Art and Science in Occupational Therapy Practice

Patient sewing cloth with therapist overseeing

“Man, through the use of his hands as they are energized by the mind and will, can influence the state of his own health.” – Mary Reilly

Art as Meaningful Occupation

In the field of occupational therapy, the term “occupation” encompasses all the things that people want or need to do. This includes the use of occupation as a medium of self-expression. The concept of occupation (i.e., the act of doing), is perceived as both an end and a means for achieving health outcomes.

Arts and crafts fit well within the pragmatic foundations of the occupational therapy profession.

Five Benefits of Integrating Art into Clinical Practice

  1. Art provides a fun and creative alternative to routine therapy.
  2. Art-based activities are appropriate for all ages and ability levels.
  3. Art provides opportunities for communication and self-expression.
  4. Expressive media provides sensory input that can be self-regulating.
  5. Arts and crafts empower the client to return to a previous creative interest or explore something new.

Art’s History as a Modality of Choice

Arts and crafts have been utilized as a therapeutic modality in occupational therapy practice for over a century.

The profession was founded during the Arts and Crafts movement, an ideology that began in opposition to skilled workers being replaced by machines during the Industrial Revolution.1 Advocates for the movement promoted the creation of handmade goods that were simple in design and made from natural materials.2

At the turn of the century, arts and crafts were the central focus of the first community-based occupational therapy workshops. Crafting played an important role in the physical, mental, and vocational rehabilitation of wounded soldiers returning home from the First and Second World Wars.3

Convalescent clubs and sheltered workshops offered instruction in handcrafts such as weaving, woodworking, and printing. Handmade goods were often sold directly to the public. These programs enabled recovering soldiers to rehabilitate and develop skills for economic self-sufficiency.1

“Handcrafts have a special therapeutic value as they afford occupation, which combines the elements of play and recreation with work and accomplishment. They give a concrete return and provide a stimulus to mental activity and muscular exercise at the same time, and afford an opportunity for creation and self-expression.” – Alli Berman 4

Returning to Our Roots

With a growing body of evidence supporting health and wellness benefits, art continues to be the modality of choice in many practice settings. Art-based activities create balance between traditional medicine and personal medicine, offering practical treatment and meaningful enjoyment.

The use of arts and crafts as therapy is an example of how art and science blend together in occupational therapy practice.

  1. Cole, M. B., & Tufano, R. (2008). Applied theories in occupational therapy: A practical approach. Thorofare, NJ: SACK Incorporated.
  2. Levine, R. E. (1987). The influence of the arts-and-crafts movement on the professional status of occupational therapy. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy41(4), 248-254.
  3. Quiroga, V. A. (1995). Occupational therapy: The first thirty years, 1900-1930. Bethesda, MD: American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.
  4. Johnson, S. C. (1920). Instruction in handcrafts and design for hospital patients. Modern Hospital, 15, 69-72
  5. Reilly, M. (1962). Occupational therapy can be one of the great ideas of 20th century medicine. Eleanor Clark Slagle Lecture. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 16(1), 1-9.