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Sue Hardy reveals how arts and crafts can provide valuable tools for a wide range of learners with SEN

Maximising the learning potential of those with SEN should be at the heart of any lesson plan or wider curriculum. By offering the appropriate support, you can enable individuals to not only achieve their goals, but also increase their confidence, self-esteem and independence.

The benefits of arts and crafts

Arts and crafts projects are about more than simply creating something useful or beautiful; learners benefit in a variety of ways, some of which you may find surprising:

  • stimulation of social learning and communication skills in group projects
  • improvement of co-ordination and gross and fine motor skills
  • faster learning development through increased awareness of surroundings
  • improved use of perceptual skills and response to stimulation
  • increased awareness of different senses such as touch, sound, sight and smell.

Arts and crafts projects are a fantastic way to promote confidence and empower learners of all ages, with individuals gaining huge satisfaction from completing a task successfully. Couple this with the fact that creations provide a tangible testament to success, and you will quickly see the benefits provided by the wide range of activities encompassed by arts and crafts.

Hands on projects create opportunities for both individual and group achievement, and encourage a sense of accomplishment and increased self-esteem. And there is no reason why gaining confidence in one area might not positively affect confidence in a whole range of other spheres.

Pride of place

In any project of this nature, the aim should always be to make the learner’s experience as meaningful as possible. Arts and crafts provide the perfect opportunity to put creations on display, promoting pride from the learner in their achievement, as well as creating an attractive environment. This can include putting art work in a prominent place in the home, school or college, or even on public show through exhibitions. This creates opportunities for art makers to showcase their work and demonstrate to the outside world that, through creative practice, they can overcome their disability.

A learner explores a tactile piece of work.A learner explores a tactile piece of work.The adaptability of arts and crafts

Most projects are easily adaptable to individuals with a range of SEN, allowing activities to be tailored for success at all levels. More complex learners can achieve through sensory experience or the attainment of soft skills targets, while learners who demonstrate an aptitude in a particular area of practical skill can progress through external accreditation.

This flexibility also means activities can be inclusive, avoiding setting an individual with SEN apart from their peers, which might detract from their effort and achievement. There are many opportunities for people with a variety of needs to work together. For example, more complex learners could use mark making to create patterns on paper, and these could be used by more able learners to create intricate giant collages.

The following are examples of the adaptability of arts and crafts for different learners.

Visual impairment: the tactile aspect of craft means it is a valuable tool to use with those who have visual impairment. Felting or clay modelling are good projects to undertake, and different methods of painting are also suitable, especially various printing techniques and finger painting, as these involve direct contact with the paint. Stencils are also a fantastic tool to use, as they allow individuals to experience the picture they are creating through touch.

Limited physical dexterity: the wide range of crafts means there are lots of ways to engage people with limited physical dexterity. For example, by using rubber stamps to make patterns on paper, you can create the components of a giant collage. Alternatively, you can use glue to stick various objects to a large piece of card to create a striking three-dimensional piece.

Speech impairment: group arts and crafts projects encourage communication and teamwork, which is highly beneficial for people who have any speech difficulties. Activities like this allow exploration of different methods of communication. Try creating a large composition with many different component parts.

More complex needs: a multi-sensory approach for the more complex learner is essential. Felt making and pottery activities are particularly suitable, as they involve experiences such as smell and sound, as well as a variety of tactile elements.

Arts and crafts can greatly assist with improving concentration, dexterity and fine motor skills. These sorts of activities are well suited to learners with ADHD, as they find concentrating challenging and often have problems with fine motor skills. Individuals with dyslexia and related conditions also benefit from projects which improve motor skills, because these will eventually assist with their hand writing. Numerous crafts nurture skills in this area, including drawing, weaving, clay modelling, felting and using pastels.

The value of social enterprise

The creation of items on a larger scale provides the opportunity to engage in vocational activities. These meaningful projects and enterprises not only encourage development of skills, but they also enhance communication through creative expression. In addition to this, a great sense of pride in personal or group achievement is encouraged, which in turn promotes personal confidence in ability, which is hugely beneficial in encouraging independence and responsibility.

Learners can benefit from a wide range of social enterprise activities arising from arts and crafts projects, from selling gift cards, to providing local businesses with handmade paper, to making flower corsages out of felt. Most projects can benefit from a collaboration of skills. For example, more able learners could produce items such as badges, bookmarks, bags and cards from patterns created by those with more complex needs.

Points to remember

It is important to find a balance between offering assistance to learners and allowing individuals freedom and independence in the tasks they undertake. Anyone’s sense of achievement is greater if they have been allowed full rein in expressing themselves and producing their own work. However, it is very important to supply the correct level of assistance to match their needs; by neglecting to do so, you risk damaging their confidence and doing more harm than good.

Learners should be given the opportunity to experience and engage in a variety of arts and crafts activities, so don’t be afraid to experiment and explore when undertaking projects. In addition, a calm and relaxing atmosphere is important in developing concentration and attention span, which are necessary for an effective and fun learning experience. If you stick to all these golden rules, you will be pleased to see what a positive effect these sorts of undertakings can have.

Further information

Sue Hardy is from Henshaws College, whose students are visually impaired with additional physical disabilities and learning difficulties:
www.henshaws.org.uk

This article was first published in issue 47 (July/August 2010) of SEN Magazine.

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