PEN PORTRAIT: JOANNA GRACE
I am a special educational needs and disabilities consultant and I have worked with all ages and abilities. Recently I successfully ran and launched The Sensory Story Project. http://jo.element42.org.
Joanne Grace joined the 2nd Early Years Language Conference and offered an insightful workshop on sensory learning and how this can benefit everyone. We learnt how to create sensory stories and how they could be facilitated in a number of ways to support practice.
WHAT ARE SENSORY STORIES?
Sensory stories tell a story using words and sensory stimuli. Usually there are just a few sentences in a sensory story (10 or less) and each sentence is paired with a sensory stimulus. The sensory stimuli don’t just support the words in telling the story, if well chosen, they tell the story in their own right. This means that the story can be understood and enjoyed equally by someone who understands the spoken word, and by someone who does not understand the spoken word.
Sensory stories were originally developed for use with children who have profound and multiple learning disabilities. These children are likely to have severe physical disabilities as well as multiple cognitive and sensory impairments. Often they will also experience seizure activity as a result of epilepsy and they are unlikely to be able to communicate through conventional means. Communicating stories through sensory stimuli gives these children the opportunity to take part in the story telling experience and learn the same skills, of listening and responding, as children who do not have their disabilities.
We all know how engaging children find a book which has a sound button attached to it, or little swatches of fur fabric within it. It is obvious that children motivated by such things are going to be all the more motivated by a story that has smells and tastes as well as touches, sounds and sights to explore. Sensory stories can be differentiated to meet the learning needs of a wide range of learners. I personally have used them in special schools, mainstream nursery, primary and secondary schools and even a few universities!
WHAT CAN SENSORY STORIES OFFER TO CHILDREN IN THE EARLY YEARS?
For children in the Early Years sensory stories can be used to encourage engagement with stories and text. Sensory stories can support turn taking, as children have to wait their turn to experience the stimulus accompanying the sentence. Sensory stimulation supports memory and so sensory stories can help children to re-tell stories whilst the resources offer a series of prompts to remind the story teller of the sequence of the story.
“The best thing about sensory stories for everyone, is that they are fun.”
Sensory stories can help children to understand new vocabulary; one of my stories has the word ‘spinning’ in it. Imagine a child who does not know what the word ‘spinning’ means, a picture could give an idea of spinning but it could be misinterpreted by the child, often times the movement would be illustrated by lines or arrows which rely on the child being able to understand what they imply. In my story the line with the word ‘spinning’ in is illustrated by a visual experience of something spinning. In the same story I have the word ‘hot’ illustrated by a touch stimulus which is hot. The sensory stimuli give direct support to the meaning of the vocabulary, great for building vocabulary and great for supporting children for whom English is not their mother tongue. Sensory stories can encourage children to talk for different reasons, other than simply expressing their wants. Sensory stories can give confidence to a child who is nervous of expressing themselves, for example a child who stutters or who cannot enunciate words correctly. What tends to happen with children who struggle with speech is that as they become more aware of their difficulties they grow less willing to speak in public, and so often end up getting less practice speaking when what they need is more. The final line of the story I’ve been using as an example so far, (which is, by the way, a scientifically accurate story about the birth of a stars in a stellar nurseries) contains the words “bright blue star.” Imagine you are the child who has difficulties talking, when you say this line what comes out of your mouth is “ight oo ar” without the stimuli you would worry that people might not understand you. If, as you say “ight o oar” you simultaneous turn on a bright torch which shines through a blue tissue paper star, then it will be obvious that you are saying “bright blue star” and you will be understood first time. If you believe you will be understood first time, you’ll be more willing to try.
The best thing about sensory stories for everyone, is that they are fun.
HOW DO I TELL WHAT MAKES A GREAT SENSORY STORY?
A great sensory story will have two things: great text and great stimuli.
Those who work in the Early Years will know that having only a few sentences in which to tell a story doesn’t necessarily mean that story is going to be a bad one. We can all point to our favourite children’s books which tell wonderful stories in just a few sentences. We all groan internally when asked to read a poorly written children’s story, where the sentences don’t seem to say anything and the story isn’t well formed. The same goes for sensory stories. I have written stories about history and science, stories based on traditional tales, myths and legends, and stories that are told in poetic form or to a beat. You can say a lot with ten sentences.
Understanding what makes great sensory stimuli comes through building an awareness of the sensory experiences you encounter in your daily life. Take time to notice how things feel, smell, taste, look and sound, let your imagination run free and think of what the sensations could represent. Recently I was carrying home a roll of brown parcel paper from the shops. The roll was so long it did not fit into my bag and so I carried it in my hands. It was wrapped in plastic similar to the sheaths bread is wrapped in at the supermarket. As I idly twisted it in my hands I noticed the dimpled plastic moving over the slightly rough paper gave my hands a tingling sensation similar to pins and needles. As soon as I’d noticed it I concentrated on it more and more. What could it be? It was such a weird and fabulous feeling, it must be useful in a story somewhere. I’ve yet to reach a conclusion, but this is the sort of noticing which is useful when you lead a life like mine.
“A great sensory experience in the context of a sensory story is one that is a big experience in itself but also has a strong connection to the story section it represents.”
Sometimes the obvious answers are not the best. We might think a picture is a good visual experience, but suppose I were to hold up a picture in your Early Years setting. It would be a small area of lines and colours, against a much larger area of colours and lights and shapes. Why would I want to look at the picture and not the bright shapes of the toys around me, or the clouds and the sky out of the window? A picture is an interesting sight experience only if I know something about it, only if I have the prior knowledge that pictures contain meaning, and I want to know what that particular picture is expressing. As a visual experience alone it’s just a bit of colour.
A great visual experience is something that demands you look at it or something that effects your whole vision. It needn’t be complicated, something like total darkness or looking through coloured cellophane effects your whole vision and can be a great visual experience.
We can think about the other senses in the same way. Try thinking about touch: often in children’s books there are little swatches of fabric, which children enjoy touching, but are they a truly great touch experience? Imagine you are in a lift with a bunch of strangers; you’re staring ahead, not making eye contact, being polite. Your hand brushes against a piece of fabric, what do you do? It’s likely that your answer is – nothing. You might not even register the touch at all. We all touch fabric everyday, we wake up touching our sheets and blankets, move to put on our clothes, pick up a bag, put on a coat, tidy up some cuddly toys. Fabric is a mundane touch experience in our world. Now imagine you’re back in that lift, this time your hand brushes against something sticky. I bet you look now!
A great sensory experience is one that catches your attention and fills your senses. A great sensory experience in the context of a sensory story is one that is a big experience in itself but also has a strong connection to the story section it represents. My favourite example of a great sensory story sensory experience is that of a tear drop. Using a pipette or a drinking straw I drop a single droplet of water onto a person’s face, where it falls like a tear. A tear is a very tingly touch experience. To deliver the experience of a tear falling, to illustrate the section of a story where the protagonist cries, is a great sensory story sensory experience.
SENSORY STORIES FOR CHILDREN WITH SENSORY PROCESSING DIFFICULTIES.
Children with sensory processing difficulties will experience sensory stimuli either too weakly or too strongly, and react to this deficit or excess either passively or actively. If I experience stimuli too weakly and respond to this in an active way I will be roaming around seeking out stronger and stronger experiences in order to get the information about the world around me that I need. If I react in a passive way I may appear bored or zoned out, as the world isn’t turned up loud enough or bright enough for me. If I experience stimuli too strongly then everyday experiences will be too much for me, in the way that the sound of fingers down a chalk board or the taste of bitter lemons might be too much for you or I. If I react to this in an active fashion then I might cause a scene, shouting, crying, and attacking the source of my discomfort. If I react passively then I will hold my distress inside and be disconnected from the world.
Children who have difficulties with their sensory processing can improve through practise; their senses can be, in a way, re-tuned. Sensory stories are a great way of doing this because within the context of a story we feel safe – in stories we can face monsters and death and all sorts of frightening things. The predictable nature of a familiar story brings comfort.
Children who find everyday sensory experiences too much will often struggle with eating. Eating is a big sensory experience, wet sticky touches, chomping slurping sounds, all sorts of smells and tastes and sights. Sensory stories can be a good way for children to explore the experiences around eating in a different context, ideally one which is low pressure, i.e. one where they will not be expected to eat during the story.
This article offers only the briefest of introductions to sensory stories, but I hope it will whet your appetite to find out more and to try telling a few yourselves.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
You are more than welcome to pop over to my website http://jo.element42.org and browse through other articles written about sensory stories. You can see the sensory stories I currently have available. If you go to the Sensory Story Project page you can see how this all began, and at the bottom of that page you can download free leaflet guides about sensory stories and sensory learning. The Educational resources page contains links to free to download resources suitable for children with special educational needs on a range of topics. The Conferences and Courses page will tell you if I’ll be speaking at a conference or putting on a course near you soon, and of course you’re more than welcome to use the Contact page to get in touch with me directly.
Grace. J. (2015) Sensory Stories for Children and Teens with Special Educational Needs. A Practical Guide. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.