I wrote about the Wonders of a Sensory Story back in 2018 for Parenta and expressed in that article just how hard it is to even consider trying to articulate how fabulous sensory stories are in a single article. When I first encountered them, they transformed my teaching and made my practice so much more inclusive than it had been before. In this article I am going to give you a glimpse into how you can do even more with a sensory story, using them to increase access to new experiences and extend the impact of novel educational adventures.
Sensory stories are concise text, typically 8–10 sentences long, each sentence of the story is partnered with a rich and relevant sensory experience that supports engagement with the story and makes the story accessible to those unable to access it through the verbal narrative. I run a project called The Sensory Story Project and if you explore the webpage associated with that, you will find lots of free downloads that will help you in your sensory story practice.
How to use a sensory story to make an event more accessible
Consider the scenario of a school trip, perhaps you are visiting a farm, a swimming pool or a local church. For some children the differences between this environment and the one they are used to being in will inspire extra curiosity and attention. For other children, the differences between the known safe familiar environment and this new different place will cause stress and anxiety. Children are unlikely to be able to articulate feelings of discomfort or of being unsettled, even children who are brilliant linguists would struggle to describe feelings of unease.
Children distressed by an unfamiliar environment communicate that distress through their behaviour. For some, this behaviour will be obviously linked to distress, they might cry or refuse to enter a space. But for many others, their behaviour will be an attempt to counteract the feeling: a child who feels uneasy needs extra reassurance, one of the best ways to be reassured when you are a child is to know an adult is paying attention to you. Adults keep children safe. Children know that if the adult is noticing them, they will be safe. So you may see an increase in those annoying attention-grabbing behaviours that just seem silly and unnecessary. It helps to recognise that the child is seeking reassurance, rather than attention; at the very least it will save you from getting so frustrated!
"Focus on the sensory aspects of the experience: for example at a swimming pool you will smell the chemicals used to clean the pool, you might be asked to wear a rubber band against your wrist or ankle, you might see the steam from the showers and so on."
Create a sensory story that very clearly and accurately describes the experiences related to the new environment in the sequence they will be encountered. Focus on the sensory aspects of the experience: for example at a swimming pool you will smell the chemicals used to clean the pool, you might be asked to wear a rubber band against your wrist or ankle, you might see the steam from the showers and so on. Weave these experiences in order into your story and then share your story ahead of your visit. Tell it often so that the children get lots of practice at experiencing the sensations and can get excited for the visit ahead. When you get to the venue, it will not be so new and distressing but it will retain all of its excitement and interest.
How to use a sensory story to extend the impact of an event or activity
We have wonderful moments that happen in our settings, perhaps we all visit a petting zoo, or a dance troop visit us and share their fabulous skills with us. The novelty of these events makes them stand out in our memories, we should make the most of this impact and not restrict it to the day that it happens.
Creating a sensory story of an event or experience just takes a little bit of thought and prep work. You may need to make sure you have memory space clear on your phone so you can record sounds, or you may want to take some Tupperware with you for stashing smells in!
As the event unfolds, consider it in sensory story terms, what are the sounds, sights, smells, touches and tastes that define this event? Can you capture them?
Catch as many as you can and weave them into the story, then you will be able to retell the story and revisit the wonders of that special day.
Readers curious to know more may be interested in Joanna’s Ambitious and Inclusive Sensory Storytelling Course or her books:
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”.
Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.