Residency: InfuseDANCE at Ellesmere

By Esther Anderson – Co Artistic Director infuseDANCE

Photo Credit: Mark Anderson InfuseDANCE

Freedom to explore, freedom to express to yourself, freedom to respond to new things in a carefree and genuine way are human experiences that we hope will be readily accessible in our children’s lives and educational settings. But these opportunities are sadly becoming less and less frequent and accessible due to an education system that favours traditional academic learning of facts and information. The arts that provide these nourishing experiences are seeing dramatic funding cuts especially after the pandemic, and there’s immense pressure on schools to provides ‘results from tests’ as a way of ‘catching up’ from the pandemic.

That’s why we were overjoyed to see that schools like Ellesmere College in Leicester are still battling their way through the current climate to provide arts opportunities for their children and young people. In collaboration with Attenborough Art Centre’s SENsory Atelier Programme they invited us, infuseDANCE, to work in a Reggio Emilia approach with their pupils and staff (EYFS to KS2) over a 5 week period.

Photo credit: Mark Anderson InfuseDANCE

So how important are these projects?

Well, from our point of view as artists and also parents ourselves they are immensely valuable and an essential part of learning and well being. We saw moments of genuine learning where children discovered something for themselves through exploration using trial and error. Beautiful hand and foot dances, choreographed in the moment as they responded to a torch light casting their shadow upon a wall. A sensory explosion of bubble wrap and brown paper pathways, to jump on, roll down and pull up. Light painting and scarves that could be thrown, twisted and hidden under, balanced on a body part or just experienced for the texture and colour.

Each week the children arrived into our space, that had multiple offerings/provocations already set with gentle, instrumental music playing in the background. Their part in this was to explore and use the space around them as they wanted to. The adults in the space held back for the first few minutes so there was no intervention. We always liken this to the atmosphere of pre show; the audience coming into the auditorium and there’s a sense of anticipation of what’s to come.

Photo Credit: Mark Anderson InfuseDANCE

The space had been set in a way that invited the children to move, touch and respond….and instantly the children’s curiosity was peaked. The taped pathways on the floor and walls  offered  motivation to travel, jump and roll;  they had to share and negotiate this space with their fellow classmates and in doing so trust and listen to each other’s responses. The children were handed the reins to make choices for themselves as to how they were going to respond physically to the environment and each other…. and yes, they could do this well, superbly well and they made creative choices that were beautiful, unique and free of mistakes.  Eventually the adults in the room would also join in but not as leaders – as supporters who could ‘scaffold’ the great ideas that were already happening and gently invite further investigation. 

Some adults were understandably nervous to let go of the heavily engrained ‘adults know best’ approach, whilst some instantly tapped into their ‘inner child’ and got down on the floor and allowed themselves to play and explore alongside and with their pupils. This gave the children permission to let go and be free and it was wonderful to watch and absorb.

We need more of this – this is what I want for them…and I sadly can’t give them this in the classroom”

Teacher, Ellesmere College

By the end of the project every child relished the freedom to self direct and explore. For the adults there was an awareness of how valuable the children’s ideas, creativity and unique individual responses were – no matter how small.

“Look at her fine motor skills”

“Wow, I’ve never seen him reach for anything”


As adults we may think we know it all but the joy of this kind of learning is that there’s no one answer. The benefits of this open ended result where everything can be anything is endless, the possibilities are vast. What’s even more important to observe are happy, engaged and active learners.

Moments of magic

Residency: Pasha Kincaid at Ash Field Academy

By Pasha Kincaid

Photo Credit: Bob Christer, AAC

A visual arts-based residency with Ash Field Academy led by Pasha Kincaid with assistance from Jasmine Kelly-Gobuiwang, for the Attenborough Arts SENSory Atelier programme.

I am a multi-disciplinary artist and art educator/activist. Within my practice I explore identity through autoethnography. This informs my facilitative practice in terms of valuing people for their unique experiences as well as prioritising agency in the work I do.

For this eighteen-day residency delivered over nine weeks, I was joined by Jasmine Kelly-Gobuiwang, a third year Fine Art student seeking to develop her practice and gain experience as an artist educator. Working together in planning, delivery and evaluating proved to be a dynamic and fruitful  process.

Our residency at Ash Field Academy began with an in-depth consultation with the class teacher to find out about the young people we were to work with. There was an incredible range of needs and abilities – some would communicate by eye gazing, others through speaking, some with Makaton, many were wheelchair users and some required hand-over-hand support at times. The teacher told us a lot about their likes and tendencies towards specific activities. This was followed by the chance to meet the young people and get to know how they prefer to communicate, and what they love to do.

To give scope for as much agency and independence as possible, we decided that we didn’t want to dictate the medium we would use but to offer a menu of choices tailored to what participants were naturally drawn too.

For one young person it was having cloth-like materials floating above him and falling over him, for another it was all about things that turn around, windmills, clocks and washing machines, for another it was the colours pink and purple and the element of control, organising things into a visually neat order.

We chose to respond to these modes of interaction through art by curating a range of activities that would extend these sensory experiences in different ways. We then themed each day, for example one day responded to sunshine with a walk collecting natural materials for cyanotypes, drawing around our shadows and catching light with metallic ribbons on streamers. A lot of planning and resourcing went into each day meaning we were prepared for a range of sensory needs and multiple responses.

For the person that loved cloth tumbling around him we brought in what can only be called a disco curtain! A curtain made of reflective strips of foil. He appeared to love it and played extensively with it for half an hour.

In response to this we suggested den building and most of the participants loved the idea. We took it to another level, introducing lots of sensory material and playing with scale.

With staff and participants, we transformed their ordinary classroom into a new and extraordinary world. We set up canopies of cloths some 4 x 3 metres, and pegged netting, streamers, bunting and disco curtains to it. We added LED lights – push button ones, cubes that changed colour as you turned them and LED light rings on fingers. This one young person was known for staying in a corner of the room and doing his own quite isolated activities but loving cloth and things being above him on a one-to-one basis. Once the den was constructed with free floating cloths all around, he suddenly ventured out into the room and joined his peers in a way that he wouldn’t normally do. It was as if we had extended his perimeters and upscaled his world. In week six, we built a new den and we provided handheld fans and one large fan as it was 30 degrees. He came into the centre of the room and very clearly demanded a handheld fan in a way that he seldom does.

In turn, each child found their own response to the new environment. Some helped construct it with pegs and streamers. There was a golden moment when one person responded to the hanging curtain of foil strips by literally trimming it with a ruler and scissors two inches at a time – much to our amazement – two hours were spent cutting piece by piece – whilst another person who has a sight impairment used a torch to shine on to the sparkly cloths, the streamers blown by the large fan and to make shadows with his hands.

One young person who is non-verbal and, in a power chair, enjoyed being under the blue net curtain and trying on sunglasses with different colour lenses and interacting with the LED lights. He enjoyed experiencing the environment through different coloured lenses.

photo Credit: Ash Field Academy

The Reggio method suggests that the environment or classroom becomes the ‘third teacher’ – this transformation of the classroom embodied that theory – giving opportunity for multiple and simultaneous entry points. The den we had mutually created, enabled the participants to discover and investigate their own interests, theories and ideas in an inspiring and safe environment.

Another day was themed around giant outdoor mark making. Partly inspired by a participant who loved painting and has some impressive wheelchair skills, we offered printmaking with wheelchair tyres. Pooling paint on tarpaulins the young people were invited to drive through it and print on long roles of paper. Chaos ensued! There were those who immediately took to the activity with glee and confidence, others who steadily, carefully steered their chairs through the paint and those without chairs used mops and brooms, plungers, and car tyres to engage in this new large-scale approach to mark making.  It again proved a theory that when we aligned the activity to one person’s main joy and skill – this in turn gave others the chance to reach into each other’s worlds. For example, the young person that usually veers towards controlled and detailed work, was challenged to make larger, messy, less controllable marks from their wheelchair with brooms dipped in paint. Coincidentally, a staff member shared with us that one of this person’s learning targets was to use more extended arm movements so for that, it was perfect too.

But it was the wheelchair users that really came into the foreground, being able to demonstrate and extend their skills. In this context they had the superpower!

 In another activity where watercolours were provided this young person was able to thrive in her place of detail and control – and a love of pink and purple whereas another took license to get messy, to drip and drizzle paint through funnels, squeeze it out of sponges and even drag the pallet upside down around the page. These simultaneous access points were magical – the same materials but two very different responses.

Throughout the residency we partnered with the class teacher along with a super, willing and enthusiastic team of support staff. This collaborative approach, the teacher’s keen knowledge of the pupils, the support staff’s expertise along with the creative methodology that we brought gave an incredible synergy.

This eighteen-day residency was like dancing with several modalities and sensory access points all at the same time and watching multiple languages unfold. This dynamic model can thus extend and challenge people or really speak to their chosen modality giving immense reward. Overall, the residency broadened our experience, gave us opportunities to grow and thrive, exposed us to new processes and gave license to experience ‘art’ in different ways. It taught me that, if we truly listen to, observe, and try to understand what a person experiences with natural joy and then respond to this fully, the magic can happen!

Art and Chemistry

Residency: Rachel Scanlon at Nether Hall School

By Rachel Scanlon

Throughout April to June I completed my 18 day SENsory Atelier residency with Attenborough Arts Centre at Nether Hall school. Working alongside Chemistry student Asmaa Abdalla, we combined our practices to embed science in sensory exploration.

As a visual artist in education I have worked on a number of cross-curricular Art and Science projects in the past and can see the similarities. Both subjects encourage children to ask questions and notice the world around them more; inspiring curiosity and igniting a spark of creative thinking. Chemistry invites children to experiment, hypothesise and use their hands to create something practical; much like art.

Our initial conversations were around enabling the pupils to do any practical experiments themselves to really empower them. We discussed making sure the materials we used were safe, low risk, yet could really spark their interest by creating a “wow” moment.

We worked with 3 sixth form groups; one SLD class, one PMLD class, and a group made up of pupils from 3 classes that had a sensory interest; so needed to tailor the sessions to suit the differing abilities and interests of the groups.

The SLD class are really able, and were keen to do hands-on experiments, so was their fantastic teacher (who used to be the Science Lead at the school). During the residency we made self-inflating balloons (add links?), home-made lava lamps, erupting volcanoes, cyanotype prints, stress balls, and glow-in-the-dark lava lamps.

Some students were really interested in the science, so Asmaa included the scientific terms with the experiments. The vinegar and baking soda (used to inflate the balloons, and to create volcanoes) is also called sodium bicarbonate and acetic acid, when mixed they create a solution which releases Carbon dioxide, water and sodium acetate. Some students could remember doing similar experiments with their teacher when they were younger, one boy could even remember the gas produced.

Asmaa also showed the learners the chemical formula that was happening here; NaHCO3 + HC2H3O2 → NaC2H3O2 + H2CO3.

Or kept it simple; a sold and a liquid mixing to release a gas.

We included the different levels of the terminology as well as the experiments to allow different access points for each student.

The other two groups I worked with during the residency have very differing abilities to this class, so to really embed the science in their sessions I pulled a few chemistry threads from the science sessions to bring to their sensory exploration sessions. There is a cross over with the materials used, sounds, touch and the feelings they evoked.

  • I created a close up film of the lava lamps with relaxing music, this was then shown on the white board with the other groups or projected onto fabric or the wall. One student in the PMLD class was completely absorbed just watching the lava lamp film as it changed from blue to yellow, while we blew scented bubbles towards her, creating a more immersive environment.
  • Another student with very low vision enjoyed sitting in the projection and “catching” the yellow light as the film came around to the really bright scene, and repeat. She would pause just enough to catch the light on her eyes, before carrying on moving her head to the music.
  • I showed both of the other groups the real lava lamp experiment, gave them torches to shine through or shone torches myself. They definitely caught the eye and interest of the more sensory pupils, there were some “wow” moments where the children stopped what they were doing and focused on the coloured bubbles.
  • To reflect the floaty feel of the lava lamp bubbles we used feathers and tissue paper circles/confetti which floated really slowly when released. Children anticipated when they would fall as we said “ready, 1, 2, 3” before letting go. Sometimes they sat under clear umbrellas while they were released and could watch them float and slide along the outside, or in the individual sensory hoops that had materials hung around like the bubbles in the jar
  • We used bubble-like water-beads and sequins in coloured water to make sensory bottles we could study with torches, added baby oil to make the objects inside move slower.
  • We darkened the room and used torches with coloured cellophane, stuck cellophane onto clear acetate to make our own coloured goggles and look around. Using an OHP to shine large images onto the wall.
  • Cyanotype paper, also known as sun paper, changes colour under natural sunlight or UV light. We collected natural objects from the outdoor space, and along with some more man-made shapes such as geometric sequins, we arranged them on the cyanotype paper, and left them in the sun outside.
  • The thread here that I carried forward to the sensory groups was the colour changing and the UV light. I painted panels in heat changing paint, and we explored touching them using a hot water bottle or using ice to change the temperature of our body before we touched the panels. We experimented with glow in the dark paint, glow sticks and UV torches. A pupil discovered the torch close up heated the paint enough to make it change colour too.
  • One boy enjoyed having a balloon with a bell inside and holding it on his ear while shaking it – the sound reverberated and intensified.
  • We used drums, and connected to some students by simply throwing a ball onto a drum repeatedly, with them returning the ball in the same way.
  • We used a number of these resources to paint with – balls, balloons, feathers, as ways of transferring paint onto paper – adding shaving foam and textures to increase the sensory exploration. Including sand, coloured rice, cooked spaghetti and play dough.
  • We used shadows and puppets with the OHP or video projectors, coloured gels changing the colour of the room. We experimented with sensory bags containing hair gel and coloured oil and what happened when light went through them.
  • Tonic water glows under UV light, so we revisited the lava lamp experiment. Also had the chance to play with glow-sticks, light up corrugated tubes and glow in the dark painted paper – tearing it into shapes and shining the UV torch on them.

Staff were really supportive and guided us to notice sometimes small moments that were very particular to those students – but showed learning, development and a real interest.

The timescale also helped with the project, being over the whole term so we could really get to know the pupils, know how to arrange the space to suit them, know distractions to avoid and how to catch their interest to help them engage with a full session.

This residency produced a resource for teachers and educators available as a free download below.

The power of choice

Residency: Sian Watson-Taylor at The Beacon

By Sian Watson-Taylor

The Beacon is a CAMHS Inpatient Unit at Leicester Children’s Hospital School providing care for young people aged 12 – 18 years. Young people are admitted either in a state of crisis, or when their circumstances and presentation becomes complex and an assessment is needed. I have had the joy, and it truly is a joy of being Artist in Residence for about a year, visiting The Beacon every Friday afternoon.

                          Choice is top of the list, empowerment is crucial!

I arrive at The Beacon every week with a battered old purple paint splatted suitcase full of materials, some flowers to say hello, an idea, a smile and a welcome. Every week the young people are invited into the classroom, they choose whether to engage or not. They can drop in and out of the 90-minute session as they wish. It’s important that the young person is there for their own right. They may only be in the room for 30 minutes or stay the whole afternoon, it is their choice and that is okay.

Choice may have been elusive for some of them at different points in their lives and now they are within inpatient care, they may experience a regimented day, with medication, compulsory meetings with people, a pattern to follow, a structure that is there to help healing, protection, and well-being, but one that is imposed.

One of the most essential elements of how I engage with people is the idea of choice: that choice, curiosity, understanding, creativity, and knowledge can lead to a positive and empowering environment, which leads to an individual or a community that champions the importance of open dialogue and nurtures the empowerment of young people, to value the process as a product itself.

The Arts help echo this in how it encourages the processes of thinking and learning, to explore different viewpoints and to extend the wonderful feeling of curiosity and creativity.  I want to create a space that allows choice, one that prompts well-being and supports positive connections of trust with one another, a space that doesn’t just demand participation by ‘doing’ but also allows participation by just being in the space as a spectator.

Having a safe space is fundamental. From being present in the space and sharing that room with others, positive healing may follow on, the start of a conversations. Because of this, space we are in is not just a ‘classroom’ it becomes the atelier, a creative safe space, where exploring materials, individually or collaboratively can allow a moment of learning about themselves to happen, how they start to decide how they relate to each other, the staff and also how they react and engage to, a stranger coming into that space.

With the sessions I try to create an experience where there is the potential to take the materials in any direction, to think big or allow the individual to guide and shape the session. There are restrictions, to ensure the materials cannot be used in a way that could cause harm, some fundamental tools, like scissors or tape, anything sharp or has elements which could be easily taken out of the classroom and into the ward or room cannot be used. I thought this restriction may be a challenge, it might hinder the ideas I had but this wasn’t the case. In fact it allowed me to think outside the box, to not run a session with an idea I had used before. It made the session authentic and truly process ran.

The sessions touched upon so many different ‘languages’ of art. From creating sensory potions and lights to exploring how colours change with movement. We thought about smells, touch and sounds, the creativity you can see, and creativity feel.

We create large costumes of folded papers, sculptures that could be worn, we played and talked and we explored. There were Drawing machines that recorded voices as they danced around the room. We created large clay to collaborative UV printed installations. Work that could be made individually then brought together to create large collaborate piece, a shared piece, and united piece. We explored how to make a moving animated world inside a snow globe, invented comical characters and animals.

We were messy, we were calm, we were artists both loud and quiet.

The room was not a place for doubt, it was a place of invention, creation and empowerment.

We have a gallery spot mat, at the end of every session we take a moment to respect the making that has happened in the session. Every creative decision is celebrated, an exhibition of what has happened, a moment and place to respect the process and the connection that Art can make. Because Art is a beautiful tool for agency in the mental health of young people, helping you to find your place in the world and a friend in times of change; when the things that are happening to you can make you feel a powerless.

I never tell them what we’re going to make, as in what the finished product will be – I don’t present something they have to recreate, no pre-made examples, no right way – so they shouldn’t be feeling the stress of possible failure. Instead, I bring an idea and the ingredients – the work will evolve as they evolve. I have always been excited about how art is an information carrier and how this can be shared in all the different creative languages, be it in the form of storytelling, performance, sound, visual art; the notion of exploration, the communication of ideas and feelings being at the forefront.

I think that the key to developing creativity is celebrating the different ‘languages’ and ‘voices’ of everyone, to allow the exploration of an ideas, feelings and conversation both in a loud and exciting way but also in the quiet and thoughtful moments that happen around the creativity and often after the sessions have ended.  I find it so essential to be aware of the importance to young people to have that feeling of being valued.

Why look after yourself, if your core feeling is that you are not worth looking after?

This terrible seed of self doubt that can start by the smallest or largest of things  and if left unattended can grow and misshape a young person.  That is why these loud and quiet moments of creativity and ownership that happen in the sessions at the Beacon are so important.

They allow the young people to step into a space where there is no such thing as failure, there is just process and that creative action of choosing to make something, explore the potential of a materials or just tip toe in for a moment, can help stop the negative seed and start a new positive to begin. That is why the process is the product in our sessions. It is why a young person was heard to say ‘I didn’t doubt myself once during that session’. It is why health carers like to join in.

My ‘glow moments’ come when young people and the amazing team of nurses, sharing the afternoons of creatively. The room fills with a sense of  trust, community and connection. Everybody is engaged in the act of making something, everyone is equal and everyone is belonged. Because everyone, including the staff need to feel that their own well being is being nurtured and for their relationships with the young people and each other feels authentic and honest. This sound so positive, and it is! The experience I have had and hope to keep having, is one that empowers me.

However I would be a fool to think that this one afternoon tick the box for all the young people at the Beacon, for some, when everything is in flux, introducing someone or something new, must feel especially unsettling for young people experiencing moments of displacement. So, take  a deep breath, because  on a Friday afternoon at the Beacon we have the choice to create or just stay and sit or we have the choice to leave.

All theses choices are equal and respected decisions, I wanted to create an afternoon that is not heavy with expectations to join in and make something but that help to reinforce that  the classroom atelier is a place of excitement, ownership, creativity, agency and calm.

Feeling safe and having choice is one of the most important components of being human.

Residency: Natalya Martin and Sian Watson Taylor at Ellesmere College

Across May and June 2021, Natalya Martin, supported by Sian Watson Taylor delivered an 18 day residency at Ellesmere College. Sessions were to be delivered partly as live video call sessions, with additional pre-recorded and pre-planned provocations for teaching staff to explore with their students. Unfortunately, on the first day of delivery, 2 of 3 classes went into isolation due to a positive case within their bubble. This led to just one class receiving in person sessions, and the
remainder being moved to pre-recorded.
Sessions were developed in partnership by the 2 artist team, developing from the successes of the residency at Ashmount, Sian created stages for the 3 classes at Ellesmere, with Natalya planning nature themed explorations which could take place in the classroom or outside due to the portability of the young people’s mats.


The sessions were a good example of emergent curriculum, with session 1 exploring
mandalas and patterns made from flowers, herbs and other natural resources. Young people in the sessions clearly went from a calm, still beginning, slowly developing to in depth explorations of the materials, smelling, scrunching, pulling apart and arranging in their own designs. As with Sian’s sessions at Ashmount, Natalya quietly went about her own exploration during the session, giving space for learners to set the pace, and then responding when learners wished to share something by approaching the camera, or to support the teaching staff facilitating the session within the room.

Teachers JPD: Sightlines Initative

Between October 2020 and March 2021 we commissioned Sightlines Initiative, the UK reference agency for Reggio Emilia, to host 4 seminars, and 4 follow up ‘huddles’ with teachers form each of the 9 partner schools. Sessions focussed on the core principles of Reggio Emilia’s practice in infant and toddler settings, the work of Sightlines Initiative, and provocations for teachers to explore Reggio practice in their own settings, bringing reflections back to the wider group.
The sessions were attended by a core group of 8 teachers, with 17 teachers attending the sessions in total.
Key successes were the continued attendance form a core group of teachers across all sessions, the collaborative, peer supported, format of the sessions, and the opportunity to ‘do’ outside of sessions, to report back, and to share reflections together. From simple start, middle and end point questionnaires we were able to see self-reported improvements in the teacher’s confidence in arts based delivery, child-led practice, working with artists and most markedly, confidence in knowledge
of the Reggio Emilia approaches to education. The only area that moved down was the teacher’s rating of their own professional support network, start 7.5, end 7 out of 10. The most successful moments noted were the provocations around materials exploration, as all schools seemed to gather a rich reflection on how their students work, and how they could bring in more of these approaches in future, as well as finding some clear common ground across all 9 schools.

“It highlighted how important it is to do more exploratory, child led sessions to help our individuals flourish and become their own unique character.”

Teacher Feedback

A legacy of the sessions will be the development of a Teacher’s JPD working group entitled ‘Community of Learning’ alongside a resource page capturing recorded sessions, documentation and presentations from the 8 sessions.

“I didn’t know anything about [Reggio Emilia] until joining this group and it was enlightening to realise that their core values actually mirrored a lot of our great practice, without us being aware of it.”

Teacher feedback

Guest Post: Helen Duff

Laughing at Art – a series of workshops and reflections.

Last week I had the privilege of running a series of workshops with the Attenborough Arts Centre Learning Team as their first associate artist for family inclusion. As hoped, it was a learning experience for everyone involved, and there are many frames through which I could assess the ‘success’ of our sessions. In preparation for the workshops, which as well as introducing my practice as a clown to the participants, aimed to explore the Aaron Williamson exhibition currently in residence at the AAC, I started reading Developmental Drama: Dramatherapy Approaches for people with Profound or Severe Multiple Disabilities, Including Sensory Impairment, by Mary Booker. It was recommended to me by the brilliant Holly Stoppit, a multi talented drama therapist, facilitator and clown teacher, with whom I have created solo shows, practiced Fooling, and forged a rich friendship. You can find out more about both women’s work in the links here or included at the bottom of this blog, and to read more about my original intentions for the workshops, please read my earlier blogs on this site.

I finished Developmental Drama on the train home from my workshops at the AAC, and it gave me a great deal to reflect on, especially with respect to how we might evaluate the impact of facilitating an inclusive play space. Booker recognises that we live in a results driven world, with the success or failure of an enterprise judged via presupposed outcomes. In contrast, her work is process orientated, which she elucidates thus:

‘Developmental Drama is a social experience. It is about being, learning and developing together in a social and dramatic context rather than about achieving tasks or ‘doing’ drama. It is a process orientated way of working. Process is understood as everything that is going on inside each person, between people and within the group as a whole while engaged in an activity. It is the change that happens within individuals and within the group over time – whether that time is a few seconds, an hour, a year or a lifetime. It can be useful to think of it as a dance – in contrast to the steps…’

In addition, Booker lists several potential benefits of developmental drama as it enables people to:

  • “express themselves in response to what is happening within and around them in a session, and know their expression has been received, understood and valued – in other words, communicate with others
  • experience their input as having an effect on the events and people within the session – gain a sense of what is happening in order to form meanings, develop anticipation and participate to their fullest within the session
  • feed their imagination with accessible sensory experiences and images, within meaningful contexts
  • encounter and deal with new situations and challenges within the session, discovering new resources within themselves
  • develop their emerging emotional intelligence”

Though I was not practicing developmental drama in the precise terms described in Booker’s brilliant text, I find the principles by which she measures the impact of her work illuminating. They were built into the games, activities and sensory stories we explored at the AAC. Creating a frame within which participants can be recognised as makers of meaning, and encouraging their creative expression to expand within the space that’s been set up, was a key principle I hoped to explore. With the help of family and care givers, as well as the Learning Team at the AAC who know regular participants well, I was able to recognise moments of significant response, change and connection.
Where possible, participants variously:

  • made and held good eye contact
  • recognised and celebrated fellow members of the group
  • engaged in imaginative play and shared their imaginary visualisations with the group
  • interacted with and ‘played’ different emotional states
  • allowed themselves to applauded, entering the stage and taking the space
  • created costumes that they found stimulating and fun
  • emulated elements of the exhibition in their choice of ‘characters’
  • danced to music, solo, in front of an audience
  • engaged with and followed an emotionally affecting narrative enhanced with sensory stimulation

Watching care givers, parents and siblings enjoying themselves and recognising moments of significant engagement from participants (that I will likely have missed!) was really encouraging. Creating a space where participants enjoy positive interactions and develop a greater sense of their impact on other people is key to the development of empathy. In her text, Booker recognises the value of empathy as a developmental tool, allowing participants “the capacity for an ‘as if’ experience of another’s emotional state that promotes a sense of understanding and connection with them”. At points during the workshops, I feel we saw the seeds of this empathetic connection being planted. I am fascinated to explore with the AAC leaning team how its growth might be supported further.

Booker writes repeatedly about the importance of ritual, with sequences at the opening and closing of each of her sessions kept essentially the same to give her clients a common language, clear expectations and a means of processing what has taken place in the middle of each class. Myth, and the use of ancient, classical stories to explore our most fundamental emotions and feelings, is primary to Booker’s work, and this struck me as a significant cross over with Aaron Williamson’s exhibition at the AAC. Throughout his retrospective he references recognisable archetypes; a King Midas figure photographed in explicit close up, bloodshot eyes and pore clogging make up plain to see; a wannabe Sun God whose dreams of being on screen were frustrated by the Hollywood studio system; a wrestler who realised his talent for no holds barred violence and villainy, only after he’d become deaf. The stories that Williamson includes in his exhibition are deliberately framed around a challenge that must be overcome; a learning experience for the protagonist that is emotionally testing but ultimately leads to growth. Similarly, Booker writes about the importance of transformation, both in terms of the gradual, progressive development of each client’s engagement with the sessions, and in the choice of stories her sessions explore, with the Odyssey and Beauty and the Beast favourites. Stories that employ an emotional change as the key pivot point for dramatic action, allowing the participants to become more familiar with the way in which events, emotions, and some form of transformation interact.
Booker’s approach recommends a series of at least 10 sessions, allowing the group to explore a single story, split into sections and repeated as required. There isn’t space for this many sessions during my current residency and the average age of my participants is markedly younger than Booker’s examples. Still, I found her insights into this long form engagement inspiring, as it encouraged me to think about how I might support the AAC Learning Team in examining their continued work with regular attendees. Key areas I’m intrigued to explore include:

  • how to establish a clear language for the ways in which workshops open and close
  •  how to create a sense of ceremony that enables participants greater autonomy as they become familiar with the way sessions run
  • building feedback from care givers into the workshop in a way that ensures it’s an integral part of the work
  • allowing for feedback to reflect on the care giver’s learning and growth in addition to the responses shown by participants
  • returning to stories that might allow for a more specific, thematic exploration of certain emotions in depth
  • integrating other members from the wider AAC community into the work.

This last point was inspired by a conversation I had on returning to the AAC the Friday after my workshops, where I chatted with audience members after a fully accessible performance of Sourpuss by Lori Hopkins. We discussed the scope for local performance groups to perform for and with members of the Inclusive Youth Arts Programme, and this again chimed with my reading of Developmental Drama. Booker describes the positive impact for all involved when local university students studying drama volunteered to play a role in her sessions, with both participants and volunteers benefiting greatly from the work. I am gaining so much from this residency, and I know it will impact other aspects of my work, whether as a collaborator on the Care Home Tour, where myself and a group of fellow comedians are travelling the country performing with people who have dementia; in my writing for television, where I continue to develop a script that will bring aspects of the stories shared with me at AAC to screen; and on a personal level, as I better  understand the rich seams of meaning running through our world, and explore the multiple ways in which they might be shared.

Residency: Children’s Hospital School at The Beacon

Artist Sian Watson Taylor delivered a 5 day residency at The Beacon Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services unit as part of the Children’s Hospital School. Sian Watson Taylor was brought in as the school were keen to explore messy art practices, mostly with a visual arts basis. The unit has restrictions on some materials going onto the ward, particularly sharps, and as such Sian has carefully curated a handful of sessions alongside teaching and clinical staff to ensure risk assessments have been conducted. Observations have to be conducted without a notebook, or camera to hand, so as not to exacerbate any paranoia around recording of behaviours present in some of the young people currently attending. Session 1 focussed on explorations of dried flowers, air drying clay, chalk, food colouring and essential oils, developed to match with the interests of current young people, and future sessions will explore scrapbooking and poetry as additional interests. Sian is delivering sessions in person, as the clinical procedures of the ward allow this, and also developing extension activities for staff to explore outside of sessions.


The first session was well attended by 4 young people, 3 of whom stayed for the entire activity, and each young person was given space and time to find their own way into exploring the materials, with each young person taking very different paths in defining and developing an end product that they wanted to create. Teaching staff commented that the engagement was very good
for the first session of any activity, and also that this felt like a very different art activity for them. 5 teaching and clinical staff came into the session at separate points, and each were drawn into finding out about the activity.

“I didn’t doubt myself once during that session”

Participant quote recorded by teaching staff

Residency: Sian Watson-Taylor at Ashmount School

Between April and May 2021, Sian Watson Taylor delivered an 18 day residency with 3 classes at Ashmount School. The residency was facilitated by Sian spending the majority of sessions onsite, yet delivering to the class via zoom. Class risk assessments meant that we could not guarantee young
people would socially distance form Sian. Sian delivered 6 days of activity to each class, developing bespoke ‘stages’ for each young person, an oil cloth mat featuring their name and class name, as a space that they could curate their own artworks and creativity within. Sessions included exploring
materials such as rolls of paper, paint sticks, fabric, light, and photos of themselves from previous sessions. All sessions began with a story which related to the exploration.

“I thought I’d make a sign that says, Hooray for Creativity!”

Participant quotes recorded during sessions


Although Sian was delivering over zoom/teams, she still had lots of interaction with around a third of each class regularly coming to the camera to show Sian their work, or to communicate in other ways. Sian’s approach of quietly undertaking the same activity as the young people during the session gave space for the young people to set the pace of their own explorations, and to see other approaches that could be explored. All activity embedded arts award evidencing, supporting teachers in giving their students ample opportunity to complete Discover/Explore levels
and achieving 30 at Explore level. As Sian was on site, she was able to brief teachers before sessions and reflect with them after sessions.

“I’m in a magical world”

Participant quotes recorded during sessions

Residency: Little Inventors in Space

With the support of match funding from UK Space Agency and Arts Council, this partnership residency with Inspirate and Little Inventors was split across 3 schools, Ashmount, Nether Hall and Ellesmere College.
Originally planned as in person delivery, we switched to digital resources for teachers and school support staff to use to run the activity in September 2020.

Artists Helen Duff, Sian Watson Taylor and John Berkavitch were consulted alongside class teachers to develop a framework for delivery with 2 core aims – contextualising the ideas of space travel and inventions, and developing inclusive ways to enable young people with SEND to submit invention ideas. Each school received a pack of resources, high quality sensory story videos with accompanying sensory resources to bring the idea of space travel, the feelings, smells, sights and sounds of life aboard the international space station.
Also, a box filled with interesting and unusual scrap store items, to allow young people to Independently, or with support, build sculptural ideas to express their invention ideas. The task set was to develop invention ideas to make an astronaut’s life aboard the ISS easier, or more fun. 69 ideas were submitted, some as drawings, some as photos of sculptures, and some as whole class

Six of these ideas were selected to be made into real objects by artists, makers and
engineers and will be exhibited in schools and at the new Space Park for academics and professionals in the aerospace industry. This approach to Social Pedagogy is in direct response to Reggio Children’s model for involving the whole community and local business directly in the learning and development of children.

The sensory aspects of the resources, the design of the videos to enable pauses between sensory activities and the quality of the junk modelling resources inspired exploration and experimentation for the young people. As part of the making process, engineers and artists held zoom calls with the originators of the ideas, and there was a clear sense of pride in those whose ideas had been chosen.

It was a massive joy of the project to see the faces of the young people when there inventions were installed into their schools, to see their ideas brought alive! All of the inventions will be brought together for an exhibition at the Space Park in the new year and with Leicester Design Season in October 2021