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How multi-sensory arts-based workshops can reach out to children with PMLD

It can be very moving to witness a child with severe learning difficulties stretching out and grasping something spontaneously for the very first time, or being so excited and determined to communicate that they press the correct animal image on a talker after seeing a cow in a painting. Yet these are kind of rewards that are part and parcel of conducting arts-based education sessions for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD). Such sessions deliver countless unexpected outcomes that benefit not only the child, but also their carers, teachers and family too.

At the National Gallery, we have worked with PMLD practitioners to develop a programme called Sense It!, which takes a painting in the collection and uses it as the focus for multi-sensory sessions in the Gallery. This article will share some of the key things we have learnt from our experiences, as well as looking at the practicalities of using the arts to engage those with PMLD.

Why the arts?

Access to the arts for those with PMLD is often far from straightforward, but the opportunities for these children to benefit from visual, sound and touch stimuli are many. Art has the ability to provoke both an emotional and an intellectual response in us. Artworks can trigger a range of feelings and inspire us to investigate what we are seeing or hearing.

For children with PMLD taking part in an off-site arts-based activity, a visit to the Gallery goes beyond the paintings and encompasses the impact of new physical surroundings. Things that we might not notice, such as echoes in different rooms, are very exciting for some and can prompt exceptional responses. New experiences, such as looking at a striking painting, listening to a soundscape or making paint, invite these children to respond directly to what they are seeing, hearing, smelling or doing. The experience facilitates new ways to communicate and can help the children to better understand the world around them.

Arts-based activities are able to satisfy a number of the children’s physical and communications needs, according to the abilities of those taking part. In our programme, each activity is chosen on the basis that the art-process is as inclusive as possible and that it encompasses as many of the children’s needs as is feasible. Activities can switch to touching and listening experiences to include those who are blind or partially, sighted while providing strong visual images for those whose hearing may be impaired. Such activities can also provide new material and inspiration for imaginative sessions for both teachers and their pupils.

Visual stimuli offer powerful ways of reaching children.Getting to know you

In any class, every child is different. However, delivering a session to a group of children with PMLD presents an additional challenge, as each child may have very different physical and mental abilities which in turn require specific methods of support and communication. The more time that those providing the session and those attending can spend together before a specific session the better the outcome of the session will be. It is vital that the session provider has met the children, learnt their names, and knows what they can do and what they enjoy. Communication with carers and teachers enables facilitators to understand the children’s abilities, what makes them smile and what to avoid.

At the Gallery, we organised twilight visits enabling teachers and carers to come to the space before the session and ask questions about art, the facilities and the session’s aims. Gaining this insight helped them to see how they could contribute and work in partnership with the Gallery’s educator.

The twilight visits were also an opportunity for all involved to understand and prepare for the significant and specialist practical needs that must be met as part of a visit by such a group to a public space, including facilities for food preparation and personal care needs.

Multi-sensory fun

Fundamental to using creative arts to communicate with children with PMLD is the opportunity to develop a set of arts-related experiences that incorporate a range of senses. Visual stimuli, temperature, touch and smell are all powerful ways to reach children who face a complex set of communication challenges. The integration of colour and texture can produce highly successful ways to learn and have fun, where other more conventional methods might fail. This might take the form of children running their hands over a cool, smooth surface such as a marble column, or feeling the softness of a feather. It might involve listening to a recording of the rustling sound of leaves or experiencing the physical pounding action and sound of grinding charcoal in a pestle and mortar.

The use of essential oils such as cedar to evoke wood is effective but must be carefully managed, as not all children respond well to them. It is important not to overwhelm the visitors and to allow them time to recognise and appreciate what might seem to be small gestures and reactions to an evocative soundscape recording of birdsong, wind and rain or buzzing bees.

In our case, a painting provides obvious inspiration for a set of experiences related to the picture. It also provides a static object with which we can all become familiar and connect through a set of relevant multi-sensory experiences.

Feedback, flexibility and adjustments

Workshops can provide the inspiration for art-based sessions in school.When a session comes to a close, it may be the unexpected aspects of the day that we take away and remember. This is often the case for teachers and carers and for the children who participate. For some, the visit and the activity will be an almost overwhelming achievement.

Parents tell us that they gain more confidence to take their children out and about as a result of a successful visit. Teachers tell us that they come away inspired to recreate multi-sensory learning activities when they return to their school. The sessions have sparked ideas on how a new soundscape might bring to life a book a group is reading at school, and have provided the inspiration for a messy painting session.

During an offsite arts session, children and teachers alike are often outside their comfort zone and all concerned need to be mindful of this. Flexibility is crucial and it is important to be able to adapt according to the children’s responses. Not everything will go to plan and unpredictable things will happen. However, it is perhaps this very element of unpredictability that can produce some of the most rewarding aspects of any art-based session.

Further information

Ali Mawle is Head of Schools at the National Gallery in London, with responsibility for the on-site, outreach and on-line programme for primary and secondary pupils and their teachers, SEN schools and units and PMLD pupils and their staff:
www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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