Who are you? The Importance of Identity in Sensory Play

Our sense of self, or our identity plays a big part in our emotional wellbeing. Without it we would be left floating; unaware of our own beliefs and values with no confidence to speak up for what we believe in. Our self esteem, body image and confidence all feed into our identity, and who we believe we are. But how do we teach that? how can we nurture our children to develop a good sense of self?

Healthychildren.org have a great article detailing many areas we can work on to help develop our children’s sense of self including developing a sense of security, belonging, purpose, trust, responsibility, etc, etc. What I want to look at here however is how we can use sensory play and art in a fun way to help to open up those discussions with children about who they are, to ask children, even from a very early age – ‘Who Are You?’ and to help to develop their sense of self in a unique and interesting way.

During the Alice in Wonderland theme at the studios in Manchester I have been focusing on how play can help to develop a child’s emotional wellbeing by  offering more than child led play which is great for developing the areas discussed in the article above. I have been offering opportunities within that play to help children to discover themselves, find calming strategies and sensory input to regulate their emotions.

Alice in Wonderland

Chapter 5: Advice from a Caterpillar

‘Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I – I hardy know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)

In this chapter of Alice in Wonderland Alice meets the Caterpillar who asks her the question ‘Who Are You?’ Alice finds this question hard to answer due to the changes that she has experienced during the day from being small, to being big, to being small again. Although the changes Alice experiences in the story are nonsense changes which we would not experience; we are all faced with changes throughout our lives which make us question our identity. Alice is given a mushroom to help her to be in control of the changes she needs to make, this helps Alice to navigate her way through the rest of the story. Just like Alice we all need things to help us cope with the changes that we need to make throughout our lives and the hope is that through The Emotional Wellbeing Project I will be able to do this.

Obviously this explanation is probably too abstract for many of the young people that will be experiencing the sensory play but below are pictures of the activities that we have been enjoying at the studios relating to this chapter.

A big part of this has been the use of mirrors which is a great sensory tool for children of all ages to use to study their own faces, babies are interested by the person staring back at them and older children can still enjoy watching themselves and pulling funny faces. Click on the individual images for more information.

If you or your school would like to be involved in The Emotional Wellbeing Project please get in touch


Sensory Spaces and Child Led Play

How can sensory spaces and child led play can help to develop your childs emotional wellbeing?

The new theme at the studios is Alice in Wonderland. I have spent the weekend re-decorating the sensory space and getting everything ready so I thought this would make a great starting point for introducing the new Emotional Wellbeing Project whilst at the same time explaining the sensory space and what my vision is.

Sensory spaces are available in many soft play centres and sure start centres as well as special needs schools, but what are they for and how are you supposed to use them?

As a secondary teacher in an autism unit I often felt that the pressure was on the create lessons using the sensory room to have a fixed structure and outcome to the lessons. All of my training had told me I needed to have a safe and predictable structure to my lessons and a fixed outcome, that if this was not in place for the children with autism I was working with then it would cause anxiety and further problems within the school setting. As time went on and I developed the sensory room I came to realise that this not only went against the idea of a sensory room but also against my values of how children learn and how to best support young people to develop their social communication skills as well as their emotional wellbeing. We tend to spend years training children to follow instructions, not to deviate from the norm or be creative thinkers before sending them out into the big bad world to do just that.

Sensory rooms are supposed to be places which appeal to a persons senses, somewhere they can interact with things using the 5 main senses: hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste, depending on the type and purpose of the sensory room they can also offer a quiet space away from sensory overload and specific equipment and activities prescribed by an OT to help people with specific needs.

“Sensory Room” is an umbrella term used to categorize a broad variety of therapeutic spaces specifically designed and utilized to promote self-organization and positive change.

Sensory rooms have the ability to engage children in a different way of learning, to teach them through play, and by play I mean child led play, not structured ‘play’ which takes away all of the main benefits of play. It can teach a child how to think independently, how to share, communicate and express themselves, how to problem solve and even find ways to develop their own emotional wellbeing.

Sensory rooms should and can be used by all children, and even adults. i think everyone could benefit from ways to either stimulate or calm the senses. Most of us have found ways of doing this which we use every day: listening to loud music, chewing gum, or a big hug all have sensory purposes to help our central nervous system keep us calm.

Below I am going to share some of the images of the sensory space I have created along with the purposes behind each activity and how it can help a child. Click on the individual images for a little more detail.

The above pictures all show a part of the sensory space I have developed. When you click on the image it will give you a little more detail about how the certain activity can help. The overarching idea however is that the play is child led. That means that this might all happen, or it might not. The key to developing your childs emotional wellbeing using sensory play is that they find their own way. They discover that hiding under a blanket makes them feel calm, or that the light box makes them feel happy. We are merely offering the tools in which to help them discover their own way. One day, after all they will be the adults expected to do it all for themselves.

The Emotional Wellbeing Project

Sensory Art - Messy Play

How can Sensory Experiences, Messy Art and Creative Play help to develop your Childs emotional wellbeing?

Many parents, educators and others with a keen interest in child development will tell you how beneficial sensory play is for babies, how it can help your baby to experience the world around them in the only way they know how pre language. The smells, noises and lights help to develop their senses and that by grabbing onto things or putting something into something else they are developing their fine and gross motor skills.

Special needs teachers use a sensory curriculum for children who have difficulties in understanding the world around them, those with communication difficulties as well as sensory processing disorders and other learning difficulties will mostly learn through these types of sensory play. Just in the same way as babies and toddlers can; the smells, noises and lights help to develop their senses and that by grabbing onto things or putting something into something else they are developing their fine and gross motor skills.

What I want to explore is how this can be taken one step further and help to develop a child’s Emotional Wellbeing. I want to apply this to all children, babies, toddlers, children with special needs and typically developing children into their teens. Sensory play has its place in any home or class room to help your child to develop. It is not something that is ‘done’ once your child hits a certain age, it is something that can continue into adulthood.

What is Emotional Wellbeing?

When we think of our own emotional wellbeing it is often based around a series of events and feelings that have made us into the adults that we are today, some happy and some sad. It is the ability to cope with these events, your resilience and ability to bounce back that makes you into an emotionally healthy adult; for others this isn’t quite as simple.

So what about your child’s emotional wellbeing? How can you develop their resiliency? Their ability to regulate their own emotions and deal with things in an appropriate way? Tantrums at 2 are pretty normal; but how do you cope when they are still happening at 10!?How can you ensure that they will have that ability to cope when life throws the big stuff their way?

Emotional wellbeing is the ability to control their emotions and themselves, to feel in control of what is happening around them and to be able to communicate effectively. It is an ability to understand how others are feeling in order to change their behaviour to make others happier (and hopefully themselves!) and to understand anger, sadness and the many other emotions that they will experience. It is the ability to be able to say ‘I’m feeling angry and I need to do ______ to calm down’ It is being able to understand why they feel the way they do and what they can do to change this. It is the ability to calm themselves down to relieve anxiety, stress and frustrations.

What… so Sensory Experiences, Messy Art & Creative Play can help all of this to happen?

In a nutshell, yes.

Sensory experiences can be used to calm the central nervous system in the same way that some people chew gum or play with our hair when anxious.

Messy art and creative play are great forms of self expression, but can also be used to help to develop control over situations, make choices in a controlled manner, learn to communicate effectively and; in the same way as adult colouring books have become so popular, offer a mindfulness type way of relieving stress, anxiety and frustration.

Over the coming months I am going to be exploring how different sensory play and art activities can help in different situations. Each week I will focus on a different emotion, or activity and discuss in more detail how it can be used to help. I will include plans for use in schools as well as tried and tested approaches and activities from the studios in Manchester.

If you would like more information on The Emotional Wellbeing Project, the work I am doing at the studios or would like to follow this project please click the follow button on the right or get in touch