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Using the senses to stimulate inclusion and learning

teacher and pupil in sensory learning lesson
Joanna Grace

Joanna Grace


Joanna Grace is an author, speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects, which seeks to contribute to a world where everyone is understood in spite of difference. You can follow her on Twitter here.

As a sensory engagement specialist, much of my work focuses on the experiences of children and adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities who are recognised in research to be amongst “the most” disabled members of our society.

I’ve seen the sensory strategies I use with profoundly disabled people to have enormous benefits for children who attend mainstream school, and adults too. It makes a certain sense that techniques that make learning accessible to people who face so many barriers to learning also support learning for those facing less barriers, and activities that bring joy and comfort to people leading very challenged lives could also bring joy and comfort to those of us who face a slightly easier journey through life.


Adopting sensory stories in teaching

Sensory stories are concise narratives of around 8 to 10 sentences in which each sentence is partnered with a sensory experience. Over the course of the story someone experiencing it can expect to have the opportunity to engage multiple sensory systems (I run up to 7 in my stories).

Here are a few examples of how that happens:


Rich and relevant experiences

I choose rich and relevant sensory experiences to accompany the meaning of sentences in my sensory stories. By rich I mean that the experience will draw the attention of a sensory system alone, without the need for cognitive interest, or that it will fill the whole of a sensory system. Think of the distinction between a spot of neon amidst a jumbled background or a photograph held up. One draws the attention of the vision, one the attention of the mind. By relevant I mean that this experience be connected to the topic in hand, so in effect I am having both the spot of neon and the photo example rolled into one, this experience will engage mind and sense.

For children and adults with complex disabilities the rich and relevant sensory experiences are their access point for learning. For neurodivergent children and adults who may experience the sensory world in a different way from neurotypical children and adults the opportunity to encounter sensation within the safety of a story can be both engaging and reassuring. And for children and adults, regardless of disability, ability or neurodiversity, the opportunity to engage with the sensory world is in effect an invitation to take part in a tiny piece of mindfulness.

When we pay attention to what we are seeing now, or what we are smelling now, we are paying attention to the now. This helps us to feel our embodied selves, living in this present moment, it is combative of stress anxiety and depression. An engagement with the senses is good for everyone’s wellbeing.


Enriching learning experiences

Not only do sensory experiences within education offer therapeutic benefits for those engaging with them, they enrich the learning experience too. When we experience learning through all our senses more of our brain is engaged in the learning process, and with more of our grey matter stimulated we are more likely to take in what we are experiencing and transmit it to memory.

Think of the lessons you remember from school, I’ll bet they were the ones with the Bunsen burners, or the paint, or the music playing, they will be the ones that were the most multisensory, not the chalk and talk ones.



Another wonderful potential benefit of teaching in a sensory way is its inclusive nature. I have shared sensory stories with children with profound disabilities in a special school, I have also shared them with babies, with primary school children, with secondary school children in a mainstream school and even with university students doing film studies or studying the arts, and I’ve shared them with a fair few adults as well from the intellectually very capable to those with learning disabilities or dementia.

It has always been an enjoyable experience as I know with the story in my hands I am able to welcome anyone into the storytelling space and share it with them. As I spoke about in my TEDx talk I do not see inclusion as something we do for a particular subset of society, I see it as something everyone benefits from.

Sensory stories give me access to a more inclusive world.

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Hope Education writer

9 September 2020

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