I believe every child deserves a story time. But not all children can read a book or listen to a story. Not all children communicate in the same way. This is where Sensory Stories come in. They are stories translated into the language of the senses.
What does that mean?
It means that the telling of the story is done through stimulating the senses - touch, taste, smell, sight and sounds. There may be a little bit of 'text' a sentence, or even a whole chunk of story, or there may be none at all. It depends on the child.
At the core of Sensory Stories are the needs of the child. Originally designed for children with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD), the needs of Sensory Story audiences can vary hugely. One child may love different smells, another may love massage, whilst a third may hate having their hands touched. This is why I try to make my Sensory Stories as adaptable and flexible as possible, led by the individual personalities of each child, I like to have a few options available when I tell a Sensory Story.
What does a Sensory Story look like?
Sensory Stories are a series of sensory experiences that follow the narrative of a story, which is told at the same time. The sensory experiences are a way to bring the story into the body of the audience member - for example, if your story involves going underwater you may use a blue satin material gently running over the skin, or blow bubbles to show this.
If your story involves going to a beach, you may have some sand (I use Kinetic sand) or have a sponge with an ocean smell on it.
Essentially, a Sensory Story allows the audience member to become immersed in the world of that story through a range of Sensory Experiences.
Who can enjoy a Sensory Story?
I've found Sensory Stories are ideal for young audiences and children with special educational needs as well as children and adults with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD).
Why tell Sensory Stories?
As soon as I started telling Sensory Stories, I realised not only how much I loved telling them but also how powerful they can be. I've had teachers tell me that they've worked with a child for three months and the first time they saw that child smile was when I was telling him a Sensory Story. This is why I tell them.
That and it's great fun.
I love making Sensory Stories, because I can be really creative.
When I'm making a Sensory Story I try to pick stories that will lend themselves to the senses - with opportunities for touch, sound, taste and smell being top of my list.
I always start with the story - or theme - and brainstorm my sensory experiences.
What opportunities are there for TOUCH?
How will I bring SMELL into the tale?
In which ways can I feature SOUND?
What TASTES will work with this story?
How can I stimulate SIGHT?
I break the story down into a set of SENSORY EXPERIENCES, making sure I cover all the above. For me TOUCH is the most important sense to include, then SOUND. I make sure I have at least one SMELL and one TASTE and I try to cover SIGHT by combining it with the other senses - for example a colourful material, or a beautiful object that makes a sound.
Once I know what my experiences are, I practise the story. Making sure I know the tale inside out and can pare it back to the bare bones or embellish it depending on the needs of my audience.
Then it's a case of going out and performing it. Your audience will soon let you know what works and what doesn't. Once you have your story, remember it's all about the audience member - don't be afraid to drop something or change something, Sensory Stories are supposed to be enjoyable for all involved.
For me TOUCH is the most important sense in a Sensory Story. It is the sense that gets the most reaction and, at times, it can be the only one that will connect with your audience member.
So it's important to try to include as many opportunities for TOUCH as possible.
Luckily, there are a lot of ways to explore this sensation.
Using massage in a Sensory Story can be a wonderful moment for connection. Massage can be calming and relaxing, it can also be stimulating, if you tap out the story or vary your massaging techniques.
Using different materials is a must in a Sensory Story. Allow your audience member to explore the material and find different ways to present and play with the materials. For example, run the material across the body, wave the material to create the sensation of wind (this can be coupled with smell and sight and thus be three senses at once!) Try to find a mix of materials that will be pleasant and stimulating.
Bring interesting objects into your story that your audience can explore. I favour objects that do something - create a sound, light up or have an interesting texture, as well as looking good. They don't have to represent the story element exactly, you can be imaginative and metaphorical. For example, the ants in my Sensory Story Bag - The Queen Bee, aren't ants, they are light up LED balls that squeak. Much more interesting than a plastic ant and they always get a reaction.
The key, when thinking about TOUCH, is to find the best way to bring the story into the body of the person. You may need a range of items and you may find what works with one child, or on one day, won't work another. That's OK, just explore and have fun with it.
Next to TOUCH, SOUND is (in my opinion) the most important tool in your Sensory Story kit. This is based purely on the reactions I receive to sounds.
As always flexibility and variety are key words for Sensory Stories. When it comes to SOUND there are a few things to consider including.
I know a lot of people will run for the hills at the prospect of singing. BUT - and I emphasise the but because it's a big one - the reaction is receives (pretty much across the board with Sensory Story audiences) is worth it. And I'll tell you how much it's worth it - until the age of 36 I never sang, I believed (and my musician husband believed I was incapable, not tone deaf, but close). However, singing creates such a connection within a Sensory Story audience that I bit the bullet and took up singing lessons purely so I could improve and sing when I tell a Sensory Story. That's how much I believe singing to be integral to Sensory Stories. Try it and you'll see.
TOP TIPS FOR SINGING in Sensory Stories
Live or recorded, music is hugely powerful and gets a response from Sensory audiences. If you've got skills with an instrument, use them. If not, do what most of us do - download royalty free music from the internet. I find a nice piece of relaxing music creates great atmosphere for a Sensory Story, bear in mind you may not be saying much at all, so music will stimulate hearing and create a nice aural backdrop for the story.
And then, of course, it's nice to bring in sound effects. Percussion instruments (even if you have little music ability) can create some great effects and - depending on the child - can also offer an opportunity for your audience member to join in with the storytelling. If you're looking for something specific you can use online sound effects libraries (the BBC just made their sound archive available free for educational use) or find products that make a nice sound - like this duck quacker I include in The Queen Bee - Sensory Story Bag. Failing that, you and the child (if able) can provide the sounds yourselves.
When creating a Sensory Story, you never know what is going to connect, so it's an idea to try all these things and keep trying them, you'll soon find out what works for your kids.
Often TASTE is the most enjoyed of the element of my Sensory Stories. I always try to make sure I have something pleasant for them to taste.
Of course, there is the worry of allergies and some children won't be able to take anything by mouth. But this shouldn't put you off. Just make sure you check ingredients.
I normally go for two options, one that is soft - like a jam, or for The Queen Bee, honey and then I will bring something that can be chewed, like Maltesers (honeycomb for the Queen Bee) or prawn cocktail skips (the taste of the sea) for The Mermaid's Tail.
Never force the food, but offer it to the lips and don't worry if they don't take it. Try again the next time, on another day it may go down better.
Just remember, always make sure the TASTE will be pleasant. No one wants a teaspoon of salt even if it does represent the sea more accurately than skips!
I've always thought the sense of SMELL could be the most powerful in transporting us to another place or time. Cut grass, curry, or the smell of rain after a dry spell - these all conjure up memories for me that are deeply personal and remind me of certain times and places - my childhood, travelling in India, summer storms - SMELL can really be an effective tool in the Sensory Story kit and shouldn't be overlooked.
But how to bring smell in?
Well, firstly - as with TASTE - try to make it a nice smell. We all know seaweed has a strong aroma, but would you like it shoved in your face when you're trying to relax and enjoy a story? Much better to get a nice suncream or coconut spray if you're going for a beach (but that of course is just my opinion.)
When to bring it in - depends on your own creative craft - but I look for smells that work in places - such as the beach (as above) or flowers in the forest. Also, if there is a food element, you could consider using smell - if you didn't want to use taste (probably a good idea for herbs!)
The basic tools that I have experimented with are:
There are many other ways to bring SMELL in which I haven't used yet - herbal pouches, scented materials (you could soak in a smell the night before) soaps... anything that has a nice aroma can be used.
Scented candles are good, but be aware of little hands and fire hazards.
Basically, experiment and try things out.
Be aware that smell can be potent and leak onto other materials. If you want to keep the rest of your sensory experiences un-affected, you might want to keep your scented prop in a sealed bag or box within your story container.
It can be difficult to know how to approach the sense of SIGHT in a Sensory Story because Sensory Stories are about experiencing the story in the body - and sight is often experienced outside of the body.
Storytellers talk of creating images in the mind's eye - but Sensory audiences aren't always able to do this. A storyteller who writes children's books, may have beautiful illustrations, but again these aren't necessarily accessible to our audiences. Showing them a picture just isn't going to cut it.
So, what I do, is I try to bring beauty in with the sense of SIGHT. I handpick my objects, materials and props with the idea that they should be pleasing to the eye. This won't do it for every audience member (many of my audience members are visually impaired) but, for some, it will add an extra layer of wonder to the experience.
So how to do this?
Well, for me, it's about bright colours, or colours that look beautiful. Maybe improving the look of something - turn your fan into a rainbow fan for example. Or decorate your bubble machine. Try to bring fun and colour and visual stimulation to each prop and experience as much as you can. This is where you get to be really creative - so enjoy it and make it pretty (or striking, or vibrant, or in keeping with your theme and the experience you want your children to have.)