As you will already know, mark-making is one of the earliest stages of writing. If children are to become confident writers, they need to partake in as many mark-making activities as possible, at as early an age as possible.
When mark-making, you are looking for children to make marks on both a large scale and a small scale – thus working both their gross motor skills and their fine motor skills. If a child can’t make a huge ‘s’ shape in the air, they are going to struggle to make their fingers draw a small one on paper.
Here are some multisensory ways of encouraging mark-making. For any of the options below, a child could use their finger to make marks, or they could hold a paintbrush, stick, pen, pencil or piece of chalk – whatever they like! As long as they are using the muscles in their hand and arm to make different shapes, then they are on their way to becoming a writer.
Draw in different mediums: e.g. mud, sand, snow, paint, shaving foam or flour
Draw with scarves and ribbons in the air
Fill a plastic wallet with paint, sequins and glitter and get them to mark-make over the pattern
Put on gloves and use a block of ice to make marks on the ground
Use coloured chalks on black paper – perhaps draw fireworks
Paint water onto walls and fences using large paint brushes
Use highlighters to draw over the lines of an existing drawing
Draw on whiteboards and chalkboards
Free drawing on an interactive whiteboard or iPad
Trace pictures, letters and/or numbers
Run their finger over multisensory letters such as sandpaper or felt
Write on a Perspex sheet
When encouraging mark-making, think about how you feel when you use a pen – how does your favourite pen feel? If you use a pen that is drying out, it doesn’t feel good against the paper. A new pen on a whiteboard, however, feels lovely and flows easily. A child is far more likely to want to mark-make if it feels good. Have sharp pencils and good quality pens for children to use.
If a child is struggling to hold a pencil properly, get them to hold a much shorter pencil or a broken off bit of chalk – this naturally encourages a proper grip since they physically can’t manage the palmar grasp.
As always with young children, making things multisensory is the key to engagement. Offer fun and interesting ways to mark-make and your children will be on their way to mastering the physical side of writing.
About the author
Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.
So many places have multisensory rooms, perhaps you have one? Recently we have seen football stadiums, airports and even shopping centres installing multisensory rooms. The DfE (2015) require all special schools to have a multisensory room in order that they be considered adequate provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
It seems that everyone is convinced that multisensory rooms are a great idea for children with special educational needs. Presumably this conviction is backed by hard evidence from research?
It seems likely that the faith we collectively have in multisensory rooms is based more on marketing materials for the rooms than from peer reviewed research. Of course there is also powerful personal testimony. Without doubt, many people have had wonderful experiences within multisensory rooms, but the risk of basing general provision on the experiences of individuals, is that no matter how powerful those experiences have been, we do not know that they will generalise. This is where research steps in. Good research will look at the amazing experiences of individuals to see if those experiences were a one-off or if they are indicative of greater application. At a time of reducing budgets, we would hope that the provisions dictated by the government as being essential, all had a firm evidence base within the research archives. Presumably multisensory rooms have a strong evidence base?
Researchers report that there is “no methodologically sound research” that endorses the use of multisensory rooms. Exploring the research archives myself, I quickly spotted the methodological weaknesses they are referring to: some studies were so poor as to be funny. I remember one study that was seeking to find out whether the multisensory room, newly installed in a setting, was having a positive effect. The researchers took people in the setting to the multisensory room to see how they got on in there. Some people did not like the room and would become distressed when asked to go there. As they were not able to take part in the research they were dropped from the study. The study concluded that multisensory rooms had a positive impact on 100% of people!
Multisensory rooms used to cost a few hundred pounds, a thousand, two thousand at most. Nowadays they are priced in the thousands and it is not uncommon for me to hear of rooms that cost over a million pounds! I think far more important than the question of whether they are having a positive impact, is the question of whether, even if that impact is real, they are worth the price tags we are paying. What else could that money be spent on?
I have just concluded an 18-month research project that fed into my book “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”. Part of my research explored the features that affect the impact of a multisensory room. It identified 12 key factors that influence how much benefit users of multisensory rooms got from them.
Here are a couple of those factors, all obvious when we think of them, but very worth considering when seeking to get the most out of our multisensory room or indeed any other specialist provision or equipment we have at our disposal.
Timetabling – Many people I interviewed in my research explained that timetabling issues meant their ability to reap the benefits of their multisensory rooms were limited. For example, people who had the session at the end of the school day had to interrupt it to sort out coats and bags; those who had the session just before lunch found engagement disrupted by hungry tummies; others had so short a slot on the timetable that by the time they’d arrived and got comfortable, it was time to go.
If you have an amazing piece of equipment that you are sharing with others, do not let sloppy timetabling ruin it for everyone.
Interruptions – Many of the teachers I interviewed as a part of my research explained that it was not the features of the multisensory room that made it a powerful learning environment for their students, it was simply that when they were in the multisensory room, they did not get interrupted. In their classrooms, people popped in to give them messages or borrow equipment, specialists arrived to take children to particular therapies. As well as interruptions from outside, there were also the interruptions from within: with a class working in groups, a student from one group would stray into another and need redirecting. In the sensory room, a group could work in a focused and uninterrupted way and that made learning powerful.
Rather than dream about installing a dark room with a bubble tube, perhaps consider whether a small cupboard or room could be utilised as a ‘no interruptions’ room in which small groups could work in a focused way.
If you have a multisensory room, celebrate it and ensure you are using it effectively. The room, no matter how wonderful or well-equipped, is not magic: it cannot do the work alone, you need to be informed, trained and have access to creative ideas for how to use that room.
If you have not got a multisensory room, fear not. Watch out for next month’s article to learn about alternative sensory spaces!
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.
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