Promoting Emotional Recovery following Natural Disasters through Integrative Art and Physical Activity Programs

Dr. Zachary Wahl-Alexander


Immediately following a natural disaster, children and adults who have been directly and indirectly affected show evidence of intense emotional reactions. Following such events, providing children with opportunities to increase physical activity levels, learn stress-reducing techniques, and promote emotional wellness can lead to a quicker recovery. The purpose of this article is to provide a rationale behind integrating physical activity and art therapy into such programs, the benefits of its application, and how efforts can be duplicated in the wake of recent natural disasters in Houston and Florida. This paper will describe the experiences from T-SCORE, an emotional recovery program in Alabama following a series of tornadoes in 2011, which integrated art therapy, group sharing sessions and physical activity with somatic (positive self-talk) and physiological (deep breathing) stress reducing techniques to inform best practice.


Immediately following a natural disaster, children and adults who have been directly and indirectly affected show evidence of intense emotional reactions. While shock and denial are typical responses, (1) disbelief, sadness, depression, and anxiety often manifest in children for months following such events. (2) Although it is often overlooked, the mental health of those affected is a significant concern that mandates attention. In 2011, following a devastating series of tornadoes in the Southeastern portion of the United States, Wahl-Alexander & colleagues created an emotional recovery program (T-SCORE) for elementary students who had lost their school.

Twice a week, for eight consecutive weeks, over 60 children met after school to participate in T-SCORE, an emotional recovery program which integrated art therapy, group sharing sessions, and physical activity with somatic (positive self-talk) and physiological (deep breathing) stress reducing techniques. (3) The somatic and physiological stress-reducing techniques were infused throughout each session, while the formal structure consisted of an initial period of physical activity, followed by either a group sharing or art therapy session, and concluded with another bout of physical activity. This article will discuss the rationale behind T-SCORE, the benefits of its application, and how efforts can be duplicated in the wake of recent natural disasters in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

Benefits of Physical Activity During Recovery

Over the past several decades there has been a cavalcade of research underpinning the benefits of physical activity. Although the Center for Disease Control and Prevention encourages children to engage in a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily, (4) nearly 30% of children between the ages of 7-13 do not meet these recommendations. (4) While there has not been any research indicating activity levels of children in areas affected by natural disasters, one could infer this percentage is likely significantly less.

In areas devastated by natural disasters, physical activity should be an essential part of the recovery process. Researchers posit that regular engagement in physical activity for children following such events can positively influence mood, (5) improve mental health, (6) and increase social activities. (7) (8) Creation of programs similar in structure to T-SCORE should employ a developmentally appropriate curriculum as the base for the physical activity component by focusing on invasion games (i.e., soccer, basketball, football). Utilizing such games can promote the highest levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity in children. (9) Further, while physical activity and developing basic skills and tactics is important, included team building and cooperative games can further emphasize the affective domain leading to interpersonal development while fostering a positive environment.

Integrating Art Therapy

Figure 1 

Figure 1 

Through the use of drawing and painting, art therapy has been shown to alleviate trauma symptoms in both children and adults. (10) (11)In many instances, children struggle to verbally express their emotions following traumatic events; (12)consequently, utilizing approaches that don’t directly emphasize verbal recollections are essential in the recovery process. Unfortunately, children are rarely afforded the opportunity to safely share their feelings, emotions and fears, (13) therefore, providing children this opportunity through art therapy can be immensely beneficial. (10)

Cohen, Barnes, and Rankin recommend designing art therapy sessions around intended outcomes designed to promote creativity. (10) Employing prompts, establishing a safe place, creating a protective environment, and promoting a positive support system will aid in developing a safe environment in which youth will feel comfortable creating art, sharing their artwork if they desire, and thus, developing a health technique to handle stress. Sessions should intend to artistically allow children to express their emotions following a natural disaster that may otherwise be difficult (Student example from T-SCORE shown in figure 1).

Current Application

Due to Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Maria, cities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico currently have thousands of displaced youth that could benefit from participation in a program similar to the one done in Tuscaloosa several years ago. For those interested in executing and implementing a comparable emotional recovery program, the following three steps can serve as a guide for best practice:

First, locate and partner with a local district or school that is interested in conducting such a recovery effort. Once this partnership is in place, explore different setting options that work best for the future participants. Although T-SCORE was implemented in an after-school context, the curriculum and structure of the program can be assimilated into a variety of settings (i.e., physical education class, YMCA, before/after school club).

Second, find quality instructors with a sport pedagogy background. Research postulates that high quality physical education teachers are successful at reaching elevated levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity in their classes and (14) with activity levels an integral part of this program, their expertise is necessary. Taking it a step further, eliciting instructors who were also directly affected by the hurricane will forge stronger connections between the child/instructor, leading to elevated levels of trust. In previous attempts to obtain instructors, one major constraint was instructor’s trepidation in further damaging these already delicate youth. Instructors may express apprehension toward bringing back repressed feelings, or revisiting their own personal fears. (15)In order to help secure instructors, and alleviate these feelings of uneasiness, providing adequate training to all instructors associated with the recovery effort is paramount.

Finally, acquire adequate psychological training, as research indicates that training is fundamental to the success of any emotional recovery effort. (15)While it is ideal to collaborate with a licensed psychologist with experience dealing in emotional recovery and trauma, this may not always be possible. If tasked with designing your own training, first, provide an initial session focused on outlining the structure and objectives of the program. Next, focus training on common emotional reactions to stress, opportunities to comfort when children may re-experience intense reactions of stress, and behaviors and strategies to employ to prompt discussions. Last, ensure that all instructors feel competent using and facilitating all stress reducing techniques that will be employed during the program. In our experience with T-SCORE, this training program was successful in placating discomfort and trepidations.


Using physical activity, art therapy, and other stress reducing techniques to aid in children’s emotional recovery following natural disasters can be extremely healing for the child and community at large. It is also of note that the fusion of physical activity, art therapy, and psychological stress-reducing techniques outlined in this article can be used following other stressful events that occur in a child’s life (i.e., divorce, family illness, death). Employing such strategies not only aid in short term enhancements, but also can lead to a higher quality of emotional wellbeing throughout an individual’s lifetime. While simplistic, instilling these techniques in children can alleviate stress, improve overall wellbeing, and as one participant of T-SCORE explained, “there was a really bad situation, but from it came the favorite part of my day.”

About the Author

Dr. Zachary Wahl-Alexander is a sport pedagogy assistant professor at Northern Illinois University. His research interests include the Sport Education pedagogical model, promoting outside engagement of physical activity through community-based partnerships. In the summer months, Zach serves as the boys head counselor at Trails End Camp.

Works Cited

  1. Myers D. Psychological recovery from disaster: Key concepts for delivery of mental health services. National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinical Quarterly. 1994: p. 1-5.
  2. Nolen-Hoeksema S, Morrow J. Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Morrow, J. A prospective study of depression and posttraumatic stress symptoms after a natural disaster: the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Journal of personality and social psychology. 1991: p. 115.
  3. Wahl-Alexander Z, Sinelnikov, O. A.. Wahl-Alexander, Z., & Sinelnikov, O. A. (2013). Using physical activity for emotional recovery after a natural disaster.84(4), 23-28. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. 2013: p. 23-28.
  4. Department of health hsCfdcp(U&Ncfhs(U. Healthy people 2010: Final review. 2013. Government Printing Office.
  5. Annesi JJ,PKJ,HGM,&GBD. Effects of Instructional Physical Activity Courses on Overall Physical Activity and Mood in University Students. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 2017: p. 1-7.
  6. McNamara S. Stress in young people: What’s new and what can we do? Continuum ed. London; 2000.
  7. Control CfD. Make a Difference at Your School. ; 2013.
  8. Eime RM,YJA,HJT,CMJ,&PWR. A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2013: p. 98.
  9. Chow BC,MTL,&LL. Children’s physical activity and environmental influences during elementary school physical education. Journal of teaching in physical education. 2008: p. 38-50.
  10. Cohen BM,BM,&RAB. Managing traumatic stress through art: Drawing from the center Lutherville: Sidran Press; 1995.
  11. Schouten KA,dNGJ,KJW,KRJ,&HGJ. The effectiveness of art therapy in the treatment of traumatized adults: a systematic review on art therapy and trauma. Trauma, violence, & abuse. 2015: p. 220-228.
  12. Cook A,SJ,FJ,LC,BM,CM.&MK. Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents. Psychiatric annals. 2017: p. 390-398.
  13. Greenwald R. Child trauma handbook: A guide for helping trauma-exposed children and adolescents. Routledge. 2014.
  14. Wahl-Alexander Z,&MC. Comparing campers’ physical activity levels between sport education and traditional instruction in a residential summer camp. Journal of Physical Activity and Health. 2017: p. 665-670.
  15. Wahl-Alexander Z. Practitioners' Experiences Creating and Implementing an Emotional Recovery and Physical Activity Program following a Natural Disaster. Strategies. 2015: p. 17-20.