Why and How? Engaging children with Special Educational Needs in creating art and cultural experiences – Royal Academy, March 2015

Royal Academy of Arts, sculpture by Frank Stella

Back in March I was kindly invited by Molly Bretton, Access Manager, to a one day workshop on children with special education needs (SEN) and art at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA). I have been to one of their SEN family workshops before and I was very impressed with the way in which art can break down barriers, and in a supportive atmosphere allow a whole family to enjoy themselves regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities. It seems ridiculous to break it down in those terms – I witnessed families having a good time and that is what really stayed with me. This conference was an opportunity for the RA to share experiences with others and look at how children with special educational needs can be supported in a gallery or museum setting.

2015-03-21 10.11.13

I was initially surprised by the large number of participants from special schools on the workshop. There was not the range of professionals from museums that I was expecting, I don’t know if this is because the workshop was at a gallery rather than a museum with a focus on art, rather than say, handling collections. But for me the principles behind the workshops and interaction that the Royal Academy provide can be used across the museum/gallery spectrum. There was so much good knowledge, examples and interaction that came out of the day I could see museum professionals benefitting regardless of the nature of their collections.

In particular I was interested to see how families who have children with SEN are supported. There seems to be a massive gap for this type of support. There are museums and galleries offering regular family programming, and schools/education programmes for SEN children in special schools, but there doesn’t seem to be the support for families with SEN children at weekends and in the holidays.

Molly began the day with some food for thought, highlighting how art and its value in education is being undermined. This lack of support should really be pushing us all to share experiences, pool resources in order to strengthen our voice. Lorraine Petersen took over to give a fantastic background to SEN support in schools, the recent changes to funding for children with SEN and she talked about how schools are moving away from statements. As a parent to a child with additional needs, I found myself completely slipping into parent mode, I got a lot from her talk and found she hit the nail on the head time and time again about the challenges children with special needs face and how they are supported in school.

Lorraine Petersen setting SEN needs and support in school into context
Lorraine Petersen setting SEN needs and support in school into context

The statistics she gave us speak for themselves, 17.9% of pupils in schools in England have SEN, that equates to 1.4 million kids. Many of these children have complex interlocking and overlapping needs. What really stuck in my head is her belief that we are meeting 21st century children with a 20th century toolkit. 1 in 8 children are born prematurely, 96% survive and over half will have a disability. Many of the statistics she gave us were sobering to hear, in particular that 10% of children and young people will have a mental health need at any one time.

She also gave us some great ideas of how museums and galleries can offer their events and resources to families in targeted ways. All local councils have to publish their ‘local offer’ which explains how they support children with SEN. I have included a link to my local offer in Bromley, you can add events to the leisure section, a great way to connect with families who are looking for support and tailored events.

Lorraine also talked about the new schools curriculum, how this gives primary schools more flexibility and opportunity to be creative in the way that they teach. But at the same time teachers really need the training and confidence to implement art in the classroom. She talked about preparing children for adulthood, life skills, quality of life and resilience. Art can facilitate social groups and friendships, museum programmes provide so much more than an educational experience, in particular for children with SEN. Ultimately a creative and flexible curriculum can open up education for many SEN kids.

Rubens and his legacy - interactive gallery session
Rubens and his legacy – interactive gallery session

The initial talks then gave way to practical sessions, a group of us trooped into the Rubens exhibition and sat around on the floor whilst Abigail Hirsch talked through her interactive gallery session. I loved Abigail’s session, it was a revelation, sitting in a busy Royal Academy exhibition on a Saturday. She literally got us to say what we could see in a painting, not interpretation, working out what the imagery was or what the artist was trying to say. There was no worry about saying the wrong thing, we could see trees, fleshy bodies, vines, ivy. We each got to pull things out of the bag, sensory objects that heightened our awareness of the picture. Wine soaked cotton wool in a pot to smell which evoked the drunken revelry, heavy and sweet. Chiffon scarves draped over our heads helped us feel the summer breeze in the painting. Even a hot water bottle to simulate warm flesh and bread dough in a bag to give the texture of a Rubenesque, fleshy, fuller figure.

Sitting on the floor planning our own interactive session
Sitting on the floor planning our own interactive session

She even dished out a few grapes to eat, I have never sat in a gallery munching on a grape before. It felt naughty and wrong, but the sweet juicy grape brought alive the picture in front of me. I have never experienced a painting in this sensory way before, and to do it sitting on the floor at the Royal Academy says so much to me about their attitude to accessing art for all.

Burnt matches give the smell of fire, bread dough in a bag evokes a fleshy belly!
Burnt matches give the smell of fire, bread dough in a bag evokes a fleshy belly!

Abigail told us how her sessions work, how they are as much about getting the children to interact with each other as well as the painting. If they are able, passing objects to each other and sharing objects like scarves as a group. Some objects could also be used to represent the feeling of the painting; metal, cold to the touch can give a sense of a chilly winter’s day.

Harry Baxter - multisensory  handling boxes
Harry Baxter – multisensory handling boxes

This sensory theme was continued with another session I attended, led by Harry Baxter, who talked us through their multi sensory handling boxes. I am not sure what I was expecting but if I had come into the room and looked at the table I would not have thought of the objects laid out could be used in a SEN session. There were watercolour paints, brushes, oil paints, pestle and mortar. Basically the artists ‘tools of the trade’, they were fascinating to me as I haven’t picked up a paintbrush since school.

Artists materials used in handling sessions
Artists materials used in handling sessions

The boxes were often put together to mirror a particular exhibition and artist. In particular I loved the sculpture box; stone, marble, and wood, it was wonderful to feel different weights and textures. I truly take my hat of to this approach of making art accessible. The boxes were used in sessions that included a trip to the gallery and opportunities for the children to make their own art work.

Sculpting materials also have braille on the side
Sculpting materials also have braille on the side
Not overlooking the sensory uses of basic artists' materials
Not overlooking the sensory uses of basic artists’ materials

Theses objects were not about token sensory experiences with materials, but a real attempt to evoke the practice of being an artist. The feel of the paper, the texture of acrylic paint, the fingertip discovery of watercolour painted on paper. For their Anselm Kiefer exhibition they recreated small canvases that could be passed around and shared, blind and partially sighted visitors could get a sense of how the artist worked. We sat in a circle and passed these objects to each other, things I have never held before. Sanguine, a red chalk, used by Leonardo Da Vinci, which I couldn’t resist using to make my own marks on my notepad and then smearing the earthy colour around with my fingertips.

This canvas was made to supplement the Anslem Kiefer exhibition
This canvas was made to supplement the Anslem Kiefer exhibition
Exploring the texture of acrylic paints.
Exploring the texture of acrylic paints.

Participants on the workshop were beginning to ask their own questions, how the practicalities of working with children in this way can be managed. It was thrilling to talk not about limits and boundaries but flexibility and adapting sessions to the children, delivering more complex sessions where appropriate or simpler sensory handling sessions if needed.

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My final session of the day was with Paul Morrow that looked at evaluations and how qualitative and quantitative assessment can be used effectively within art teaching practice. This was a great chance for teachers and museum professionals to compare notes and share experiences. How to evaluate SEN workshops and use that evaluation to bid for funding. To show the value of this type of programme can be incredibly hard with children who are non-verbal. It was good to hear about different approaches, I particularly liked the idea of focussing on an individual child and telling a story of their learning, a kind of progression in their learning experience. For each child, particularly with SEN, progress and learning is such an individual thing. You can’t talk about levels when for some social interaction is a large learning step. Often it is not about outcomes but the process of learning.

What came through strongly for me on the day is the importance of good relationships between museum and gallery professionals and teachers. Absolutely key when working with SEN children is the preparation and pre-visits, this is the prime reason that the art sessions the Royal Academy run work so well. This is not about filling out one form that has to cover a number of children and all their different personalities, needs and requirements. It is about visiting their setting and forming a relationship with the teachers and children. Whilst I appreciate this is not always possible because of time and economic constraints, when it comes to SEN children it can make a massive difference. I sat next to a teacher who told me about one of the visits that the art practitioner had made to her school, she really highlighted how important it was and how the sessions at the Royal Academy had made such a difference to her children.

The day may have been about an art gallery but I could see so many parallels with more traditional museum settings and it really opened up avenues for interaction that I had not thought about before. The Royal Academy are using that experience with SEN children from special schools and widening their offer to families with children who have special needs too. This is where I think the gap in provision is, for families who need a bit more choice and a bit more support when visiting culture venues.

The best outcomes of the day were made by those teachers, gallery and museum educators, and artists who were sharing knowledge, experiences, asking questions and taking back new ideas and inspiration to their own settings. Perhaps the most important aspect was a confidence in trying to be a bit different, supporting children who do have complex and often challenging needs. There are of course many regular school kids who visit museums and galleries all the time, but it is those children with SEN that often benefit more from this type of interaction, learning social skills, having fun, and quite simple experiencing life.

A sanguine
My own sanguine scribbles

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You can find out more about the Royal Academy SEN schools sessions here
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/teachers-and-students-2

A useful link with more info on sensory objects can be found here http://www.sensoryobjects.com/

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