Sensory stories

Joanna Grace is a special educational needs and disabilities consultant. In this guest blog, she talks about the impact of sensory stories on learning and memory

Please note: all opinions expressed in our blogs represent those of the author only. Sensory stories are a wonderfully simple resource created from a combination of concise sentences and rich sensory stimuli. Sensory stories are those for which the physical book is only the starting point. The idea is to tell the story accompanied with a selection of items that children can touch, feel or smell at key parts in the narrative. I first encountered them when I was a teacher at a school for children with severe and profound special needs. I’d been struggling to find something meaningful to do with the students with profound and multiple learning disabilities. When I encountered sensory stories I was delighted; for the first time I felt I was delivering meaningful learning at a level which was appropriate to my students. Since that time I’ve gone on to gain a master’s in special education and had the opportunity to read all the research surrounding sensory learning. I am now a special educational needs and disabilities consultant and last year I set up and ran The Sensory Story Project. The aim is to make the sensory story resource that had so inspired me as a teacher available to families at an affordable price. After a big adventure on crowd-funding website Kickstarter and a long time writing stories and hunting for the right stimuli (getting a lot of funny looks from puzzled shop keepers as I sniffed and touched and listened to the everyday objects they were selling), I’m pleased to report the project was a success. You can find out more about it, view the stories and access lots of other educational resources aimed at students with special educational needs and disabilities at Sensory stimulation is a necessary part of cognitive development; it is how our brain lays down neural pathways. A baby during its early development, or indeed anyone looking to lay down new networks in the brain, needs to access a range of sensory stimulation in order to be able to do this. The best way of thinking about this is to imagine the mind as an overgrown forest. When a sensory stimulus is experienced, this sends a little electronic pulse through the mind – think of this as someone walking through the forest. After the route has been walked once, it’s unlikely there will be much change – there may be a few broken blades to cross, possibly a twig – but essentially the forest will look the same. After another similar experience the path has been walked again. Repeat this and eventually the path will be a mud track, even a road, maybe a motorway – the neural pathway will be established. Now imagine that first set of experiences were all sight experiences and formed a pathway through the mind in one direction. Now picture a second set of experiences all to do with touch – these form a pathway going in a different direction. Where those two paths intersect, you get the co-ordination of senses. In this example, the co-ordination of sight with touch yields hand-eye coordination, which is so important for ongoing development. And just like the forest, if these paths are not walked regularly they eventually grow over. Most of us lead lives that are rich in sensory stimulation and will never experience this fading of our neural pathways. But for individuals who can’t access sensory stimulation for themselves because of disability or other circumstances in their lives, this may not be the case. When we learn in a multi-sensory way, more of our brain is involved in that learning (imagine lots of little people walking through that forest). The greater involvement of our grey matter gives us a greater chance of remembering what we have learned. It is also easier for people to concentrate on multi-sensory experiences. Imagine if I were to give you a two-hour lecture on a really interesting topic, but the lecture was in a plain room without any additional support. No matter how interested you were in what I had to say you’d still struggle to concentrate and learn from it. But if I asked you to sit in a cinema and concentrate on a film for two hours, maybe with some popcorn to nibble on, I’d imagine you’d find concentrating much easier. Sensory stories provide the rich sensory stimulation that is so useful in laying down neural pathways (as do any sensory exploration). The extra benefit of sensory stories is the structure they place on the experiences. The sequencing of the experiences allows for further skills to be developed.  Sensory stories can be used to:
  • link learning together
  • enable individuals to express preferences which can then be used to inform their care
  • develop communication
  •  prepare individuals for experiences or to help to form and reinforce memories of particular experiences.
I appreciate this is the briefest of explanations, later this year Jessica Kingsley Publishers will be publishing a book about sensory stories, containing five stories within it, which will have a more comprehensive explanation. In the meantime, do contact me and I will do my best to reply to any questions or requests for more information. The best thing about sensory stories is they’re a lot of fun. I’d encourage anyone to give them a try.
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