Sensory engagement

Sensory engagement

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.

Finchampstead nursery opens ‘Oak Tree Oasis’ garden

Finchampstead nursery opens ‘Oak Tree Oasis’ garden

The Oak Tree Nursery has opened a new garden just in time for the summer.

Children at the nursery revealed the new garden, which includes a new shed, planters, a growing patch and water butts, to their families.

The nursery’s manager, Joanna Allen-Dann, said to Bracknell News: “We had a wonderful day in the sunshine unveiling the new garden area, and can’t wait for all the memories that will be made there.

“Tending to the herbs and vegetables will not only be extremely rewarding but will help to teach the children responsibility in caring for the natural world.”

Childbase Partnership Chairman, Mike Thompson, cut the ribbon on the day of the opening.

The Oak Tree Nursery holds an Eco-School’s bronze award for exceptional environmental awareness and conversation. The nursery is currently trying to improve their green ethos to reach the silver accreditation in the internationally-recognised scheme.

Story by: Bracknell News

Leeds nurseries celebrate their 30th anniversary

Leeds nurseries celebrate their 30th anniversary

Little People Nurseries, a family-run nursery chain in Leeds, is celebrating their 30th anniversary.

The five nursery settings have looked after over 3,000 children and trained over 200 nursery nurses since they opened their doors in 1989.

Marguerite Hallas opened the first nursery in a converted Edwardian manor house in Stanningley.

Once the business started growing, Ms Hallas was joined by her husband Geoff; and then their daughter Vicky; with Vicky’s husband, Gary Hallas-Fawcett, joining most recently.

Ms Hallas said: “I’d worked in council-run nurseries, but when I had my own children there was a real shortage of private nurseries in the area, so I decided to start my own. On the first day, I was full of excitement about what I was going to do with my 12 children – painting, sand, water play, lots of stories to be read.

Although the children had different needs, all they wanted was your time and attention, so that is what I gave them, and we grew from there. Those principles still hold strong today.”

Little People Nurseries currently look after over 600 families and employ 120 nursery workers.

Vicky Hallas-Fawcett, who now owns the Little People Nurseries, said: “It was fantastic to celebrate 30 years of the business that my mum founded with so many children, staff and parents, old and new. It is such an achievement to reach 30 years in business, and we’re so proud to have made, and be making, a difference to families’ lives across Leeds and Heckmondwike.

“We are grateful for the support over the past three decades from local businesses and suppliers, and members of our local communities who have helped our business to thrive. Here’s to the next 30 years.”

Story by: Yorkshire Post

German measles case in Derbyshire prompts warning for parents

German measles case in Derbyshire prompts warning for parents

Willington Preschool has issued a warning to parents after a suspected case of German measles.

The pre-school issued a statement on their Facebook page and called for parents to be “vigilant”. The message said:

“Important information.

“Please be vigilant with your children; we have a case of German measles.

“If your child (or yourself) are unwell with a high temperature, sore throat and a rash, please visit your GP.

“This is highly contagious and dangerous to pregnant women and babies.

“If your child becomes unwell at pre-school and these symptoms are apparent, we will request you collect them immediately and seek medical attention. Thank you.”

A Public Health England spokesperson said they do not have a confirmed case of rubella, but they are waiting for the test results for this case.

Story by: Derbyshire Live

Find out how to manage an outbreak of infection at your setting in our article: Preventing infections in early years settings

Celebrate St Patrick’s Day

Celebrate St Patrick’s Day

Sunday 17th March is St Patrick’s Day – the patron saint of Ireland, but it is not only in the ‘emerald isle’ that this day is cherished and celebrated as it’s reported that St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival.

St Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day in the early 1600s and is observed by the Anglican and Catholic Church alike. The Church lifted Lenten restrictions and it became a traditional day of feasting and drinking which has continued into the present!

Who was St Patrick?
St Patrick lived in the 5th century A.D. and was a British Christian missionary who introduced Christianity to Ireland, which at that time, followed mainly the Celtic pagan religions. He was believed to have been kidnapped at the age of sixteen, taken by Irish raiders and made to work as a shepherd, during which time, he reportedly ‘found God’. After 6 years, he escaped, returned home and became a priest, vowing to return and bring Christianity to the county that had enslaved him.

After returning to Northern Ireland, he converted many to his own religion, and was eventually made a bishop. One interesting myth says that St Patrick was able to drive the ‘snakes’ out of Ireland, but since Ireland has never had any snakes, this is most certainly an allegory referring to St Patrick driving the druids into the south of the country.

The significance of the three-leaf shamrock
The shamrock is a sprig of white clover that grows in the winter and was used by St Patrick to explain the Holy Trinity because it had three leaves, representing the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. It was also said to represent faith, hope and love too.

The shamrock has been used as the emblem of Ireland for centuries but many people today, confuse it with a lucky four-leaf clover, and you will upset many an Irish patriot if you confuse the two on St Patricks’ Day.

How can you celebrate St Patrick’s Day in your setting?
To help you celebrate St Patrick’s Day in your setting, we have come up with 3 areas of the EYFS and suggested 3 activities in each. We hope they will help you celebrate the day in true Irish style.

Understanding the world

Hold a ceilidh or try some traditional Irish step dancing
A ceilidh is a traditional Irish celebration involving dancing with partners to traditional music. You can use skipping, gallops and hops to move around the room in an anti-clockwise direction, and you can make up some simple routines yourself or visit for some more ideas and free resources.

If you want to try out some traditional Irish step dancing, ‘Riverdance’-style, have a look at this YouTube video for some basic steps that all can enjoy.

Organise a St Patrick’s Day parade (inside or outside)
Traditional St Patrick’s Day parades are held all over the world so why not organise one for your setting? You could make some green, white and orange flags and some carnival-style floats using painted cardboard boxes with different Irish symbols or images.

Irish-themed cooking
There are a whole host of ideas for St Patrick’s Day recipes from green cupcakes to shamrock-shaped biscuits. A few minutes spent searching the internet will reveal lots of simple recipes for pre-schoolers but we like the ones here which include lucky green pancakes and a green, white and orange popcorn and pretzel party mix.

Mathematics & Literacy

Use the shamrock to learn to count in 3s
Since we are focusing on the number 3 in the shamrock, why not cut out and colour in some shamrocks, numbering the leaves? If you have older groups you could count up in sets of 3 – for example, 1, 2, 3; 4, 5, 6; 7, 8, 9 and so on.

Gold coin hide and seek
Create a ‘treasure hunt’ around your setting with clues to follow to lead your children to the pot of gold….eventually. You can use gold chocolate coins for a reward if they solve the clues correctly.

Use the idea of 3s to create a display
St Patrick used the number 3 to explain the Holy Trinity but you could create a display related to the importance of the number 3 in everyday life: for example, different types of triangles, March being the 3rd month; past, present and future; 3 primary colours of red, yellow and blue – the list is almost endless.

Expressive arts and Design

Decorate your setting in green using shamrocks, leprechauns and rainbows
The mischievous little leprechaun, sitting with a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, is a traditional Irish image. Why not paint a large mural to show the colours of the rainbow and make a ‘pot of gold’ for the end of it, guarded by a leprechaun? But be warned, if you introduce a naughty leprechaun into your setting, who knows what havoc he will wreak during the week – so plenty of opportunity to have some mischievous fun with your children here!

Make an Irish harp
A harp is a traditional Irish instrument and you can easily make some using an old shoe box and some large elastic bands. Stretch the bands around the box to create the strings. Investigate the difference in sound if you use different sized boxes.

Sing some themed nursery rhymes
There are some wonderful nursery rhymes and songs on the theme of St Patrick’s Day. One of our favourites is “I’m a little leprechaun”, sung to the tune of “I’m a little teapot” which you can find here – guaranteed to have you singing in the staff room! Find other song ideas here.

However you celebrate, have fun, and watch out for those naughty leprechauns!

Expression of interest

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

You have Successfully Subscribed!