I love story telling. We do much of our work with children and young people through telling the rich and varied stories of the Bible, helping them see God at work in all history and in all his world. We use story to teach the Gospel and help children understand their need of a Saviour and ultimately, who that Saviour is. We use story to explain what Jesus has done for us and what a wonderful gift of grace he offers us.
I’m going to write three posts covering sensory and interactive story telling for children (Part 1) , young people (Part 2) and then adults (Part 3) with learning disabilities. There are many different ways of telling Bible stories, this is only one and is specifically about using simple, clear language and sensory experiences that aim to bring understanding of that language.
What is a sensory story?
Sensory Stories are a way of telling stories simply, with added sensory experiences to help the listeners engage and experience the story. They are particularly used with children with profound and multiple disabilities, but are easily used with children with moderate learning difficulties, those with poor attention skills and children with autism. They are used more and more with people who have dementia – but more of that in part 3. You can find some great information and leaflets about Sensory Stories from Joanna Grace’s website Jo.element42.org (Scroll down to the bottom of her page to find the free leaflets)
How to begin…
A Sensory story starts with choosing the words you are going to use to tell the story. With young children and those who find it difficult to process lots of words, this stage is crucial. You are looking for one sentence that is your main teaching point and then between 5 and 10 sentences that tell the story from beginning to end. Lets have a go…
Jesus calms the storm
1. Jesus was tired.
2. He and his friends went out on a boat where it was nice and quiet.
3. A storm came. It was VERY windy, and VERY rainy. the Waves were enormous.
4. Jesus’s friends were frightened. Jesus stayed sleeping.
5. The friends woke Jesus up. “We are going to drown” they shouted.
6. Jesus stood up, put out his hand and said “STOP” to the storm.
7. The friends were amazed. Only God has power to control the weather.
8. The friends knew that Jesus MUST be God. (Main teaching point)
The next stage…chose your Sensory Experiences
For each of these sentences you can now choose a sensory experience that enhances the understanding of the story, rather than distracting the child from it. The sensory experiences should come out one at a time and each one put aside when you are ready to say the next sentence of the story. You can put them in order behind you or somewhere just out of reach to help with sequencing, but the focus should be on each sensory experience alone.
It is at this stage you need to be mindful of any sensory sensitivities the children may have. Be careful that you don’t distress them by using something that they cannot cope with. Fortunately there are so many sensory experiences you could use that you can usually find something. I often will put them in a box or bag with a symbol or picture of the story on the front so that the children can anticipate each thing that will come out of the same place. This also helps with your own organisation!
Here is the story with a few sensory ideas, chose only one or make up your own. Don’t forget to think about all your senses, generally we would use one or two at a time but throughout the story use a good variety. Be creative but try to make the sensory experience enhance the meaning of the words.
Jesus calms the storm
1. Jesus was tired. (Something soft to stroke or lay their heads on, or cover them like a blanket, I sometimes use a lavender mini pillow because of the lovely sensory smell.)
2. He and his friends went out on a boat where it was nice and quiet. (Boats rock, so you might want to do gentle rocking movements, or have a toy boat on a bowl of water to look at and move around, or maybe bubbles gently blowing around them.)
3. A storm came. It was VERY windy, and VERY rainy. the Waves were enormous. (Wind can be from a hand held fan, hairdryer on cool setting, and can be accompanied by wind instrument noise if they can cope with that. Rain from a spray bottle of water, or water gun, accompanied by rain,asked sounds. Some may want to hide under an umbrella!)
4. Jesus’s friends were frightened. Jesus stayed sleeping. (You could use a Makaton or BSL sign for ‘scared’ and show scared on your faces, looking at each other’s scared expressions, or have a ‘scared’ expression mask in your bag for the children to hold against their face. They could mould a scared face from play dough.)
5. The friends woke Jesus up. “We are going to drown” they shouted. (You can have a yawn and stretch to show Jesus waking up. If children don’t like shouts, have a big card speech bubble with the words on that they can hold up. The boat in the bowl can be swished about or the children can rock more strongly to link with sentence 2.)
6. Jesus stood up, put out his hand and said “STOP” to the storm. (The children can hold up their hands and say ‘stop’ or you could have a large foam hand (if you’ve got one handy! Sorry for the pun!) and again use a cardboard speech bubble if needed – they can be good for when you’ve to the children to sequence or go over the story again).
7. The friends were amazed. Only God has power to control the weather. (Again an ‘amazed’ Makaton or BSL sign with a mask, play dough or children’s own expressions can be used.)
8. The friends knew that Jesus MUST be God. (This is the teaching point of the story, put all the sensory things aside and have a simple visual/ pictures to show ‘Jesus = God’ )
Give it a go!
Obviously planning a Sensory Bible Story relies on someone telling you what story is going to be told in your Children’s session beforehand. One of the greatest obstacles to supporting children with additional needs in churches, is communication between leaders and helpers. Once you know and get used to telling stories in this way you will find it easier and easier to do. My advice, identify your main teaching point in a sentence first and then don’t get bogged down in detail. Children can listen to these stories in other ways and probably will throughout their childhood and so the layers of detail will build gradually.