I am sitting on my living room floor trying to untangle a rubber spider from some dryer balls and wondering if the stock cube I have soaking on a cotton wool pad will still be as pungent in a week’s time. Am I a house wife gone mad? Well I might be, but no actually. This is my job and on the floor beside me I have a wonderful collection of sensory stimuli that I have been hoarding over the past month. My particular favourite is a box in which I received something fragile, the inside is lined with lumpy spongy foam and it feels amazing to push one’s hand into. I expect the kind soul who sent me the gift would be a little disappointed to know that I was more excited by the box than its contents. A reaction I’m sure we all remember from childhood.
What job is this, I hear you wonder (my accountant I’m sure must wonder the same as he looks at receipts for gunge, essential oils, and sandpaper in my expenses file). Well I write sensory stories for young people with special educational needs and disabilities.
Sensory stories are typically ordinary stories paired down to ten simple sentences. These sentences are then partnered with a sensory stimuli, so much like you would look at a picture in a normal story book, the stimuli provide children with a linked sensory experience.
I always endeavour to make my stimuli as rich a sensory experiences as possible, so for example looking at a picture isn’t too great a visual stimuli, we look at stuff all the time; a picture, especially in a colourful classroom, isn’t too interesting from a purely visual point of view. It may be interesting if its content fascinates us, but not all of my readers understand the content, some are learning in a purely sensory way, so I need to ensure the stimulus I give them is motivating. Total darkness, a colour filter, a magnifying sheet – these are all good visual stimuli.
Of course having all our senses stimulated is not just important to those with sensory impairments or those accessing the curriculum in a purely sensory way. Stimulating the senses engages more of the brain in learning: tell your teenagers to revise using coloured pens, give them a lavender soaked hanky to sit with as they study and then to take into the exam with them. Stimulating the senses brings a richness to life, have you ever been taken back to a time in your childhood by a scent you encountered? It is powerful stuff.
I’ve used sensory stories successfully with mainstream students in nursery, primary and secondary schools as well as students in special needs schools. They are, by their very nature, accessible to all.
In primary I found students’ descriptive writing improved as a result of using sensory stories. They began describing the smells and sounds of things in their writing, not just the sights.
In secondary I worked with a low ability literacy group. Their motivation and self confidence had really taken a battering. I challenged them to make a story as a gift to a group of students in a neighbouring school with profound and multiple learning difficulties, because they could see a real purpose to their writing they worked hard at the initial comprehension task of distilling the original story down to ten sentences which conveyed the essence of it’s meaning. That we were only asking for them to write ten sentences meant they felt able to try. The actual task of all that reading and understanding and drafting and re-drafting and hunting for precisely the right word – such a rich learning experience – was hidden from them. They collected stimuli together, bringing in things from home and buying things with a small school budget, learning about the needs of the pupils their gift was for every step of the way. In the end they even decided to work together to create a special box for the story. They were proud of their work and their teacher said she’d never seen them so motivated by a literacy task.
A big passion of mine is getting young people with special needs involved with charities, not as the recipients but as participants. I believe this to be hugely beneficial to all, the young people develop a sense of self esteem and agency, the notion that they can do something in this world, can make a difference, and also an awareness of others less fortunate from themselves, and the charities benefit from the involvement of individuals with a lot to give. For this reason, although I do take private commissions for resources tailored to particular curricula or interests, many of my stories are available free to teachers and parents. Links can be found on my website, I hope you have as much fun sourcing the stimuli as I do!
Joanna Grace is an author and sensory specialist. She was featured in the 2009 best practice government P-scales training video. Joanna is an RE Quality Mark assessor, a qualified foster carer, and a Teach First Coach. Find out more on her website: http://jo.element42.org/home and on Twitter @jo3grace