fbpx

You are creating an engaging learning environment, you have a theme, you have keywords or sounds laminated and displayed around the place, there is the opportunity to mark-make provided, and toys are dotted about to support your topic, why think sensory?

Of course, you already have so much that could be considered sensory. I should be clear from the start that I need two sensories: sensory – as in the everyday world that we can see and touch and smell and so on, and SENSORY – that extra special, something extra, and a bit wonderful sensory, which is what I am talking about in this article. I will not keep shouting at you with capital letters, so please presume that from now on it is that second SENSORY that I am discussing.

Learning through Sensory Engagement

One of the most fascinating things about our engagement with the sensory world is how it builds the foundations of our cognition. Having sensory experiences in early development is not simply a nice bit of fun, it is how the brain gets wired and kickstarts our learning. When we have a sensory experience, a little electronic pulse fires through our neurons, synapses meet and connect and a trace is left in the brain. If we have more of those experiences, that trace gets reinforced until it is an established neural pathway. I often like to imagine this by considering the early brain as a densely overgrown forest, when we have a sensory experience that sends someone walking through the forest. If we only have that experience, once, the forest is unchanged, perhaps a few bent-over blades of grass, nothing more. But if we have that experience again, and another like it and so on, that path will be trodden multiple times and will gradually turn from overgrown forest to muddy track, to road, to superhighway. It will, in other words, become an established neural pathway.

Research tells desperately sad stories of the profound cognitive impairments that can result from a childhood deprived of stimulation, and the loss of capacity that can be the result of an under-stimulating environment. Considering this in the other direction, we can recognise that if a dearth of stimulation leads to a decline in cognitive capacity, an abundance of stimulation can lead to cognitive growth. But we must get it right, you do not want to swamp or overwhelm people. You are not acting in an environment where there is no stimulation. You’re acting to make the most out of the sensory stimulation you offer so that you can use it more powerfully.

Use-It-or-Lose-It Basis for Neural Pathways

Firstly, we must recognise that providing sensory experiences is providing people with the opportunity to build neural pathways in their minds, underpinning their cognitive abilities. These pathways are with us on a use-it-or-lose-it basis so we are also providing people with the opportunity to maintain their cognitive faculties. Make sure to get involved yourself, get messy, give it a sniff, look at it and look, and immerse yourself in the sensory world, it will keep you cognitively fit.

Active Learning and Engaging Sensory Systems

We can all picture the learning environments of the past, children asked to sit still, not talk, look this way and copy from the board. We are so much better now at letting children find something out for themselves, giving them hands-on experiences. We know that we learn better when we are involved in our learning, rather than attempting to be the passive recipients of it. The reason for this is those more active ways of learning engage more sensory systems and fire-up more of the brain, so when you are laying out your next rich learning environment maybe do a little sensory audit: it looks fabulous – absolutely, but what sounds are in there, what does it feel like, could there be a smell or a taste in there?

Give yourself a focus to try and weave in some of the sensations you do not use so often. Most of us are great at offering people things to look at, and touch is also a very commonly addressed sense, but how well do we use sound? There are free-to-access sound archives online, the BBC have one for example, where you can find the sound of pretty much anything. If the puppy in the story knocks over a glass of water, or the monster stomps in a muddy puddle, you can probably pull up a sound effect to give people an auditory experience that will enrich the narrative. (If you are curious about telling stories in a sensory way do check out sensory stories!) What about taste? There are lots of times in a year when we might be thinking about a particular cultural event in the calendar, and many of these have very specific food items that accompany the celebrations. Having the chance to have the taste experience of an event is a wonderful way to invite people to get more involved with an experience.

The smell is probably the sense you have least often considered in terms of your offer, as anyone who has tried to choose perfume in a shop knows: smell can be hard to focus on. If you are thinking of offering smell experiences, make sure you are not already one yourself! I do not mean poor personal hygiene, I am assuming you are nice and fresh, I mean if you wear a heavy perfume or wash your hair in a particularly pungent shampoo, you could well eclipse subtler smell experiences you might offer. Likewise, avoid flooding the environment with synthetic odours, like plug-in air fresheners, instead have the windows open and when you invite exploration, invite it with the nose as well as with the eyes and hands.

Connecting Sensory Engagement to Mental Health

In my next article I will be talking about how doing this can also benefit your mental health, so do look it up if you can. Meanwhile, feel free to connect with me on social media to watch my current sensory adventures unfurl, all the connection links can be found on my website www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk

Explore more in this series here:

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

Expression of interest

Complete the form below if you are interested in joining our family. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This