Tips and ideas for using visual tools in a range of therapeutic settings from social worker and art therapist, Nain Philp

Posted: 12/10/2021

Nain Philp is a social worker and art therapist working in private practice in Victoria, Australia. She shares with us her experiences using cards and other visual tools in AOV settings and with young people with autism, plus her top 3 tips for using cards effectively.

Prior to setting up her private practice, Nain worked in the community services sector for 25 years, primarily in the alcohol and other drug (AOD) sector.  She has worked in various settings and contexts, including community health environments, prisons and residential AOD, and has also done outreach work with both youth and adults.

We started by asking Nain to tell us a bit about herself.


You mentioned you were an art therapist. What drew you to art therapy?

I have worked as an art therapist since 2008 and found this transformed the way I work with people therapeutically.  I had been slowly transitioning to private practice over the past few years, mostly so that I can have the freedom and autonomy to work in ways that truly align with my values and practice approach.

I’ve always had a love of art, having studied art throughout my schooling, and I guess I’m a naturally creative person.  I think I’ve probably always worked with people creatively too, especially in my role with men in prison.  I found they would instinctively draw me diagrams and pictures and speak in metaphor as they tried to communicate their needs and experiences to me. I also found myself drawing pictures and diagrams as an effective way to engage and communicate with them.


Moreover, I learnt they were a population of people who tended to be very talented in music and art and found it especially difficult to express themselves verbally or to articulate their emotions and needs through talking. As I continued my work in drug and alcohol I increasingly found that talking had its limitations and that it was important to access all the ways in which we communicate, feel and express ourselves.

Art therapy has a way of allowing us to feel, express and make sense of things on a ‘whole of body’ level; connecting mind and body together. And we know that so much of our emotional experiencing, especially trauma and memories, are held in the body so it made sense to use art and creativity to better access the emotional work and to find other multi-modal and embodied ways to work through the experiences and struggles my clients were facing. In 2008, I undertook my studies in art therapy at the Melbourne Institute of Experiential and Creative Arts Therapy (MIECAT).

What is the value of introducing visual or tactile resources into a therapeutic conversation?

I think it’s about offering clients other ways of making sense of their experiences by providing tools that tap into different ways of knowing, in addition to cognitive understanding and processing.  We learn, understand and make sense of things using all our senses; visual, auditory, olfactory and kinaesthetic.

By drawing on all senses and being present to our embodied sensing and responding, tactile resources allow clients to better access their emotional content. There is also something very powerful about visual resources and cues. Our memories, experiences and capacity for making meaning seem to be particularly activated and triggered by visual imagery as well as by smell. Laying out cards or symbols and objects has an amazing way of inviting curiosity and allowing people to attribute meaning and stories to these images. There is also more understanding emerging of the benefits of tactile resources (sand tray therapy and other 3D representation and clay work, for example) being effective in creating new neural pathways.


You mentioned you had quite a few Innovative Resources’ card sets. Can you talk a bit about how you use different sets in different contexts?

I’ve used the cards in both 1:1 work and in groups. I find the Signposts cards are really well received by all ages and demographics—perhaps this is because they offer both a visual image and a key word.

I often lay the cards out at the very outset of a group or 1:1 session as a way of supporting a person to connect straight away to what is most alive for them in the present moment. This works to shift a person’s focus from the immediate urge to talk which will naturally take them into the place of thinking. When we think, we tend to stay in what is consciously known (which is usually past events) and we can get stuck in over-thinking. Connecting to a visual cue or resource automatically draws people into the here-and-now which in turn, allows them to better access feelings, emotions and other more sub-conscious material that is not so readily accessible to awareness.

I have used the Stones…have feelings too! cards to support clients in connecting to emotions and finding a language and way of articulating their feelings. I did a bit of a fun session where I collected a whole lot of stones in various shapes and sizes and laid them out with the Stones cards then invited the group to choose either a real stone or a card or both that represented how they were feeling as a way of opening up groupwork on emotions.

The physical stones acted as a great grounding and emotion regulation tool for those who found the group process challenging and also proved to be a beautiful way of encouraging story telling. Some of the clients in the group spoke of childhood memories of collecting stones or skimming stones on the water as children.

I’ve used the Shadows cards 1:1 in the context where clients are ready to work more deeply on themselves or when working with trauma, grief and loss.  I use these cards to open up conversations or I’ll use them as a tool to support them in creating their own representation of their experience.

I have also used the journal cards, Inside Out, in a residential rehab to support groups in finding pathways for reflection.

Could you give an example of a situation where you used a card set to support someone to make a change?

I’ve been working with a young 15 year old who is on the autism spectrum who really struggles with emotional regulation and emotional connection. I introduced him to the Stones cards and invited him to choose cards that represented his feelings and emotions, then I asked him to identify those feelings on a body map that he had drawn.

This was very effective in helping him find language for his feelings. He identified and drew them in shape and colour form on a body map so he could communicate his experience to me. This was, however, a very moving and somewhat triggering exercise and he did cry in the session for the first time which in turn led him to feel very vulnerable, uncomfortable and even angry towards me that he had felt so exposed.

The following session he was withdrawn and I worried that I could lose the connection we had made.  However, by holding the space safely and compassionately with him, he was able to move through these feelings as he continued to use the cards to communicate new emotions and feelings.

The outcome of this process is that he continues to engage in art therapy, has often expressed emotions freely in the sessions and feels less exposed and vulnerable. He has become more trusting and engaged and is able to maintain eye contact with me more readily. But most of all, he has made significant shifts with his family in terms of communicating his need for more emotional connection, touch and affection.


If you could give social workers, teachers and counsellors your three top tips for how to use the cards effectively in their work, what would they be?

  1. Lay the cards out prior to a session so they can be a means of curiosity for clients. You’ll be surprised how often a client can’t help but approach the cards and look at them. Often they will naturally be drawn to a card that resonate for them.
  2. Rather than asking ‘why’ they chose the card, stay with the what, when and how – you might ask, ‘I’m curious as to what drew you to that card?’, ‘What are you noticing in your body as you look at the image?’, ‘How does this card relate to your own experience?, When you look at that image, how do you feel?’ Staying curious with the client will feel less threatening or intrusive.
  3. When inviting clients to select a card or cards, try to limit it to no more than 3 cards. Choosing too many cards can open up too much content and risks taking the client to a place of overwhelm and amplification (which can be hard to close up safely if it does trigger an emotional response). In many cases, especially in a group, 1 or 2 cards is enough and helps keep material contained.


Our thanks to Nain for sharing her experience, wisdom and expertise.

If you would like to share your experiences of using the cards or other Innovative Resource’s products, we would love to hear from you!



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