Much of my work focuses on children who face significant barriers to their learning, many of these children have profound and multiple learning disabilities or complex autism and are non-verbal communicators. The senses are everything to me when I want to connect with them. However sensory communication affects everyone, and being able to engage a person’s senses is critical to gaining their attention and supporting their learning.

Consider how sensory information is prioritised in our minds: it is absolutely fundamental, it is before thought. Think of how we speak about sensory experiences: “I saw it with my own eyes”, “I heard it for myself”. These sensory references are proof, evidence that cannot be argued with. Even at times when we know our senses to be fooling us (for example have you ever felt like you were falling when you were in bed?), we cannot override them with our mind. The sensory experiences that we feel, beat the information that we know intellectually. Which is why it is so important that the sensory information we present when we seek to teach children, matches up with the intellectual content we hope they will gather from our teaching. And making activities appeal to the senses will draw children’s curiosity before their intellect wonders what is going on.

Sensory engagement is essential for learners of all abilities.

In this article, I want to get you started thinking in a sensory way. We haven’t got room to go through the eight sensory systems that I generally tackle at The Sensory Projects (yes more than five!) but if we start with our most dominant sensory system: vision, then you will be off on the right track.

Vision dominates our cerebral cortex taking up nearly a third of it. Seeing is the processing of light by the retina; brighter items throw off more light and so place a bigger processing demand on our brains. Consider the child being asked to look at a red shape held up against a white wall, compared to the child being asked to look at a red shape held up against a black cloth. The first child is asked to do a lot more visually, as they have to process all the white light thrown off by the wall as well as the red of the shape. Now imagine the child who has to pick that shape out of the confusion of a brightly patterned, multi-coloured background. It can be exhausting! Seeing uses a lot of our brains and it is tiring.

Visual attention
If we support visual attention then we support children’s concentration. This can be as simple as setting up toys against a dark contrasting background – Tuff Trays are great at this and you might notice how children are more drawn to toys in this clearly-visually-denoted environment compared to toys laid out on the carpet or a table top.

When you are showing things to children, consider the background you are standing in front of; be careful of things like vertical or Venetian blinds which can be visually very disturbing. If you have a very busy visual environment, consider installing roller blinds along the walls so that you can choose to have a muted, plain backdrop when you wish.

If a child is feeling stressed, anxious or unwell, they may be less able to cope with a busy visual environment than usual. An environment offering relatively low visual stimulation may help a child to calm and regulate. Think of where you would want to be if you had a migraine; it’s unlikely to be gazing at your bright display board.

All of our senses have a development that they run through, and experiences from early sensory development are easier to process than those from later on. The easiness of processing makes these experiences naturally calming. For vision, warm red tones come very early on in the development of sight and most young children will declare a preference for the colour red as it is likely to be the first colour tone they were able to see.

Take a look around your environment and imagine that you were seeing it with just your eyes, not with your understanding. Are the different places clearly identifiable? Does the route to the bathroom look different to the carpet circle? Is it easy to pick out where the coats are and where the drawers are? How much would you know about your space if you took it in through vision alone? Making changes so that, for example, toilets are more readily identifiable can support children in remembering to go to the toilet. In the same way, supporting visual accessibility can boost children’s independence skills.

Remember to consider this with vision alone, not cognition. For example here are the chairs on either side of my dining room table. My dining room is very sparse; you would think that all the chairs were easily accessible but as this picture shows there is a big visual difference between the chairs on either side of the table.

If you are looking for a fabulous visual engagement activity, try making improvised light boxes. Find a plastic box with a flat clear lid and stick baking paper to the underside of the lid (to diffuse the light). Line the box with silver card or tin foil. Pop in a handful of battery-operated fairy lights and enjoy the gorgeous uplighting: it will make the activities you place on the box all the more visually engaging.


Readers curious to know more may be interested in Joanna’s courses:

Sensory Engagement for Sensory Beings: A Beginners Guide
Teaches structured and playful sensory engagement techniques.

Exploring the Impact the Senses have on Behaviour
Looks at how we can respond to behaviour triggered by sensory experiences.

Develop Your Sensory Lexiconary
Looks at the development of the sensory systems and relates this information to the development of cognition, communication, engagement and wellbeing.

About the author

Joanna Grace

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.

Consistently rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.

Joanna has published four practitioner books: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”“Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”“Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”.

Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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