Cardboard Cities: What Social Emotional Arts Can Teach Us About Building Community

I see brightly-colored construction paper and a rainbow of markers neatly laid out in front of parents and children who are chatting about their days, while a toddler delightedly heads for some recycled shoeboxes. Each family enters the gymnasium with something to share—cakes, clementines, juice boxes, gummy bears—piling them up on the edge of the gym stage. I ask Amber, the art therapist facilitator, why all the participants are bringing in food: “We’re a community,” she shares, “No one really d2018-10-08-Family-Art-Amber-Cromwell-23iscussed it but, one week, food just started showing up, and the next week more did.”

I’m here for Family Art Time, a weekly 1.5-hour program piloted by UCLArts & Healing in fall 2018 at Jeff Seymour Family Center. The Jeff Seymour Family Center – part of the El Monte City School District – describes itself as “a community-gathering place creating opportunity for caring adults and community members to provide support and nurturing for children and their families.” Family Art Time fits beautifully into this mission. Parents and children come after school to collaborate on a simple but meaningful art project intended to teach parents skills in connecting with their children or teens and helping them express their feelings. This social-emotional art making is more concerned with the process of creating, not the end product. Amber embodies this sentiment as she explains the nuances of guiding this program as an art therapist: “I always reinforce that we are trying to let go of expectation and focus on expression and connection. I highlight to parents and kids that as humans, we learn to draw, sing, and dance before language develops. Even if they haven’t connected with their creative selves in a while, it’s definitely there waiting to emerge.”


This particular afternoon, Amber gathers the 15 of us in a circle to talk through today’s project. I try to hang out in the sidelines, but the group welcomes me in as they take turns sharing their name and a favorite movie. Alongside the excitement, there is a shy and anxious energy to our circle at the start—perhaps due to re-introductions after a week apart or more likely the stranger with a camera they just invited to join their circle.

“Today we are going to make a community.” Amber explains. “Who knows what a community is?” We all offer our definitions and eventually the group settles on “the place in which you live.” We then talk about what you need in the place you live: schools, libraries, parks, stores, apartments. “Today we get to make whatever we love in our community, or whatever we wish we had,” Amber explains, walking us over to the supplies as she gestures toward the treasure trove of markers, construction paper, and recycled boxes. One participant quizzically holds up a microwavable dinner box, and Amber jokes, “I guess you all now know what I’ve eaten in the last week!”

Yoli, our interpreter, and Amber buzz around the room, checking in with all the participants as they grab their materials and a snack, and dive in. I hear the sound of paper crumpling, scissors slicing, and laughter mixed with multilingual commentary. I see a young woman, very concentratedly coloring her yellow building with a red door. I ask her what she’s working on and she laughs, telling me, “It looks like a prison, but it’s not a prison.” We talk for awhile about why she thinks it looks that way, and she determines it’s the bars she drew on the windows. “I want it to be a pet store,” she explains. “Or a clinic. Or, actually, it should be a candy store.” I tell her I can’t wait to see how it turns out, snap some pictures of her work in progress, and head out to see what the other participants are creating.

As I walk around, there is a noticeable calm, focused, and loving energy among the group. Amber echoes this when I ask her what she likes most about the program: “Witnessing the interactions between parents and children, and seeing the pure joy that emanates in the room. There is a very peaceful and contained feeling because the children have their parent there if they need support.” Amber adds, “In fact, one of our big goals for the workshop is to empower parents in leading art activities with their children.” I witness this sentiment in action first-hand throughout the program: a mother gently encouraging her daughter to draw the windows of their apartment complex on a pink-construction-paper-covered shoebox, pointing out to me in which room their grandmother and aunt live, and a father and son delicately assembling the world’s smallest soccer goal for their paper park. The connection seems to be in the details: everyone slows down to pencil in the small and delicate aspects of their community, and the non-verbal communication and trust between the family members is palpable. The gentle give and take of collaboration seems effortless.


As this session of Family Art Time comes to a close, Amber can barely get the families to stop working on their cardboard community. “We’re almost out of time,” she laughs, as this is her third or fourth attempt to pause the art making. “Please bring what you have up to the tables.” I help her push four tables together and cover them with a green tablecloth, transforming the tables into one large plot of grass. Each family brings up their piece of community—soccer fields, Nike stores, Mexican restaurants, apartment buildings, and candy shops. The participants arrange them all on the grass, magically transforming each individual artwork into a miniature city block.


With assistance from Amber and Yoli, each family sets up their contribution, making little adjustments, laughing at the gummy bear people on the cardboard streets, and pointing out to new friends which buildings are theirs. Watching this, I realize what makes Family Art Time different than just an after-school art class. While we were so busy crafting a paper community, we barely recognized the ways we were effectively sharing resources, playfully collaborating, and communicating to one another our hopes and dreams for where we live. We were, in short, practicing all the characteristics of a healthy community. This is the meta-gift of social emotional arts: that while we make a community of imagination and glitter glue with our neighbors, we are actually healing the real cities in which we live.




Article written by Olivia Buntaine, UCLArts & Healing Administrative Assistant.

Interested in learning more about our Family Art Time service? Click here to read about all our professional development services and customizable workshops.

Learn more about the Jeff Seymour Family Center by clicking here.