Guest Blog by Ben Fletcher-Watson: Arts and Technology for Early Years

This month Dr Ben Fletcher-Watson, a researcher in theatre for Early Years at the University of Edinburgh, shares his thoughts on theatre apps, mobile technology and online content to extend and enhance the theatre experience for wee ones.

What is technology? We usually think of technology as meaning computers, smartphones, tablets, and all the digital devices that pop up throughout our daily lives. But there is another way of thinking about technology – as what Ursula Le Guin calls “the active human interface with the material world.”

Le Guin has pointed out that hi-tech and low-tech are misused terms:

One way to illustrate that most technologies are, in fact, pretty “hi-tech,” is to ask yourself of any manmade object, Do I know how to make one?

…I don’t know how to build and power a refrigerator, or program a computer, but I don’t know how to make a fishhook or a pair of shoes, either. I could learn. We all can learn. That’s the neat thing about technologies. They’re what we can learn to do.

It’s interesting to think about technology in this way. If I want to do some finger painting with my children, could I make paint from scratch? How would I go about making paper?

But obviously technology does include digital devices, and so I’d like to look at a few ways in which it can help extend a visit to the theatre and enhance the experience.

You’ve probably seen scare stories in the media about screen-time, iPad addiction and smartphone zombies. It’s worth noting that very few of these stories have a grounding in research, and even the American Academy of Pediatrics – responsible for the well-known ‘no screens before 2 years old’ claim – has recently acknowledged that “screen-time” is an antiquated concept. In 2015, the AAP’s media committee said, “in a world where ‘screen-time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” Just look at the way in which Pokémon GO was reported this summer: the newspapers revelled in stories about teenagers getting lost in a cave, but often overlooked the many positives – players getting active, exploring their local environment and meeting new people (particularly for children who struggle with socialisation).

As my wife, Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson, says in a recent blog on children and technology, the word screen-time “lumps together a series of discrete activities which are not in any meaningful way the same. Imagine if we added up ‘papertime’ including reading novels and newspapers, completing worksheets in school, doing crossword puzzles and colouring in.”

Ben blog 1

Computers offer many possibilities for play, learning and socialisation – always with the caveat that exploring the digital world together is the best way to stay safe and stay involved. Here are some examples of fun activities that mix live theatre and digital arts for the very young.

Before the show:

For their 2012 show, In A Pickle, produced with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Oily Cart created an activity sheet for parents to download before the performance.

Ben Blog 2

The sheet gave ideas for songs, games and activities connected to the show (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale for children aged 2 to 4). It also contained a short section for prompting discussions afterwards: what did you like best? Who was your favourite character? Which place did you like the most?

This was explicitly designed to prepare children for the performance beforehand, and so, since Oily Cart couldn’t contact everybody in advance, the best way to deliver it was online. Their website also has a video and music from the show to prepare your child, or to enjoy afterwards:

It’s worth remembering that for very young children, knowing what to expect when they go into the theatre is much more important than preserving the surprise. If there are pictures, trailers, soundtracks or plot descriptions which you can access online before your visit, these will help your child feel comfortable and familiar with the strange, dark, mysterious, exciting room where the show happens. Spotting a character or hearing a tune that they recognise is just as thrilling as something totally unexpected!

During the show:

As adults, we expect to be told to sit down, stay quiet and switch off our phones when we go to the theatre. But increasingly, artists are blending live and digital work in fascinating ways.

Roma Patel is a theatre designer and academic who builds what she calls “scenographic environments” filled with digital and wearable technology, like tiny knitted creatures whose eyes light up when you tilt them from side to side. There’s no plot to follow in these kinds of works, just the meanings made by children as they move around the space and interact with objects. Like the Starcatchers piece Multicoloured Blocks from Space, Roma’s environments are built for play and exploration.

Image courtesy of Roma Patel


In Australia, Imaginary Theatre are developing a new piece for 2 years and up, called Circle. The show lets children play with the Entity, a glowing ball packed with smart technologies, which responds to and affects an immersive environment of lights and sound, called the Habitat.

Imaginary Theatre’s Thom Browning says: “The majority of technology for children is currently screen-based, offering mostly passive interactions that don’t facilitate the active play that’s crucial to children’s physical, neurological and social development. One of the things we loved about Circle is that it seeks to solve this problem, creating technological platforms for children that nurture their in-built capacity for physically active, kinaesthetic, and creative play.”

So get ready to play when you visit the theatre – sometimes you can dance with your shadow in front of a projected picture, or make sounds by walking on a sonic mat. Technology doesn’t have to mean screens.

After the show:

Catherine Wheels’ worldwide hit, White, offers a fun example of digital play with White: The App. The company turned the props and set into a ‘digital toy’ that lets children recreate scenes from the show so they can become Cotton and Wrinkle, catching eggs, caring for them, putting them to bed and throwing a party. I worked on this project with app developer Hippotrix, and my research into children’s theatre apps can be found here.

Ben Blog 3

White The App, like other theatre-inspired apps like Dance About and Secret Suitcases, gives children control of the narrative to replay and explore their favourite moments, aiding understanding through play. These products also allow children who may never even see the show to engage with its ideas, images and sounds, wherever they live in the world.

Children want to unpick theatre experiences, but they can’t simply watch the show again, as they do with television. Parents and carers can help them comprehend complex events like live drama, and I think that companies have a responsibility to start the ball rolling.

We’d love to hear about your arts experiences online – share your finds and ideas in the comments below!

Biography: Dr Ben Fletcher-Watson is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include theatre for early years, relaxed performance and mobile / wearable technologies in theatre.


Getting more for music!

Creative Skills Manager Heather Armstrong goes further than simply giving music the thumbs up; this month’s blog not only outlines why music is so important for our under 5s, it also highlights the developmental benefits and challenges us all to get singing and playing together!

Baby play xylophone in the grass

We all want children to grow up healthy, happy and successful. We want them to learn to speak, to read and write and count, we want them to be able to play with other children without thumping each other. We want them to be able to listen and learn and thrive, and if they’re growing up in difficult circumstances, then as far as possible we want to protect them from the worst effects of poverty and stress. We value children as people in their own right, and we want to feel connected to them, and have good relationships with them.

One of the best ways to help our children with all of those things is to sing and play music with them.

It’s hard to understate the importance of music in helping children grow up to be healthy, happy and successful. A staggering amount of research has explored the impact of music in the first years of life – music and singing has been proven to help support and accelerate brain development, improve social skills, speech (link, literacy and numeracy, improves bonding, and can even help children with their concentration and ability to regulate their own emotions.

Studies that look at how best to insulate children from the negative effects of poverty, like the Growing Up in Scotland report (link ) , and the EPPE/EPPSE study with Dr.Siraj (link found singing and rhymes (along with other shared creative activities) to be an important aspect of high quality home learning environments, which improve children’s life chances.

Research looking specifically at music in early years found some of the best results were when parents and children explore music playfully, together, at home. (link: )

“The team found that informal music-making in the home from around the ages of two and three can lead to better literacy, numeracy, social skills, and attention and emotion regulation by the age of five”.

This is a simple message that can be shared with parents, and can be carried over into ELC practice too – instead of planning or buying in highly structured music sessions, practitioners can be supported to use informal, playful, musical moments as part of your day.

And if you’re feeling stressed? Studies have proven that singing helps adults reduces stress and improve mental health, too. (link )

How to Start

I’d be missing a trick if I didn’t suggest taking advantage to Bookbug training when it’s in your area, or taking some time to check out the Play, Talk, Read website which has loads of great ideas. Starcatchers’ classical music experience Hup, for babies age 0-24 months, is at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month and is a masterclass in how beautiful music engages even the tiniest tots. Best of all, the relaxed performance style means you can see the reactions of the babies as the audience shares the space with the performers.

At Starcatchers, the Creative Skills Programme I manage is all about child-led, open-ended, playful approaches to the arts that give young children the chance to express themselves, and if you work in Aberdeen, Dundee, Fife, Glasgow, Inverclyde or Midlothian, there will be opportunities to take part in the Creative Skills Programme in your area in 2016-17.

In the meantime, here are a few ideas to make music and singing even more creative.

And on that farm she had a….storm trooper?

Songs like Old MacDonald are great for giving young children opportunities to make fun decisions and develop their own identity as someone who can communicate and influence the world around them. When my daughter was only a few months old we had a glove with different animals on each finger, and I would sing the verses changing the animal depending on which finger she grabbed.

You can use the same technique letting a child choose a toy, or even turning the pages of a picture book – if you have farm animals that might be a good place to start, but a lot of fun can be had trying to think up noises for a farm with a dragon or a shoe or an umbrella. Older children may only need a pause after “And on that farm she had a……” to give them the opportunity to choose the animal, or other random character/object they want.

Level Up Challenge: Change the destination! Old MacDonald had a beach, or a space station, or a handbag. Change the name! Young MacArmstrong anyone?

Get Outside and Move About

As I mentioned in my Arts Outdoor blog, taking musical instruments (or indeed pots and pans and a wooden spoon) outdoors can be a great way to explore different volumes without developing a splitting headache. The different noises natural materials like sticks and pebbles can make can be explored and used to accompany songs and rhymes.

Even something as simple as moving to the beat as you sing can give language development a boost, as babies and young children will have physical movement as well as sound cues to help them identify patterns of speech (need a reference for this). Songs that encourage big movements (like Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, The Hokey Cokey and Three Little Men in a Flying Saucer) might feel a little cramped in your own home, but can come into their own when you have more space outdoors.

Level Up Challenge: Invent your own movements! Row, Row, Row your boat can hit the rapids at any point (jiggle your child on your knee for choppy water) or go down a waterfall (tip your child upside down).

Musical Combinations

Music can be combined with other kinds of creative play – movement is perhaps the most obvious one, but music can also enhance and influence visual arts activities and play a great role supporting imaginative play, too. The BBC’s Ten Pieces has resources designed for primary and secondary children,, but some of the same principles can be adapted and simplified for working with younger children.

Level Up Challenge: A previous Creative Skills participant used these music resources to inspire a visual arts project that developed over several weeks, giving young children the chance to experiment, discuss and revisit their work.

The Arts Outdoors

This month Creative Skills Manager Heather explores the importance of artistic activity outside and shares a few great ideas to give a go with your little ones!

The Care Inspectorate’s publication My World Outdoors outlines the many benefits of young children being able to access outdoor spaces as part of their Early Learning and Childcare experiences. While the archetypal image of a child playing outdoors is a ruddy cheeked youngster climbing a tree (why is it always a tree?), on the Care Inspectorate’s website, and within the My World Outdoors document itself (click on the image of the front cover to download the pdf version) there are also examples that show an alternative view: good practice outdoors involving the arts, such as puppets, singing, rhymes, imaginative play and creating transient art.

Bringing the arts outdoors can serve a dual purpose – engaging children who might not usually be interested in the arts, and engaging children who might not usually be interested in playing outdoors. Does it feel like blasphemy to admit that such children may exist? When adults discuss the importance of outdoor play it’s a subject that rarely comes up, but if we want children to benefit from a wide and rich range of experiences, while still recognizing that they are driving their own learning, we need to introduce those rich experiences in ways that inspire and capture their imaginations.

There are two ways you can begin thinking about bringing the arts outdoors:

  • Are there ways to include the arts in outdoor activities we already do?
  • Are there ways to bring the arts we already do, outdoors?

Burnbank branded photo by Neil Thomas Douglas

I’ve listed some examples below, inspired by the artists and Early Years practitioners I’ve had the good fortune of working with through the Creative Skills Programme, but really, these are just scratching the surface of possibilities.

Den Building, Imaginative Play and Storytelling

Den building is already fun, but what if you were building it to hide from a witch or a troll or a massive purple eagle with a watering can? Adding a dimension of imaginative play can add extra meaning to their building and problem solving, and extend their engagement and concentration.

Once the den has been built, could it be used as a snuggly place to enjoy a story together? Some children struggle to concentrate in the typical set up of a story corner as part of a busy nursery, but outdoors, in a purpose built space, could give them the focus to enjoy stories in a new way.

Storytelling on the Hoof

Why does storytelling need to be a static experience? Take your story for a walk – you can use a story you already know, or let the story develop based on whatever you see outdoors. You could dress up as characters and see what happens, or set a challenge, like pirates searching for treasure, and facing dangers along the way.

Moving with Feathers…or even Mud?

Creative Movement can be tricky indoors in a busy, crowded nursery, and access to gym halls can be limited. With a bit of imagination (and some waterproofs) you could be taking advantage of the space outdoors.   Moving with natural materials like feathers, long grasses, moving under and over long sticks or balancing small pebbles on the back of hands or shoulders can inspire children to explore different types of movement.

Movement and mark making can be combined, using sticks or hands and feet to make sweeping arcs in sand or mud or snow. If you’re already kitted out in waterproofs this could be a whole body experience on a muddy or snowy day. If you have an ipod with portable speakers or a ghetto blaster (am I showing my age here?) bringing music into the outdoors can enhance these experiences.

Outdoor Orchestras

Have you ever taken musical instruments outdoors? If not, why not? Without walls to bounce the sound back, musical instruments, singing and chanting can take on different qualities in the great outdoors, and children can explore their full range of volume without adults having to worry about disturbing other classes (or developing crushing headaches).

Natural materials can also be used as musical instruments in their own right, exploring the different sounds that can be made, like rustling grass or clicking pebbles or swooshing sand. Gather these different sounds together and take turns being the conductor, pointing to each “section” of the orchestra.

Making Your Mark Outside

One of the best things about exploring visual arts outside is the opportunity to play with scale. Tape paintbrushes to the end of bamboo poles and turn mark making into a gross motor activity, using water on dry paving for the more mess-averse, or painting on large pieces of paper. You could even experiment with mud painting on tarpaulins.

Chalks really come into their own on paving or other hard surfaces, and can be used to mark trails for treasure hunts and storytelling trails – as well as large and small scale doodling. Add a source of water to see what happens when chalk drawings (or the chalks themselves) get wet. Clipboards with paper or small, hardbacked notebooks can incorporate mark making into imaginative play, as small explorers draw their own maps or write down clues as they solve mysteries.

Natural materials are ideal for transient art, too – make pictures with piles of leaves, sticks and stones, water trails across dry sand, feathers and shells decorating mud pies and sandcastles alike. And don’t be afraid to bring more traditional art materials outside – one of the greatest sights I’ve ever seen was a snowman covered in pink and blue glitter and stuck with lurid pipecleaners.

mud painting

We’d love to hear about your arts experiences outdoors, share your best ideas in the comments below!

Imagination comic strips so far…now its over to you!


A little Imagination: Tales of Parenting June Competition

There’s still time to tell us those little creative things you do in your day that encourage imaginative play with your little one as well as make your life easier!

Tweet or Facebook message us @StarcatchersUK or email and you could have your creative moment presented as your very own comic strip!

We believe that creativity is one of the best parenting tools you can have – shared creative experiences support healthy attachment, reduces stress, helps language development, literacy and numeracy and so much more! Creative moments help you feel good about being a parent, because they can turn a battle ground into a playground.

1 Getting Dressed

2 Going up the stairs

3 Trying food 4 Clearing the table

5 Brushing teeth

6 Tidying Up

7 Getting From A to B

Competition Flyer to share!

education scotland

Following Heather’s latest blog post with details of our June competition, you can now download our ‘A little imagination‘ flyer to print out and share with parents and carers in your settings. We hope it will provide them with more information and encourage them to get involved.

We look forward to hearing imaginative snippets from you and the parents and carers in your settings over the coming month!

A little Imagination…Competition Time!

1 Getting Dressed

Have you ever played spot the dragon on a long car journey, or pretended the trolley was a train as you dashed round the supermarket? Ever turned a spoonful of porridge into an aeroplane? Pretended the washing basket was a pirate ship so you could finish making dinner?

This month we’re celebrating imagination and creative play by running our “A Little Imagination: Tales of Parenting” competition. We’re asking parents and carers to share their stories about those lovely moments when you capture your wee one’s imagination with something fun, silly or magical…and it just so happens to make your life easier to boot.

Throughout this month we’ll be sharing comic strips with some imaginative parenting ideas – please share them with the parents and carers you work with, and encourage them to share their own stories with us. They can do this by emailing, by tweeting @StarcatchersUK or by commenting on Facebook or on this blog post below.

At the end of the month, we’ll choose our favourite story and the winner will receive their own personalised cartoon strip, starring their family and signed by the artist.

Why We’re Running This Competition

We want to celebrate all the amazing, creative parenting that’s already going on, and encourage families to use their imaginations together more often.

We want people to feel good about being creative with their children.

We want creativity to be seen as something that helps make parenting easier AND more fun.

When parents think creativity and the arts for wee ones, it can strike fear into their hearts. Glitter and dough mashed into carpets. Avalanches of recycling materials and puddles of glue. Half an hour to set up, half an hour to tidy up, and three minutes when your child is actually engaged. Expense. Mess. Wasting time when there are always a hundred other things that need doing. Worst of all, when you’re tired and stressed and have the worries of the world on your shoulders, the creative, fun bit of parenting can be the first thing to go.

It’s a shame, because creativity is one of the best parenting tools you can have – shared creative experiences support healthy attachment, reduces stress, helps language development, numeracy and literacy – it’s a one way ticket to smarter, happier, healthier families. And some of the most effective and magical moments of shared creativity happen nowhere near a glue gun.

They work because they’re personal – they meet the needs of the child AND the parent. A shared joke. Something you’re both interested in. Sometimes it’s a one off idea that gets you through an otherwise tricky situation, and sometimes those moments get woven into the rituals and routines of your family.

Creative moments help you feel good about being a parent, because they can turn a battle ground into a playground.

Closing The Gap

This month our Creative Skills Manager Heather Armstrong explores the role the arts and creativity have to play in closing the attainment gap.

By the time they are five, Scotland’s least advantaged children will be 18 months behind in vocabulary and 13 months behind in problem solving skills compared to their most advantaged peers. For some of them, it will be the equivalent of asking a three year old to cope with the social, emotional and cognitive demands of primary one.

This isn’t new information, and resources are being funneled into Early Years in Scotland in a bid to close that gap. As a nation we’re obsessing over literacy and numeracy rates, gearing up to double free childcare, yet we have a secret weapon right in our midst, the very thing that makes us human, and we seem to be willfully ignoring it.

The arts.

Children’s Right and Inequality in Accessing Arts and Culture

In the Herald this week, a leading professor of education made the link between attainment and arts activities: Attainment gap between rich and poor fuelled by out of school classes for middle class pupils.

“Chris McIlroy, a visiting professor of education at Strathclyde University, said extra-curricular activities were fundamental in building confidence and resilience, but pupils from poorer backgrounds often missed out.”

This article struck two alarm bells for me.

  1. If these arts experiences are fundamental in building the confidence and resilience children need to learn and thrive, why on earth are they extra-curricular? Why should a child’s access to them depend on whether their parents have enough money? We have a curriculum that encourages the use of the arts across every subject area, as well as including the expressive arts as a subject area in their own right. Why aren’t poorer children able to access the arts provision they NEED?
  1. Scotland has signed up to the UNCRC, which includes, in article 31, a right to play, leisure, the arts and a cultural life. Article 31 is most commonly cited when people are talking about play, and much of the discussion and policy focus is on outdoor play specifically, but the arts and culture have been included for a reason – they shape the way we think about ourselves, about the world around us, they are what makes us human.


We can’t claim to support children’s rights and ignore their right to access the arts.

The Scottish Household Survey doesn’t give data on children, but it does tell us a bit about how adults access and participate in culture.

In 2014, excluding trips to the cinema, 40% of our most deprived adults didn’t access ANY cultural events or places – no museums, no art galleries, no libraries, no theatres, no music gigs. Excluding reading, 60% of our most deprived adults didn’t take part in any cultural activity – if you look at adults with no qualifications that rises to 73%.

The poorer you are, the less likely to are to engage in culture, even when it’s free to access, and you’re even less likely to take part. I think it’s safe to say that if adults aren’t accessing it, their children won’t be either.

For Scotland’s least advantaged children, early education may be their only opportunity to access arts and culture.

Where does the arts sit within ELCC in Scotland?

While the Curriculum for Excellence has specific experiences and outcomes related to the expressive arts in the early stage (and strong arguments can be made for the arts being a useful vehicle for other areas of the curriculum including wellbeing, numeracy and literacy outcomes) the arts are mentioned in a variety of guidance documents and research. The authors just don’t always use that particular four letter word.

Here are some examples:


 In the Pre-Birth to Three Guidance:

“Offering opportunities for stories, conversations, listening, rhymes, singing, mark making, environmental print, and creative and imaginative play are all effective and fun ways of developing literacy.”

That’s right, the pre-birth to three guidance says music, visual art and drama help develop literacy. It also makes the links between the importance of physical movement and play and how they support healthy brain development, supporting the use of dance and creative movement with small children.

The guidance also impresses the importance of facial expressions and being responsive and building positive relationships, all skills which are honed when taking part in a creative process together. Stories and play are highlighted as great ways to help children express their feelings and cope with transitions. All in all, it’s a powerful argument for including creative arts experiences in early years settings, and in work with families.

Scotland’s Play Strategy, although it only mentions the arts once (in the definition of article 31 of the UNCRC), describes the artistic process in all but name – exploration, learning from trial and error, and crucially the resilience children build as they go through this process. In My World Outdoors, the Care Inspectorate’s guide to the outdoors, there are several examples of good practice where the arts play a key role in rich learning experiences.


A systematic literature review looking at creative learning environments for Education Scotland, found evidence of impact on pupil attainment, confidence, resilience, motivation, problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills and school attendance. The list of activities recommended to promote creativity includes music, visual art, drama in various forms, expressive and imaginative movement and design.

A recent literature review of the Arts in Early Years from the National Endowment of the Arts in the US looked at academic studies over the last 15 years found arts activities help develop social skills, found the creative process helps children regulate their emotions, creative play (or drama as its sometimes known) is one of the most important ways pre-school children form friendships, and that when adults become involved in pretending, children’s pretend play becomes more complex and lasts longer.

American studies looking at long term effects of high levels of arts engagement in children with low socio-economic status, found correlations with better results in science, better results in writing tests, improved Grade Point Average and reduced school drop out rates.

Disadvantaged children who had a high level of arts engagement become adults who are more likely to volunteer, visit the library, read books, vote, and campaign for something they believe in.

And finally, from the Growing Up In Scotland report:

“Children who experience a wide range of activities like being read to, singing nursery rhymes and drawing, from an early age score higher in cognitive ability tests at age 3 than children with less experience of these activities.”

“Amongst children whose parents had lower levels of education, those who had strong early attachment with their mother, had better early language development and more regularly experienced parent-child activities like reading, singing and playing games were more likely to show a greater improvement in their cognitive ability in the pre-school period than those children who did not have these experiences.”

GUS makes it clear shared creative arts experiences are one of the best ways to protect young children from the negative effects of poverty, and a wide range of arts activities are linked to building vital skills and closing the attainment gap.


The arts are mentioned indirectly in almost every key document about children’s development and education – does it really matter if they aren’t mentioned directly? I think it does.

Our children have a right to the arts and a cultural life. That doesn’t just mean the passive consumption, it also means giving them opportunities to develop the skills, knowledge and understanding to express themselves, to be a part of that culture. Children are artists in their own right, and when you start talking about them that way it brings a language of respect and an understanding of how important their methods of self expression are. GIRFEC and the child at the centre only works when you recognise and respect the child’s voice, and the arts give them that voice.

Before they can speak, babies sing, before they walk they can dance, before they write they explore visual art – we need them to be surrounded by adults who recognise this, who are able to provide opportunities and inspiration for young children to continue to explore these mediums, because they are the foundations of healthy social, cognitive and emotional development.

There are clear links between arts activities and the outcomes we seek for every child in Scotland. Children who are least likely to access the arts through their home environment are the ones who could benefit from them the most. This is where ELCC needs to excel. It’s time the arts stopped being a four letter word and started being recognised for the role it can, and should, be playing in closing the attainment gap.

Guest Blog: Why Multi Sensory Approaches are so important for Children with Special Educational Needs

Guest Blog by Ellie Griffiths – Winston Churchill Fellow 2016 (researching new approaches to making theatre for neurodiverse audiences)

In my work as a Theatre Artist I am always striving to create moments of connection between audience and performers. For me theatre is about bringing everyone into the present, to experience something together as a group, and in another way, leaving room for totally personal responses. I like theatre that makes space for all these different types of honest responses…where you are not stuck in your seat, having to be quiet and passive until the show finishes.

It wasn’t until I started working for Oily Cart Theatre Company:, as a regular performer, and now director, that I discovered just how intense and intimate those moments of connection could be…and how rich and spontaneous a piece of theatre is if you genuinely leave room for and celebrate all different types of responses. Oily Cart create specialised theatre for young people with complex needs. They have been crafting, and in many ways pioneered this work, for over thirty years. Their approach is totally multi sensory – every performance can be experienced through all your senses, not just by watching or listening, like most theatre shows. Their work has included performances on trampolines, immersive environments, and even the audience flying up in the air!

As I move forward to start making theatre in Scotland for audiences with all different types of needs; autism, complex disabilities and later stage dementia, the biggest lesson I’m bringing with me, is how powerful a multi sensory approach can be, in opening up pathways of connection with some individuals who might seem almost impossible to reach, or to engage creatively in a way that’s meaningful.

What is so important about multi sensory work is that it evens the playing field; everyone can enjoy a beautiful smell, an interesting texture, a gorgeous singing voice, or a harp being played. Part of the reason a sensory practice is so empowering for young people who relate to the world differently, is that they often have something to teach us about how to experience these moments: a huge part of the reason I love working with people labelled as having autism or profound and multiple learning difficulties (or PMLD), is that they have taught me to slow down, stop rushing from one thing to another, and shown me how to enjoy, in a very pure way, the vibration of a live instrument through the floor; or the feeling of a breeze on my face from a fan; or an interesting shadow cast on the carpet. In a world where we are constantly bombarded and are often multi tasking and rushing around – it is important for our wellbeing to sometimes be reminded to be present, stop our inner monologue, and enjoy ‘simple’ things. In this way, It’s very linked to the practice of mindfulness, And yet many of the audience I work with seem to do this totally naturally.

My favourite memories of making multi sensory theatre are of watching one of our audience members respond in a totally uninhibited way to a sensory moment. I have been really moved watching a young man on the autistic spectrum dancing to some live percussion music in an un-self conscious way during a performance. I was amazed and touched by how pure his response was, and wondered if I had, or would ever, dance so freely. I began to dance with him as best I could and he started laughing, shouting out in joy. I was smiling from ear to ear and we were giggling and laughing, having such a great time. I think he sensed that he had inspired my movements and that I was joining his game. It was a great moment of connection, and really honest because both of us got something from it and he was in control, rather than my expectations of him leading the way. In other parts of my life, the closest I have got to this type of ecstatic movement is at a music festival or with close friends dancing round the living room! These are some my happiest moments, when I’ve felt really free.

Working in this way allows a genuine exchange, rather than it being about ‘doing nice sensory things for the poor disabled children’. It seems to me that multi sensory work is the most naturally accessible form. By working in this way you can include and empower young people with even the most profound disabilities, as articulated beautifully in this video by practitioner Joanna Grace:

The happy side effect is that when you stop talking, and directing a child’s experience, and focus instead on enjoying a sensory experience with them, you end up listening. To truly listen, with your whole body to someone or something, is very rare. When people are listened to they are empowered. Amazing ‘results’ can happen, a whole atmosphere or relationship can change, as exemplified here by intensive interaction expert Phoebe Caldwell:

To stop relying on talking, and to leave room for silence, and authentic responses, means to be with someone, rather than to do to, or for them. This has dignity, and gives the young person the respect they deserve and the time and space they need. (Some research has shown it can take someone labelled as having PMLD up to three minutes to show a response to a sensory activity). If you rush through, you miss moments where someone is trying to communicate with you in their language; be it vocalisation, eye contact, or jus through their breath patterns.

Offering different ways into an experience helps everyone; different types of learners, different types of minds, not just people with disabilities. I am ‘neurotypical’ but I am an experiential learner, I prefer being physically involved. I actively seek out types of performances that are more of an experience than an intellectual exercise. In fact there are many contemporary performances that are implicitly multi sensory, without any specific focus on inclusivity: for example Rain Room, by Random International:, which had four hour queues to get in by the end of it’s Barbican run, and HUG, by Verity Standen: Both are amazing pieces of performance, viewed as ‘high art’ and enjoyed by neurotypical audiences internationally. Yet there is nothing in there that isn’t artistically accessible. Both of these pieces were richly poetic, often moving their audience to tears: this is the creative potential of multi sensory work, which is still, arguably not exploited enough for different types of audiences.

In a sensory world, everyone can be understood in spite of difference: I’d like conclude with a quote from a parent that came to see an Oily Cart show I was part of:

“Finley’s disability often means that he is always being asked to conform orwork hard to fit into a social norm that is not suited to him and so he struggles.But as soon as we walked into the (theatre) space, Finley’s differences wereembraced and even celebrated. I felt like we were in a bubble of Finley’sworld and it was just magical. It was a stark contrast to the harsh worldoutside. I found the whole experience very emotional to watch and the OilyCart Company have reminded me how wonderful my son is and we should beencouraging people to accept his differences rather than make him ‘fit in’.”Parent, JW3 venue June 2015)

Upfront Performance Network – ‘to connect, support and inspire practitioners and artists working creatively with individuals with learning disabilities and complex needs.’
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Exploring the Senses in Your Setting


During April, we’re looking at the ways the Arts can provide excellent opportunities to explore all our senses, and how thinking in a multi-sensory way can help practitioners facilitate more creative experiences.

Why Multi-Sensory Experiences are Important

From birth, children learn about the world around them by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing and hearing, all of which supports vital brain development. Put simply, in a multi-sensory experience, the brain takes in information from two (or more) senses, then combines that information to create a new idea or concept, making a new connection in the brain.  In the beginning babies are learning that, for instance, that yellow and gloopy and sweet means custard, and the more that baby experiences custard the more ‘hard wired’ that information becomes.

This happens thousand of times a day, and the more multi-sensory experiences you have, the more complex connections are made in the brain.  90% of these connections will be in place by the time a child is three, and will provide the scaffolding for the way they learn and process information for the rest of their lives.

This process of combining information and creating something new is at the heart of creativity.  By thinking about the arts in a multi-sensory way, artists and practitioners can develop creative arts experiences that support young children’s cognitive development, encourage their natural curiosity and enrich learning experiences.

As children grow, they develop their own learning styles that may favour one sense over the others (most commonly categorised as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic styles of learning, though others have also been identified) but by thinking in a multi-sensory way – say, reading a story while children explore objects found in the story, or encourage them to explore the rhythm of a poem with movement and paint – the same experience can inspire a variety of different learners and help process the information from the other senses.

Multi-Sensory Messy Play

When the word “sensory” is uttered in an Early Years context, minds most often jump to messy play, whether it’s the more traditional sand and water, food based cornflour gloop and vats of custard, or a more outdoorsy approach with mud, sticks and stones.  Bernadette Duffy, who spoke at our Creative Revolution last year has written a brilliant article clearly outlining the massive contribution open ended messy play makes to young children’s cognitive and creative development, which you can download here.

“Children are being creative when they use materials in new ways, combine previously unconnected materials and make discoveries that are new to them, and messy play enables children to do all these things” Bernadette Duffy

I particularly enjoy the way she challenges some of the negative connotations associated with the word messy, and highlights the importance of adults rolling their sleeves up, getting involved, and letting go, too.

“As practitioners, we need to use our imaginations, take risks and leave the security of structured lessons. Sometimes there is a tendency to prepare the materials for messy play and stand back while the children explore, but children will gain so much more from the experience if we engage in the process with them. We need to learn from and with the children as they engage in messy play.” Bernadette Duffy

While messy play opportunities may provide babies and young children some of their earliest opportunities to be creative, Duffy makes the important point that messy play is not just for the under threes, and links to the benefits in terms of personal, social and emotional development; communication, language and literacy; mathematical development, knowledge and understanding about the world, physical and creative development.

This High Scope article helps tackle some of the barriers to sensory play, and includes some interesting ideas for rejuvenating ignored sand and water tables.

The idea of combining toys or objects from other parts of the Early Years setting with the sand or water table is an interesting one – giving children the opportunity to combine familiar things in unfamiliar ways is a great way to support the development of creative skills, but for some practitioners who are used to the clear segregation of toys and materials into specific areas – building blocks in the construction area, toy food in the home corner – it can be a challenging concept.  Which is a shame, because when something is taken from it’s usual place and used in a totally new way somewhere else, it shows the kind of creativity and ability to transfer knowledge into new situations that is at the heart of the Curriculum for Excellence, and cross curricular working.

Other Multi-Sensory Experiences

Sensory experiences don’t just begin and end with messy play.  One of the reasons Education Scotland encourages outdoor play is that

“the multi-sensory experience outdoors helps children and young people to retain knowledge more effectively. there are opportunities for pupils to learn with their whole bodies on a large scale”

Taking arts experiences outside – exploring movement and storytelling, musical instruments in the woods, mud and sticks as a visual art medium – provides inspiration and lends a new dimension to the creative opportunities.  Giving children the opportunity to explore the vastness of an art gallery like Starcatchers’ & National Galleries of Scotland Toddle Tours, or going to the theatre to experience those new sights and sounds and smells, are equally importance multi-sensory experiences, and in many ways the journey there, the steps or revolving doors or other architectural features, will all play an important part in the learning.

Many artists who create work for young children go to great lengths to think in a multi-sensory way when designing arts experiences like Blue Block Studio, playing with sound, colour, textures and smells.  The creative process within the arts, experimenting and combining things in new ways and learning from the results, gives artists, practitioners and children alike wonderful opportunities to explore their senses and become immersed in multi-sensory experiences.  Whether you’re painting your own feet for the first time, or trying to figure out how to make it snow on your audience, the important thing is having the time and space to experiment with the sensations.

Your Creative, Multi-Sensory Challenge

Sometimes the easiest ways to start thinking in a multi-sensory way is to add a new sensory dimension to something you already do, or to combine art forms.  Play music when the paints are out to see if children engage for longer.  Add scent to playdough.  Let children decide which animal should be in the next verse of Old MacDonald using toys as props. Run in circles then try and draw the route you took.

The important thing is to build on something that already interests the children you work with, and create something new together.  It may be a disaster, it may be a triumph, but either way it will start everyone’s brain synapses firing in a different way.

Blue Block Studio

Blue Block Studio is Katy Wilson and Starcatchers’ multi-sensory creative play space which is about to tour to Dundee Rep, Platform, Glasgow and the Imaginate Festival in Edinburgh this Spring.  The experience is specially designed for babies aged 0 – 24 months and their adults to enjoy time together in a calm, beautiful and stimulating environment.

Blue Block Studio77 Solen Collet

To find out more about Blue Block Studio or to book tickets follow this link.

Inspiring Adults Month: Our Children Need Creative Adults

This month our Creative Skills Manager Heather Armstrong looks at Inspiring Adults, and discusses the role of the adult in developing children’s creativity. Heather will be exploring this subject further at the Inspiration Days coming up shortly. 

In the ten years since Starcatchers began, a lot has changed in the way we think about, talk about and legislate for early childhood across health, education and play.  Advances in neuroscience mean we know more than ever about the way the brain develops in the first three years of life, there has been an increasing focus on the Early Years as a time of key development and as an area of key investment in terms of social change.  With the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence and more recently GIRFEC, there has been a shift away from adult led approaches, putting the voice of the child at the heart of practice.

But what should this look like in practice, and where is the role of the adult within child-led creative experiences? 

The Trouble with Telling Children Exactly What To Do

Ten years ago creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson shared his TED Talk Do Schools Kill Creativity with the world: it has now been watched more than 37 MILLION times.  (If you’ve never heard of him, take 20 minutes out of your life and nudge those viewing figured towards the 38 million mark.)  He is widely recognised as an inspirational figure and advocates for profound changes in our education systems:

“I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.” Sir Ken Robinson

This isn’t just one man’s opinion.  Developmental scientists at MIT and UC-Berkley have conducted separate studies into the effect of direct instruction on the learning of young children.  The results are clear: direct instruction can limit young children’s learning and discourage curiosity.  Telling children exactly what to do makes them less creative.

It’s powerful evidence like this, along with a raft of other academic research and evidence, that has helped shape current thinking around Early Learning and Childcare away from direct instruction and towards learning being child led.  Across the sector there is a heroic battle to rid every setting of colouring in sheets, fields of identical paper plate sunflowers and other activities where adults lead children step by step through instructions with a specific product or goal in mind.

The future of Early Learning and Childcare lies in child led experiences that foster natural curiosity into a love of learning.  But what does that look like?

What It Means to be Child Led

Firstly I think it’s important say what being child led isn’t supposed to be.  Child led doesn’t mean adults have nothing to contribute, and doesn’t mean “everything has to come from the children”.  While I love and applaud the idea that Early Learning should be about encouraging and building on the natural curiosity and creativity we are born with, an education system based purely on asking children what they want to learn, or what children are “naturally” drawn to, runs the very real risk of perpetuating the equity gap it’s trying to close.

In some parts of Scotland, practitioners are working with two and three year olds who look blankly at, then ignore, open ended materials such as building blocks.  Visual arts materials languish in corners untouched by children who don’t see their relevance.  When you are a child who is growing up in an environment with a lack of stimulation or positive experiences, whose curiosity has been given few or no outlets, where self-expression has been squashed, well meaning adults giving you free access to materials or asking you what you want to learn isn’t enough.  For blank paper to be more interesting than the passive experience of watching a digital screen, you need to understand the potential and relevance of that piece of paper.

Adults Offering Inspiration and Opportunity

Often, the greatest resources a child has access to are the adults around them.  We can and should be sources of knowledge and inspiration, introducing and exploring the arts in a way that helps young children see not just the joy of watching and taking part in great arts experiences, but the relevance of the arts in their young lives, most particularly as an outlet for self-expression.

Activities, exercises, experiences, provocations – whatever you call them, they are not created equal.  Introducing the basic concept of a rhythm game that then gives children the opportunity to alter that rhythm, take turns to lead the group, explore what their bodies are capable of and develop their observation skills is not the same as an adult leading a game of Simon Says.   The best arts experiences provide both inspiration AND opportunity, whether that’s a professional dance production with opportunities for young children to explore the space and move with the dancers, or an Early Years practitioner taping paint brushes to garden canes and wondering who wants to come outside and paint the biggest treasure map EVER.

Education Scotland have defined creativity skills, but if you want a quick way to check if your arts experience is a creative, child-led one, ask yourself four questions:

1.     Are the children using their imaginations?

2.     Are they able to make decisions that are meaningful to them?

3.     Can they see the results of those decisions?

4.     Is there a right and wrong answer to what you’re asking them to do?

If we want children to use their imaginations, we need to provide them with stimulus that fires their imagination in the first place.  Start from what you know they love (or think they might love) and expand on that.  If a child wants to run around outside all morning playing pirates, use a quick scribble and some imaginative play to show mark making can be used to make a treasure map.  Next time they want a treasure map, they can make one themselves.

The decisions being meaningful to them is absolutely crucial.  There’s no point letting children choose between painting trees in light green or dark green paint if they don’t care what colour the tree is, don’t want to paint a tree in the first place, or they don’t even really understand what a tree is.

If we want children to be active learners, explore, learn through trial and error and ultimately build resilience, they need to see the results of their decisions.  They need to mix all the paint colours into a sludgy brown and paint over the beautiful image they already made.  If you ask who might live on another planet, be open to the possibility of a world populated with princesses, fish and border terriers.

And remember: the great thing about the arts is that there are so many different ways to be right.

Be An Inspiring Adult

Think about babies and their obsessions with car keys, remote controls and mobile phones.  Older versions or duplicates only hold their attention for a short while. From when they are very young, children are drawn to whatever is important to adults.  Imagine the arts were as cherished, and as important, as our car keys.

If adults stop singing, dancing, making silly faces and get embarrassed when another adult appears, children will learn that all those things are somehow shameful and wrong.  If adults say “I can’t sing” when they are one who knows all the words to every song in the nursery, or “I can’t draw” when their pen control is vastly better than the average toddler, children will learn to use the same excuses for fear of not being good enough.

If adults introduce arts experiences with joy and enthusiasm, setting loose structures that support children to join in, share and ultimately take charge of the creative process, children will value the power of their own creativity.

Creative Challenges for March

The first thing everyone can do is make the decision to stop saying “I can’t dance/sing/draw/act” in front of the children you work with.  Just stop it.

These downloadable Inspiration Cards can be a great way of generating random ideas and taking yourself through a creative process with the children you work with.  Some of the ideas will be great, some may be a disaster, both are important experiences in terms of creativity.

Inspiration Cards blank-01.jpg


Finally, watch this film about  Spacedust, a beautiful example of a Starcatchers’ interactive performance experience, which saw Starcatchers’ artists in the role of the naïve adult, giving children the opportunity to explain their world, be the experts and take the lead in different ways.  In settings where “everything has to come from the children”, unless a child had wondered aloud what would happen if aliens landed outside one day, something like this could never happen.