We're very pleased to be able to confirm that we've received a mini commission from Luton Culture to develop a new piece of multi-sensory storytelling as part of their new monthly sessions for families at Central Library.
This is a concept we have been seeking opportunities to develop for some time as it very much responds to needs identified both by early years and primary school staff working in the town, but also contributes towards wider agendas around ensuring children receive 'enough' movement and physical experience in early childhood. Movement builds brains. And, movement is vital for ensuring children have strong vestibular systems, sound proprioception, core and neck strength, and good eye tracking skills; all these elements enable children to be able to self-regulate, to read, write, concentrate, and be able to sit comfortably without fidgeting or slumping. There is a direct correlation between poor literacy skills and a lack of appropriate or sufficent movement in early childhood.
Through our love of Rhythmic Movement Therapy, as well as general fine and gross motor play, Dance Movement Therapy, and multi-sensory resources, we have a vast amount of skill, knowledge and curiosity to play with, and our chosen route for exploration is the concept of a 'hidden' river.
Luton's Central Library is built over the top of the river Lea, which rises near Marsh Farm and meanders its way down to London to join the Thames, and then to finally merge with the sea. Taking this concept of a river hidden beneath our feet, we aim to use a variety of movement opportunities and sensory experiences to bring the river and its inhabitants to life.
While we will be entertaining children with tales of the riverbank and the ancient Celtic history of Luton's earliest communities, we will also be modelling for grown-ups a range of movement strategies and play experiences that support regulation, encourage and enhance crawling, work with balance and core strength, and that also build connection and communication.
We're really looking forward to offering a taster session to work with the concept and, hopefully, if successful, we can then look at developing this into a new touring piece for 2019.
Due to popular demand, here are some new Day Planner sheets for you to download and use, plus the ones linked to our productions Little Meerkat's Big Panic (African animal themed) and Crabby (sea themed).
Please note: these are not gender-specific or prescribed - anyone can enjoy any sheet they like! These design themes have been requested by children and/or their grown-ups. If there's a specific theme you would like, then don't hesitate to drop me a line and I will do my best to create it!
As always, files are available a jpegs for you to copy and paste, or as Pdf files.
Inclusive and accessible theatre for children has a long way to go...Part One: Equating high spend with high quality
,As any early years practitioner or parent/carer will know, when you build something yourself from the very little you have, you make sure it's the best it can possibly be because it has to stand up to rigorous use by little hands, mouths and bodies, and because you can't afford to replace it! We use low cost/no cost and recycled materials to inspire the settings and families we work with. We show what high quality and robust resources we can create from materials our audiences may already have at their disposal in the hope that they will go away and make their own, and they do! For example, we created our egret puppets for 'Little Meerkat's Big Panic' with less than £2-worth of bin bags, wire and sticky tape; these have been handled by over 2000 children to date and are still going strong! They have been built with children in mind and can cope with rough handling, though we always offer a learning opportunity about 'gentle hands' and social skills i.e. being careful with other people's property, letting go when asked, being led in play with items that are unfamiliar or 'special', and so on. Settings have gone on to make their own birds...but also butterflies, caves, lizards, and more! This is an affordable creative activity with a high-impact visual and tactile outcome that has robustness and play potential built in.
Is that low quality?
So, this low cost/ no cost approach is an artistic value for us, but it also supports our sustainability and enables us to keep our work as not-for-profit, which means we can continue to offer settings with very little spare budget affordable high-impact performance experiences, and opportunities for extension work afterwards too.
Is that low quality? If so, for who?
In addition, when we recycle things, often we end up with very high quality materials for free. We couldn't afford to buy them new, but by asking for donations we end up with exceptional materials that, if money was no object, we would have loved to have commissioned for ourselves.
Recently, for example, high street retailer Next had big sequin panels in their window displays for Christmas; these sequin panels fluttered in the breeze creating a beautiful visual effect, as well as a lovely rustling noise. Each of these sequin tiles costs approximately £10 new. I asked my local branch of Next if I could have some of the tiles when their window display was dismantled and they agreed. So, just after Christmas, I was invited to the store by the manager and he had put aside 80 sequin tiles - enough to cover two stage flats, plus spares for repair - for me! So, £800 of tiles for nothing. They're good as new.
Is that low quality? If so for who? Is this not high-value 'Support in Kind' for my company and our audience? Would this not score well on an ACE funding application?
Just to add, the Next store in question told me they have previously donated window display items to local preschools and nurseries who've asked them for them; for example, their summer display using hundreds of artificial flowers went to a local nursery in a disadvantaged area to enable them to create a 'Secret Garden' outdoor role play area. Is that low quality for that setting?
Even with the most expensive set in the world, there is no guarantee that what takes place in and around it is any good theatrically, or in terms of accessibility and relevance for children. The only 'good' is perhaps that an expensive set is impressive, and may look better in production shots and PR exercises. Early years children and those with complex needs don't look for the financial investment in a production's visual images; they most usually find magic, curiosity, and stimulation through the least expensive, least technologically advanced, and least obvious things. But, to see what the priorities are for children regarding the visual aspects of a production, you need to see the world through their eyes, understand their developmental stage, and be sensitive to their needs.
Joanna Grace, leading academic and activist in sensory approaches for people who have profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), presents an activity in her training sessions where participants are invited to create high-impact sensory resources from a single piece of plain white paper. And they do! Joanna has so many wonderful 'Mannequin Challenge' style videos on her social media feeds showcasing practitioners' responses to this exercise: see www.twitter.com/jo3grace, search Joanna Grace on Facebook or www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk/
Imagination from the practitioner is the only limit, and the only true assessment of quality can come from the effect the resource has for the person it is being shared with. An expensive and clever set is something that is only truly an essential quality mark for some grown-ups, and you do have to wonder what the agenda is because, if it truly was about ensuring quality for children, the amount of money spent on the design and build would come very, very low down the long list of things that do ensure high quality theatrical experiences for the target audience.
So, who owns this low quality? Do commissioners feel they are advocating for the children in their audiences by equating high spend on resources with high quality? Are they advocating for the grown-ups who buy tickets for these experiences and want to see how high ticket prices are justified?
It is very unclear, though it's probably something to do with the conflation of cost with value: my sets may cost less than £500, but the value they yield for children is priceless, and I need no more and no less than I have to be able to tell stories effectively. A £4,000 set may cost more, but does it yield higher value for audiences? Does the audience feel 'more' has been put into a production, and therefore it will be better, if funding (from the public purse) has been lavished in the creation of an experience? Is there a real artistic and 'quality' difference between the vintage step ladder I use in my set that's been in my family since I was a child, and the one bought for £300 from a reclamation yard?
I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts....
In Part Two, I will look at the tension between creating theatre for art's sake, and creating theatre that's truly accessible, relevant and inclusive for children. Quality is also being linked by commissioners with commitment to conventional artistic processes and the employment of traditionally trained performers; I will explore what this means for early years children and those with complex needs, and why there's another way.
When I heard I’d been granted a couple of writing days at People United's Beach Hut 136 I was so relieved! I had been on a mission to write my next piece of multi-sensory theatre for some time and had been struggling to make space in my head, or in my schedule, to get my ideas down in an intelligible format. A weekend of writing at Herne Bay – considering the story is set at a traditional Kentish seaside town – was utterly perfect! Space, time and plenty of inspiration!
Crabby arose from a year touring with Little Meerkat’s Big Panic. This show for early years children and those with complex needs, is an adaptation of trauma and parenting expert Jane Evans’ storybook of the same name. The show explores very neatly - using multi-sensory elements, original songs, and signing - the neuroscience of calm and anxiety for very young children. We always offer a sensory play session after performances to embed the information, and to show grown-ups and children alike how low cost/no cost resources can be used to help them feel calmer and more connected. During these workshops we continually heard from children, parents, carers and professionals: Could you do something about anger? And Crabby will be the result.
As it was the end of summer, and my four-year-old twins would soon be starting school, the opportunity to bring my family with me on this adventure to make some memories was very appealing. So, we decided to camp nearby with the idea being that, while I worked in the hut, the children would have two uninterrupted days on the beach doing whatever two small boys like to do on a beach - and they've always loved the beach.
We had always been aware that one of our twins struggled with anxiety, and it’s partly because of him that I decided to adapt Jane’s book: to create for him the kind of aesthetic and learning experience he would most love and need to not only begin to understand theatre, but to understand himself better too. So much of my current theatre writing and practice has developed out of my parenting, especially around meeting my children’s complex emotional needs. Therefore, while we expected him to feel and show his anxiety whilst on this seaside adventure we were not prepared for quite how extreme things would become.
Writing, as a parent of young children has, since their birth, usually been a solitary and late at night thing. While my children knew I wrote, they did not often see me do it; though we talk about my work a lot and they have had a considerable amount of input into Crabby. Imagine then, my anxious child’s experience of seeing Mummy writing and, more than this, despite having a whole seaside of experience before him, and another parent devoted entirely to giving him a wonderful few days of play, he really, really could not get his head round what I was doing.
Every few minutes he would appear and bring me some new treasure from the shingle. He came and lay on top of me and asked for hugs, he asked endless questions about nothing much, he hid my pens, he lay on the floor with his eyes glazed over and refused to play, he could not bear to be away from me or to let me do any work: everything was just too much. Now, it may be very easy to say that he was being naughty, but when you work with anxious children and you understand how anxiety works then his behaviour becomes much more understandable: attention-seeking children are looking for attachment. They need it. Not because they’re being naughty or manipulative, but because they feel disconnected and dysregulated and insecure. For my son, these feelings were so big that even playing on a beach – and he LOVES the beach – wasn’t enough to distract him; my other son, by comparison, was utterly immersed.
Looking at my son’s furrowed brow and twitchy body language against the sea and the sky I suddenly understood something: we had become so good at managing our son’s anxiety in the course of our daily routine at home that we had become complacent and hadn’t realised quite how big a reaction he would have to our trip to Herne Bay and, more than this, because we were so skilful at managing him we had missed out on some rather important red flags. At Hut 136, whilst trying to write about an angry little crab, I recognised for the first time that our son probably has Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism.
At that point, I put the pen down and decided that the writing would have to wait because this little, complicated, very anxious and unhappy little boy needed something different. It was then he picked up my camera.
He went for a walk through the lens.
The camera became his eye and shield against the beach, and he snapped a series of beautiful pictures with real care, control and precision; an anxious child’s eye view of the beach and the things around him he felt demanded his attention. These are his pictures.
Coincidentally, we’d arrived in Herne Bay during carnival weekend. On the Saturday we watched the parade (from a bank in a garden beside the sea front where we could get away from some of the hustle and noise), and then on Sunday it was the beach hut owners association’s day and many of the huts were proudly and imaginatively decorated…if only we’d known!
Thankfully, I had brought down a few props and bits and pieces to photograph whilst at Hut 136, so we worked together to set up a modest amount of decoration. We also worked with our children on a pebble art impression of Crabby, copying the image that will be used on the show’s posters.
As someone who’s worked in community development and the arts for many years, I was really struck by how Herne Bay came alive for the carnival – I haven’t ever seen such a vibrant, big, and well-supported community carnival parade before! The beach hut day was similarly wonderful and, when my son would allow me, I was able to have some really good conversations with passing beachcombers, walkers, families about Herne Bay. This is a community with a right to be exceptionally proud of its ability to put on public events.
As we left Kent, I may not have had all the notes I wanted, but I did have a memory card full of great pictures taken by my son, a clearer idea of what the production will be cover, and a very new understanding of my son’s perceptions of the world and his needs. I did not expect these outcomes - usually I am so focused because having two small children and a limited amount of time necessitates it – but I am exceptionally grateful to People United and Hut 136 for helping me to see my family much more clearly, albeit in such an unexpected way.
We met John from Creative Steps magazine at Childcare Expo in Coventry earlier this year, and he wonderfully invited us to contribute an article after he saw us perform 'Little Meerkat's Big Panic'.
The article has now been published, and we're really pleased with it!
This is a fantastic magazine for early years and primary professionals, plus parents and carers. It's so affordable, and the activities are high quality and very easy to replicate. Definitely one to subscribe to.
For more information see www.creativesteps.co.uk
With parcels going as far afield as Malta, this year's first batch of Advent Sensory Calendars seem to be going down really well - what's particularly lovely is receiving unsolicited messages and emails from recipients sharing their delight at each parcel, and the ways that they've used each item.
We're now 7 days in, and here's what people have discovered so far...
A gingerbread house kit
A foil survival blanket
An angel feather
Snow-dusted fir cones
Sweet orange oil
Raw sheeps wool
Tracking down some of the items when we designed the boxes was a lot of fun! The sheeps wool, for example, came from a rare breed farmer in the Brecon Beacons; she sheered some fleece especially for us! Children have been feeling and smelling it, washing it, and some have made it into models; we also suggested that the wool is put out in the garden in spring for birds to take as nesting materials.
Each box contains 24 individually wrapped parcels, and for each parcel there's a corresponding envelope full of information about what each item is, why it's there, and suggestions for what to do with it. The box is also packed with sweet hay, for smell, feel, and cushioning; it can also be used to turn the box into a manger to role play the Nativity, or put out on Christmas Eve for any passing reindeer to nibble on!
Thanks to generous donations from B&M Homestores in Northampton, we were able to donate two boxes to schools in the town; both are being used in nurture groups with children who particularly struggle with the sensory overwhelm and stress of the Christmas build-up.
Pop back next week for more updates...
It happened yesterday, one of those parenting moments you completely dread: the news that your child has punched another.
It fills you with so many complex emotions and feelings from anxiety, to confirmation of that nagging doubt that you're actually completely failing in your role, to concern for the other child and their parents, to ten years in the future and visions of your angelic blonde-haired little dude smashing up the local bus shelter, taking drugs, and generally behaving like a thug. Your thoughts leap around but really that's your grown-up baggage clattering to the floor, all those What Ifs. However, what you need to be able to take action are the facts.
Usually, if something has happened during the school day one of the staff will speak with parents/carers at home time, however yesterday there was no such conversation and it wasn't until we had nearly walked all the way home that one of my twins disclosed what the other had done. By that time, it was too late to speak with the school to find out what had happened. No facts to be found there, then.
There was no note in the book bag either. And, when the boys had first barrelled out of the classroom, and all through the first part of our walk home, they were brimming with the good things of the day: both seemed happy and tired and full of the letters they had learned.
So hearing a concerning tale is something of a dilemma because the report of a newly 5 year old kid isn't exactly reliable, and there's no immediate opportunity to speak to the school. What to do?
I sat down with the boys on a bench, and keeping my voice as curious as possible - no shade of disapproval or anger - asked my son what had happened. He explained that another child had hit him, so he hit him back. I asked how this had come to a grown-up's attention and he explained that a teacher had seen him hit the boy; I asked if the grown-up had seen the other kid hit him, and he said no. That sounded reasonable, but it's not necessarily fact: my son sometimes struggles to tell the difference between an accident and an intended act of aggression, so how could I be sure that the other child had hit him on purpose? The only fact before me was that my son looked very worried, filled with shame, and was really struggling with the school's sanction, which was reported by him as being the loss of his treasured play time the next day.
I went over - as I have done a million times as my two sons do fight a lot when tired and dysregulated - that it's not okay to hit other people for any reason. We talked about what my son could do to put things right with the other child using his skills, and he decided he would draw the child a picture as an apology; my son often uses drawing as a tool for calm - the repetitive movement of pencil across paper, coupled with the use of areas of the brain above those responsible for flight/fight/freeze, is very helpful to him. We also agreed that he would not be able to use his games console for his usual one-hour after school session.
Clearly something had happened, and I did not doubt that my son had hit someone, so there would need to be a consequence at home not as a 'punishment' exactly - I did not know the facts, and if my son had been hit first then he had a right to feel aggrieved - but because I felt the numbing that games consoles cause, coupled with his already intense emotions, would likely result in all his frustration and patience being directed into his play...which would mean his brother would end up being thumped and kicked, and his brain being unable to think or coordinate his body sufficiently to play the games thus resulting in a complete meltdown. Instead, we had milk and biscuits at the table, watched a documentary, and had lots of cuddles.
This morning, he was fine getting ready for school, fine on our walk to school, but once the gate opened to his classroom his brain flooded and his freeze response kicked in: he couldn't walk, couldn't hold his bags, couldn't lift his head. Now the children have been at school for a term, parents/carers aren't supposed to come into the classroom anymore to help their kids to settle, but my son wasn't going to go in without my support, so I led him in.
As I spoke to the teaching assistant, my son skirted the room keeping his eyes on me at all times and his back to the wall as he stowed his lunchbox, coat, and book bag away; clearly he was very frightened. I asked about what had happened - the details of which aren't important, but there was an altercation and the other child is not blameless, and that's being dealt with today. Then, the TA said: I don't know what got into them all yesterday, all the children were as high as kites and we had lots of issues.
It was then that I knew exactly what had happened.
Yesterday at school, the children received their flu nasal sprays and, as a result, had missed PE. A serious and unusual disruption to routine had occurred, not to mention the loss of an outlet for releasing lots of energy, and the opportunity for movement to calm immature brains, and none of the adults in the school had anticipated that there would likely be a consequence for this.
Children's behaviour is communication, and usually it communicates what stage of development their brains are at, and how anxious or dysregulated they are. The fact that ALL the children were behaving out of character shows how young their brains are, not that it should have needed showing: these children are 4 or 5 years old, and changes to routine - and especially the new experience of receiving a medical intervention for the first time without the presence of a parent/carer - must have been very worrying for some and, even for those who seemed to be taking it in their stride, the new and different experience and break in routine inevitably disrupts feelings of security, ability to anticipate, separation anxiety, and so on. Those who were 'high as kites' may have felt and looked elated, but they're still nervous systems out of balance: it is unusual behaviour for most of the children, and it has a very traceable cause.
My son has considerable difficulties processing experiences, especially emotional or social ones. When he is dysregulated he will either go into fight or freeze mode. He has recently had surgery and contracted very bad chicken pox at the same time. This has left him with nightmares, and he also now panics at anything medical: plasters, Calpol, cold compresses for bumps, having his temperature taken, etc. School have been made aware of this. For him, having his flu spray must have been really tough. I'm sure peer pressure got him through, but the adrenaline and triggers to his limbic system - his emotional memories, and where traumas are stored - must have been huge...and then, no PE to let it all out safely! That doesn't leave a very young child with an immature and easily overwhelmed brain with many resources to cope.
It is therefore no wonder that in the unstructured space of playtime, when so many other children were similarly dysregulated, that one child's fight reflex met or triggered my son's fight reflex.
Now, before you think this is about letting my son off the hook for his behaviour, I can categorically state that it isn't: it's never okay to hurt anyone, no matter how bad you feel. This is about understanding truly what happened: it wasn't just kids being aggressive and hurting each other, it was kids really struggling to calm their brains, and a lack of adult planning to help them cope with their day. The children's uncharacteristic behaviour was a massive Red Flag about brains in need, but no adult anticipated this very predictable outcome could happen, and no one spotted it when it did actually happen either: the kids are to blame, they have been naughty.
Well, sort of: they have hurt each other and that needs dealing with, but actually it's grown-up's gaps in teaching knowledge and common sense that toppled the first domino long before the hitting incident occured - when you have a known break in routine coming up, how do you plan to teach children strategies to cope with it alongside putting in place your own management measures to support children through a disruption? How do you help, support, and encourage children to manage their personal risks? This is an opportunity to rehearse some key life skills!
A trauma and neuroscience informed staff team would have anticipated that the children might find the unusual day hard, and would have planned ahead - especially for those like my son who really struggle with change and processing - to ensure that there were quiet and/or sensory activities available during playtime, extra supervision and support on the playground, adults who were able to facilitate and run group games in the playground to engage children and help them regulate, and to at least check in and support those children who would be most likely to struggle. Had my son had a calming experience after his flu spray - not necessarily on a one-to-one basis but in a small group, even reading a storybook together would have helped - 20 minutes to chalk pictures on the playground tarmac, or the thrill of playing a big group game, he would not have hit another child, even if they had hit him first.
I am not surprised the incident has happened: it was predictable, if not inevitable. I feel very sad for both children that their needs weren't met and, as a result, both were hurt. That sucks. And while both will have to take their lumps - my son will only lose 5 minutes of play time today, not the whole thing - some responsibility also lies with their teachers and support staff.
As for my son, when I had finished speaking with the TA, he was sitting on the carpet with the other children getting ready to begin his day, and his shoulders were hunched up, his head hung down, and there were tears in his eyes. I explained to the TA that he was struggling to cope with the enormity of what had happened to him emotionally and socially - this is a big drama in the little world of a young child - and she said she would spend some time with him this morning rebuilding the bridges to help him cope with his anxious feelings, to repair the relationship with staff, and to make sure things were okay between him and the other child too. The other child will also be spoken with today about his behaviour.
We shall see what the day brings, but it was very hard leaving him there knowing how dreadful he feels. I hope his brain calms as he settles back into familiar routine - and I'm sending him every loving and calming thought I can muster - but until I get to the school gates this afternoon I won't know, I have to just trust. What I do know is that if the grown-ups at school can't help him regulate today that he may lash out again, or he'll save it for when he gets home and we'll have the meltdown here.
I'm planning ahead: a bath with lavender, candles, and lots of mouldable foam as soon as he gets in the door. A cup of tea. Cuddles. And then, when he's regulated, we will talk it all through. And then we start over again tomorrow.
The Day Planner sheets I have to accompany some of my shows are always very popular, so I've made some updated seasonal versions in time for Christmas.
So much of the anxiety and stress of Christmas can be reduced if you plan well in advance with your children so they know what's happening, when, who with, why, and what the expectations will be - I'll write more about this in some future blog posts.
But, in the meantime, here are the seasonal Day Planners: one for Christmas Eve, and two different designs for Christmas Day (They're here both as graphics and as downloadable Pdfs).
Making theatre more accessible for anxious children and their families through Explore & Experience events
thAt present, I work one day per week for The Place theatre in Bedford providing support and consultancy around marketing and PR; as well as driving sales, this role is also about developing audiences too.
With the Christmas season fast approaching, and with The Place programming so much good children's content during December, it's a great time to look at how I can use my specialist skills to widen access and participation in live theatre for children with anxiety and/or complex needs; many of the productions are providing Relaxed Performances too.
The Place has always offered familiarisation visits for families, however these are by appointment so families need to ring up and arrange a personalised visit. There hasn't been much uptake of this offer, so to ensure this is because there's genuinely no need for it rather than it being that families don't want to trouble the theatre, or feel that a personalised visit might be too intense, I've begun organising an Explore and Experience morning instead.
On November 18th, the theatre will be opened up to families to come and have a look round the public areas of the venue - the auditorium, bathrooms, foyer, etc; and then to stay for a FREE winter-themed sensory music and play session. While the event is specifically targeted at children with anxiety, ASD, or complex needs, it's open to all; there's no obligation for participants to buy tickets to see a show afterwards either, it can be a visit just for curiosity and fun.
Very much looking forward to designing the content of the event: I will be providing a social story about the theatre for participants to take away, and working on creating a sensory guide to the theatre for future use as well.
Although free, the event is ticketed: www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/explore-experience-the-place-tickets-39298477805
I've had a lovely time over the past few nights cutting out shapes from 'novelty' tea towels and turning them into a sensory star...yes, really!
Milton Keynes celebrated its 50th birthday this year, and the MK50 rolling festival has resulted in a number of events and activities of every scale in the city to celebrate the diversity, history, and culture of Milton Keynes. As it's our nearest city, and as I've worked in the community there for over 15 years now, being part of MK50 is only right and proper.
One of the recent MK50 opportunities for participation was a Tea Towel Challenge. Upon application, you receive 3 free MK50 branded tea towels featuring beautiful illustrations of some of the city's most famous landmarks, and have a few weeks to turn them into a 3D object of your choice. Photos of the objects will then form part of an exhibition.
Of course, my object had to be multi-sensory! So, I've created a weighted, scented and tactile star suitable for age 7+ (due to the buttons used); see the pictures for more detail on what it contains and why.
Can't wait to see what everyone else has created: really hoping to see some fashion items as the fabric print would work so well for a Mod-style skirt...sadly, seamstressing is beyond my skills so I'm hoping someone else has brought that idea to reality!