2.  Painting and decorating the frame

Brain functions impacted: sensory awareness, integration and input, color perception, shape and spatial awareness, attention, focus and memory, task ordering and organization; motor and sensory skills impacted: eye-hand coordination, fine and gross motor skills, sensory input and texture differentiation.

3.  Interacting with staff and other class attendees, with soft background music

Social Skills impacted: social interacting, verbal skills, self-awareness, “other” and environmental awareness, music appreciation, patience, sharing, self-pride, a sense of accomplishment, joy and fun!

Iomara Rolon

Iomara Rolon proudly shows off the bottle she embellished with canes of polymer clay that she hand-rolled. SunGlow Media photo

4.  Taking the craft home

Emotional, psychological and potential life impact: the pride craft artists and their loved ones feel when a handmade work of art is brought home is immeasurable! Being creative has such far-ranging therapeutic effects, that entire specialties such as art, music, creative and recreational therapies are all well-established, mainstream adjunctive health care industries. Besides the simple enjoyment and sense of accomplishment that come from creating things, it is widely accepted that regularly participating in creative pursuits promotes a sense of well-being, lowers stress levels, improves self-image, and may give one a new sense of purpose.

It is also important to realize that the many skills learned through crafting can certainly be transferred to other aspects of one’s life!

Translated into job skills, they provide a means of earning money through entrepreneurism by selling hand-made jewelry, or by employability in any number of related creative and/or retail industries.

Indeed, as I have found, crafting, for someone with special needs, can be “life changing”!

Long acknowledged as important in the treatment of grief, post-traumatic stress syndrome, head trauma, depression and other significant life-altering occurrences, regular participation in creative activities can be every bit as essential to the health and emotional well-being of those with developmental disabilities and other special needs. Be sure to seek out these opportunities for yourself or your special needs loved one — and while you’re at it — have some creative fun yourself!

Dr. Judith K. Weinstein, MD, is the founder/director of Jubilation Creations Inc., in Collingswood, N.J. For more information on her local and national program, visit www.jubilationcreations.org, or contact her via email at drjudy@jubilationcreations.org.

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