Sights, sounds, tastes and smells are all around us. We are constantly exposed to colour, light and music. We all have memories associated with the senses and understand how inspiring they can be.
A large number of special schools and even mainstream primaries have sensory rooms full of light and colour. Teachers of pupils with special educational needs will often use a multisensory approach, as research shows that it works for children with profound and multiple difficulties.
But there is a growing awareness of the importance of making day-to-day teaching more multisensory for other children.
The tendency is for the youngest children to get the most sensory opportunities during nursery and reception years, when they are given plentiful opportunities to touch objects. As pupils get older, such experiences become less common.
"It is a mistake to forget that the brain continues to develop after these early years of education, and so quickly opportunities for multisensory learning are missed in primary education and even more so in secondary," says Carol Allen, an advisory teacher for ICT and inclusion in North Tyneside.
A full curriculum can mean there are fewer chances for hands-on work in primary and secondary. But advocates of multisensory teaching say it is worth devoting time to this approach, because stimulating children's senses helps them to learn better: if more areas of the brain are engaged, pupils will absorb and remember more information.
Giving children a broader variety of ways to express themselves may help them to become more engaged. Adding colour, sound and excitement to a class can make it more absorbing for those with behavioural problems.
Pictures, music and film clips may already play a part in your teaching. But just remembering that pupils appreciate a range of stimuli is important, whether they are images, sounds, opportunities for movement or objects to touch and smell.
A multisensory approach offers children an alternative outlet for expressing and processing what they have learned, Ms Allen says.
"If you have a barrier with reading and writing and the primary route for investigating and finding out is through notes, textbooks and worksheets, you face additional problems," she explains. "If the only way to get the information at the start of a new topic is via a video and you have a sensory impairment, you may not pick up all that your peers do.
"The chance for your brain to receive information via sight, sound, taste, touch and smell gives the opportunity for deep learning that is assimilated more quickly and linked to the other memories, skills and information that the brain holds securely."
Adapting the techniques
At Shaftesbury High in Harrow, a specialist school for pupils with complex needs, teachers cater for all needs by using a range of learning styles, including kinaesthetic, visual and aural.
"If you saw one of our science lessons you would see learners taking part in an experience often involving listening, role playing, watching, even tasting sometimes," says Kerry Sternstein, the school's deputy head.
"Our pupils recently studied the poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. As well as reading, listening to and acting out the text, they made a sound collage. We even used percussion instruments to make rain noises and the sound of horses' hoofs."
At Shaftesbury there is also a sensory theatre, where pupils can indulge their senses with a range of experiences. These include a starry sky at night, a bubble wall and changing colours and sounds. For some, this can even involve desensitisation - for example, autistic pupils are shown films on a giant screen to introduce them to, and help them relax during, potentially difficult experiences such as being in a crowd.
Christopher Davies taught in primary schools before co-founding the Bamboozle Theatre Company, which runs multisensory performance tours and staff training. Using more of children's senses means that teachers can "hook" their interest, according to Mr Davies. "Teaching in a multisensory way engages all channels of the brain," he says.
Mr Davies works with schools to create multisensory areas. One project was a sea cave made from boxes, shells and nets to create visual and tactile stimulation for the children. A musical soundtrack of waves washing across sand was played. "We put this rich environment together very quickly," Mr Davies says.
Another school created an imaginary island. Children used it as inspiration for 3D models; teachers used it to teach coordinates, art, problem-solving and mapping.
Making sure you have a plan
But it's not enough just to provide children with an all-singing, all-flashing sensory room or beautiful home-made sensory area.
"Without a plan for what they will learn and assessment afterwards, it can be hard to move on from exploratory learning to something more progressive," explains SEN consultant Joanna Grace.
Ms Grace trains teachers in how to tell a "sensory story". To be effective this has to be relayed in clear, crisp sentences, combined with sensory experience. For example, a hairdryer can be used to illustrate a great wind blowing and dried leaves can convey the scent of autumn. Typically, these stories are used in teaching pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties but they have been well received in mainstream schools.
"In primary schools, introducing sensory stories can improve pupils' creative writing as they add tastes, sounds and scents to their storytelling," she says. "In secondary schools, pupils can be challenged to pare down a full-length story into 10 sentences conveying its essence. This is a fantastic comprehension task."
Smell can be a powerful way of getting children to link facts together, according to Ms Grace. "Particular smells remind us of particular times, so if learning is accompanied by a scent, that knowledge can be accessed more easily when that scent is re-experienced. Beginning topic lessons with the same scent each time can link learning together."
Scent can help in other situations, too, Ms Grace says: "Having a drop of essential oil on a hanky when revising and then again when in the exam might just help."
When planning lessons, identify what effect you are aiming for and allow time and resources within the lesson for it to happen.
Jane Kendall, a teacher, special educational needs coordinator and trainer of teaching assistants, suggests that teachers encourage children to "hear, see, say, write and do".
"A lot of teaching doesn't allow children to do all those things," she says. "If children only see information it is often harder to remember it. They will remember much more if they have to see, hear and write it. If they then have the opportunity to tell someone what they have been learning, they remember most."
Ms Kendall says that giving pupils an opportunity to consolidate what they have learned is a crucial part of this work, especially with SEN children.
"Using colours, for example on whiteboards or worksheets, helps children to relocate information. As homework, children can be asked to share verbally with their parents what they have learned at school. This way of repeating things helps children to commit information to their long-term memory."
Using a multisensory approach doesn't mean changing your teaching style, she says. "It just means there are extra things you can do with colour, pictures, talking and doing.
"Allowing children to physically make words with plastic letters can help them with spelling and reading. Have plastic letters that they can put in order to form a word before writing it down."
The risk of overdoing it
Surprisingly, there is little research on the impact of multisensory teaching on pupils' learning. Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of special educational needs organisation Nasen, advises teachers to start slowly.
"Don't do too much too soon and don't do it all together," Petersen says. "You have to be careful not to go overboard, particularly for children with autism who may not cope well with lots of changes.
"It wouldn't be good for them if they came in on a Monday and found that the classroom had been completely altered over the weekend. You can overload the senses as much as you can develop them."
- Use the same colours for the same topics to help tie learning together.
- Using colour is helpful to highlight facts, but many children find worksheets more accessible if they include white space.
- Playing background music can help pupils to relax. Try a middle-of-the-road radio station.
- New technology can help multisensory teaching. Devices such as iPads give children easy access to sounds, pictures and games, as well as the chance to make storyboards with photographs they have taken themselves.
- Set up "working walls" to refer to during lessons, with the main information related to the topic you are covering. Draw children's attention to it as you talk.
- Try to find unusual small objects that can be used as maths counters.
- Make a multisensory area in the class to inspire pupils. This is easier if you have fixed points where you can attach string or rope.
- Hooks on the door allow you to hang objects that give a visual clue as to what the lesson may be about.
- A big piece of corrugated card or a circle of card can be used to make a separate space in the classroom.
- Covering furniture and walls with paper can also transform the area.
- Use a tent to create a sensory area. It can be a cosy (or spooky) area for storytelling and a canvas to shine lights on.
- Using colours helps children to recall information.
- As homework you could ask them to share verbally what they have learned with their parents.
- Use stories. Children can join in with the rhythm verbally and physically.
- Set up different "stations" where children can listen to a story, draw, read with a partner, write using a computer and re-enact with puppets and video their own version.
- The Quality Improvement Agency on multisensory learning: bit.lyPFW30g
- Resources from the TES website on teaching children with dyslexia: bit.lysUibVb
- Sensory Matters, a series of teaching resources on the
TES website: bit.lyz85x9I
- Tacon, R. and Wing, T. "A multisensory approach to teaching arithmetic", National Teacher Research Panel (2004). www.ntrp.org.uknode62
- Davies, C. Creating Multi-sensory Environments (Routledge, 2011).