Art Apps in Therapy: Part 1

Lately I have been experimenting with drawing, tracing, and art apps for use in therapy on my iPad. I don't believe that digital art can replace traditional art media, but can be considered an additional tool for an art therapist, play therapist, or counselor.
The past couple of weeks I have been trying out some tracing apps. Some of my young clients on the autism spectrum struggle with motor skills and lack confidence in their drawing ability. Although some children will happily scribble with crayons or paint and not worry about the resulting product, others have responded to even simple coloring activities by refusing to try, quickly giving up, or stating over and over that it's "too hard." However, their interest in using the iPad has proved to be a big motivator and they have been happy to try "drawing" on the iPad with tracing apps. For some children, this activity can be paired with a related social story, such as one about trying new things or not giving up when something seems hard.
Tracing apps allow for children to follow outlines and then color in the shapes to create specific pictures, much like a coloring book. I will admit that tracing apps not do much to encourage creativity in children, and this approach is more of "art in therapy" than true "art therapy," but it can have other benefits, such as:

  1. Motor skills development - Holding the stylus and following the pattern builds fine motor skills
  2. Self-esteem - For some children, this may provide a new or rare experience of feeling successful with drawing and art making.
  3. Trying a new activity and overcoming resistance to drawing, allowing for transition to other art activities in the future.
Here are examples of a few tracing apps to try:

Draw Bug
Provides step by step patterns to trace with a cute bug animation. Starts with drawings from a single shape (e.g., a circle becomes a beach ball) and builds to create increasingly complicated drawings. Provides a five-star "rating" of how closely the child followed the tracing lines, which can be motivating for some children and frustrating for others. You can choose to color in the drawing, but colors are predetermined. The program will not record marks that deviate very far from the pattern. You cannot erase without deleting the while drawing.

Drawing created on Draw Bug
Cartoon Trace: Draw Step By Step
Create cartoon animals and plants by tracing step by step patterns. The child can choose from a small color palette to color in their drawing as they wish and can customize their pictures by adding to the pattern. You can also change the line width and erase in this app.
Drawing created on Cartoon Trace
This app is designed more for professional use, but could be easily customized to use with children. You can buy templates to trace over, such as figures, or import from your photo stream. Importing from the photo stream means you could snap a picture of anything for a child to trace. However, you can only draw with black or red, so you don't end up with a very colorful image.
In my next post I'll share about some other drawing apps that allow for more creativity. Do you use drawing or tracing apps with kids in counseling or art? What benefits or drawbacks you have experienced?

Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT, ATR is a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, adolescents, and families.  For more information about individual therapy, child counseling, family therapy, and art therapy services, please visit

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