about sensory arts

I hold sensory arts sessions in hospitals / community / school settings. The sessions are a playful celebration of sensory connection with materials; what materials invite us to do; how they can create the potential for embodied action. Materials can invite us to roll them / to stick them / to scrunch them / to jump on them / to handle them in certain ways / to combine them with other materials that fit well with them. I use sensory materials that are really responsive to the body, such as tinfoil / cardboard / tin cans / foam / wadding, etc. Sustainability and the affordability of art-making is important to me, and I usually use recycling / scrapstore materials in the work.

The sessions aim to include everyone. I constantly reflect on and improve the structures that I use to ensure that they are as appropriate, safe, nurturing as possible for the groups of children and young people I am working with.

I have worked in many play-focused community spaces, including Great Ormond Street Hospital (frequently in 2020-2021), St. George’s Hospital (2020), Regent’s Park Time Bank (2020-2021), Polka Theatre (2021) and I run my own sessions in local community settings (e.g. community centres / church halls, etc.). Some examples of specific projects I have run in the last few years:

In a festival in 2018 for a three day project called ‘Build an Imaginary World’ we collected waste, recycling materials each morning from the festival, and then built them into a communal imaginary world. These materials, which are easily transformed, are a really good starting point for facilitating play / embodied making.

Build an Imaginary World, World Yoga Festival 3 day project 2018

In a hospital context I’ve sometimes translated this to create a world in a box – a world with all the child’s likes and dislikes. I’ve seen that this can be a good starting point for some children, as it makes clear that the session is all about them – their likes / dislikes – their experience.

At South London Gallery recently I provided each child with a silver sack – a material I’ve seen is appealing and easy to use for many children – and I also gave them a checklist of movements to make with the sack. This checklist was just a suggestion – there as a starting point if they wanted it. The checklist was sort of a way to hold space for new things to take place. This is similar to what I did a couple of years ago with What is a Wheel at Thought Foundation, Aspex and Chapel Arts Studio. On the checklists both times were ‘invent a movement for the wheel/sack’. So the checklist contained within it the possibility of newness. It could also be totally discarded when the child was ready. 

Working with children with PMLD in 2021 at Great Ormond Street Hospital, I developed different small sculptures / accumulations of material to provide a structure for the session. I moved with the sculpture in different ways, creating sounds / rhythms through touching the sculpture. The child would communicate through touch / small movements to say whether they wanted more of the material I was offering, or not. So to work with the child in these sessions was a constant process of learning about the child and their bodily reactions to the material.

I’ve realised through working with children and young people for many years, that facilitating art and play needs to be an incremental process of working out what works for each group of children and young people. If I want them to feel safe to make choices, to discover and play with materials, I know that the most important thing is to respond in the moment to them – to who they are. And this is done through spending time with them – noticing the choices that they make and responding to them.

It’s about noticing what the child wants from tiny cues / gestures that might not be verbal. Through being aware, which is a constant process of learning and reflection, and of course I may make mistakes which I then reflect on, improve on, I can hold a space that is as open / safe / nurturing as possible for the child, so that they can create an embodied structure for their own play and art, a structure that is not imposed by me. 

Beautiful Oops by Barney Salzberg has been very influential in how I work with children; below is a reading I did of the book in 2020 during the first lockdown for the children I was working with but couldn’t see in person.

Another strong influence is bell hooks and her book Teaching to Transgress. In particular, the idea of there being no ideal blueprint for sessions in the classroom, and of the need to continually respond to the experience of each new group of people.

Joanna Grace and her work with PMLD is also important to me, particularly her book Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings. I attended Joanna’s Sensory Lexiconary Training in 2018.