This article is the first article in a series of six from Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, Joanna Grace, the activities described in each article build up to form a toolkit for celebrating difference and neurodivergence within your setting in a way that will benefit both the children and the adults. Joanna runs online training courses focused on strategies for supporting differently-abled children and promoting inclusive practice. Click here for more information.

The stories that people tell about us have a powerful impact on our lives, for better or for worse. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves affect our mental health and productivity. In this series of articles I am going to take you through some simple activities you can share in your settings that will help you, and the children you support, construct positive narratives around difference and neurodivergence.

There will be a new activity each month. I encourage you to start now, and to do each one as it comes out. Over the course of this series, they will build upon each other giving you a framework to celebrate difference and neurodivergence in a way that is really meaningful to the children you support.

Being in a place that has positive narratives about difference is not only good for those people who have an identified difference, these could be the children identified within your setting as having additional educational needs, it benefits everyone. We are all unique individuals and in places where difference is understood and celebrated we feel freer to be our authentic selves. And when we are free to be ourself, we are happier and healthier, both physically and mentally. 

The activities may look simple but they will be good for the wellbeing of the children in your setting and for you! So let’s get started.

The aim of this article is to provide you with activities that get children talking about the differences they see between one another. How you do this doesn’t matter so much. The central thing isn’t the activity, it is the language we use around it. 

The important thing is to present differences in a matter of fact way without layering judgements on top of them. As simple as that sounds, it can actually be quite tricky to do. Be reflective as a staff team as you attempt this, listen to one another, do judgements slip in? For example, when you describe your own hair colour do you say something bad about it, e.g. I’ve been known to say “Oo you have ginger hair, I love ginger hair, mine is just mousey brown.” You can see where the judgement slips in.

There are differences for which you might feel a judgement is appropriate, perhaps you are struggling with your weight and would label yourself as “too fat”. Whilst of course it is important to maintain a healthy weight, our aim for these activities is to talk about differences factually and in as unbiased a way as possible and to support the children in doing the same.

We are allowed to have preferences, I am allowed to like ginger hair more than light brown hair, but I am aiming to express that as a preference not a judgement. Now you are beginning to see where the trickiness in this seemingly simple activity lies! So I might say “I like ginger hair more than I like light brown hair, but other people like light brown hair more than they like ginger hair.”

It is also important that we do not teach children that some differences are not allowed to be spoken of. For example a child who says “You are fat” to an adult might get told not to say such things. We can teach the child a more sensitive way of expressing themselves but we must not teach them that differences are a taboo topic. 

Why on earth would we bother to faff around and get ourselves tongue tied talking in this super careful way? Well as we carry out these simple activities focused on external differences we are laying the foundation stones on which we will build a deeper understanding of difference and neurodivergence. Take it as a challenge and give it a go!

Here are some activities you could try to get children talking about the physical differences they see.

Mirror matching. Give each child a hand mirror and have them look at their own appearance and then look at the appearance of their friends, can they find similarities? If the children in your setting know the game ‘snap’, you can get them to shout “snap” when they see a similarity and then identify it. So for example a child might cry “Snap! My hair is the same colour as her hair.”

Spectacle spot. Give children novelty glasses to wear, tell them to look at each other’s eyes. When you shout out “Same” they must hold hands with someone who has the same colour eyes as themselves. When you shout out “Different” they must hold hands with someone who has a different eye colour to themselves. Make sure you have mirrors around for people to check their own eye colour in.

Aperture hunt. Print out photographs of the children and glue them onto card. Cut out one of their features. So you might cut out someone’s hair, or someone’s eyes. Have them hold up the aperture you have created and hunt for the missing item on someone else. So for example, a child who has black hair who is given a photo of themselves with their hair missing, holds up their picture against the black hair of another child. Then challenge the children to use the aperture to find out what they would look like if they had someone else’s features. The child with black hair might hold up their aperture picture against the hair of a child with blonde hair to see themselves as blonde.

Remember all of these activities are intended to start conversations about difference. Think about your own language carefully and support the children as they talk about difference to do it factually without placing judgement on it. We are entitled to our likes and dislikes but we need to recognise them as just that: personal preferences, not value judgements. So no saying someone’s hair colour is yucky! The narrative we are promoting is “this is me, that is you, I am like this, you are like that, I like these things, you like those things, and all of these simple differences are okay.”

This is just the start of our adventure! Come back next month for the second instalment. And meanwhile, if you do try the activities above, or activities of your own, I would love to know about it. Tweet me at @Jo3Grace or tweet Parenta at @TheParentaGroup and share your stories with us!

Jo provides in-person and online training to settings looking to enhance their inclusive practice. For more information, visit www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk where you can also find resources to help you include children of all abilities. Jo is active on social media and welcomes connection requests from people curious about inclusive practice.

About the author:

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”There is new book coming out soon called ‘”The Subtle Spectrum” and her son has recently become the UK’s youngest published author with his book, My Mummy is Autistic.

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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