Guest Post 3: Liz Clark “Dancing with Acorns”

I danced everyday with a class of eight children from Acorns class from Ellesmere College in Leicester and their teaching team. Everyday we went into a studio room, a beautiful blank canvas, with nothing in it except us, a couple of cameras, some post it notes and music. All eight children from Acorns class are on the autistic spectrum and they all started school in September.

Monday: Day One:

We sing hello

There’s music (polka’s, jig’s, a bit of Penguin Cafe Orchestra)

I smile a lot and encourage the adults to move around by looking at what the children are doing in response to the music and copying it. (The children are moving already; climbing, tapping, swaying)

I call out the movements I see and invite the other children and adults to join, understanding that it is an invitation only, not an obligation. This practice uses the body and the child’s own emerging body language to build up engagement. The adult (teacher, LSA, artist) offers their dancing selves as a resource.

However, nearly all the children ignore the adults, some almost like magnets that repel each other. We move close.. they move away, not distressed but not engaging.

We bring sensory props into the room hoping they will might take the invitation to join us in our exploration of ‘autumn’; a enormous trug full of conkers, silky smooth lycra, crunchy shiny emergency blankets.

The adults work hard to create environments with the props that might draw the children in. We sometimes draw in a tentative acknowledgement from a child, but for the most part our efforts feel fruitless. Children spend a lot of time at the edges of the room. Most children are quite passive – so when we go to engage them, they don’t respond, it’s hard to reach them and to connect with them. One child, Cayden, barricades himself into the corner of the room.

Using an evaluation tool developed by Professor Ferre Laevers the children range from a 1 to a 3 on the scale of Involvement and well being.

All the adults get a little downhearted.

Friday: Day Five

There are dance duets happening all over the room. Rolling, skipping, galloping, turning. The activity is very sustained. Children are coming to adults, making good eye contact, initiating and/or joining in with movement conversations. The staff are very engaged, so engaged in fact I have time to write observations on lots of post it notes, jotting down who is dancing with who, what they are creating.

We dance with the lycra – wrapping, making dens, floating, sliding. We roll in floors of the shiniest, crunchiest silver.

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We throw, squash and balance sponges, the children initiate lots of activity. We add the sponges to the lycra and make them jump into the air, we all sing “boom” as they jump. Cayden smiles and laughs – this is the child who barricaded himself into the corner of the room on day one! Cayden and Harry experience an enormous sponge hammock bath. Surely everyday should be a green sponge hammock day?!

There is noticeable upward trend on the scale of involvement, with most children taking a steady progression over the week. You can see’s Caydens engagement rising over the five days as he got more drawn into the action and props for example. The scales are really useful quick tool to see if what you are offering is building on children’s fascinations therefore engaging and accessible for them. It’s important to note that, for a child with ASD, the world can seem unpredictable and so their reactions to the same stimulus may fluctuate on different days. Any creative work always has to bear that in mind. Progression can be linear but it can also be more chaotic depending on all the factors that the child is dealing with at that particular moment, on that particular day.

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As an artist I am interested to find out what the tipping point was in these sessions that take us from a day one to a day five?

There are lots of tools and approaches that have been common in all the years I’ve been dancing with children with autism:

  • We build on the children’s fascinations – using their movements and their ideas to build the content for the class.
  • We animate the space – moving the props to create an invitation and interest.
  • We ignite curiosity – meaning anxiety is not easily activated in the brain.
  • We use contact work as a means of communication rather than talking. Over the week we add more and more contact work. We aim to make physical contact possible leading into lifting (us lifting them) but then journeying towards a sharing of power, an equal sharing of weight.
  • We offered our backs as an invitation rather than approaching children using eye contact. We find that the children find the ‘back invitation’ more intriguing and less intimidating that face on.
  • We use a space that is virtually empty –  despite the children’s initial anxiety our studio space (which was just a sectioned off part of the hall) was deemed a success.  The staff liked the fact that there was less distraction and felt there was significantly more interaction in this space than in the classroom.
  • We use ‘objects of reference’ to help the children transition into the space. Staff feedback that this was really helpful. The children were much more relaxed coming into the space.
  • We spend lots of time down on the floor, which everyone enjoyed.
  • The adult team use their skills to collaborate; artist and teachers had a very good flow of communication. Staff were great at communicating when children we getting over stimulated and a joint decision could then be made about where to take the session next.

“They need this everyday. This is so different to yesterday – brilliant responses, so much interaction”

“We are getting to the situation where children are coming to adults to make the experience happen. This is the complete opposite of Monday morning where we never thought we’d engage them at all!” –  Class teachers, Acorns Class, Ellesmere College

Updated Gallery!

The Unlocking the World project has been in full flow for the past couple of months with lots of events, workshops and performances happening. To take a look at what we have been up to, head over to our gallery! 

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Its all been very exciting! 

Guest Post 2: Liz Clark “Why I do my job”

Amis doesn’t want to join in. He circles the room, sprinting as fast as he can whenever anyone comes close or offers and invitation to join in. This is day three of a five day project with children at Ashmount Special School part of a Paul Hamlyn Foundation funded project called Unlocking the World by Attenborough Arts Centre. Amis is on the autistic spectrum, his Individual Education Plan says that interaction is difficult for him. Today I start with some sensory stories – we’re on a boat, we’re out at sea, rocking sliding, rolling. None of it appeals to Amis who shows his indifference to it by staying at the edges of the room.

But then something changes. The teacher and LSA’s in the room notice a shift in the atmosphere. I have brought out enormous garden tubs, each one stuffed full of sponges of different colours and textures. Amis walks over, has a look and walks away. I move the buckets into the middle of the room, Amis comes back, has another look and then walks away. I move the buckets elsewhere, perhaps subconsciously knowing that Amis is at least vaguely interested in the offer of a tub of sponge. Emma, his teacher, suddenly declares “he’s following you Liz” and I notice that this time, as I put the sponges down Amis is right behind me. This time he steps into the tub of sponges and then steps out. I move the buckets again, and Amis follows, stepping in and out 4 or 5 times. On the last time I step in also and he looks at me, steps out and then retreats away.

I repeat the action and so does Amis – this time I sit in the sponges, and so does Amis. The tub is full of yellow sponges. I tip and tilt the tub with Amis inside, and he smiles. I feel a rush like rollercoaster, the exhilaration of connecting with a child who has autism. I tip him out, and he rolls out along the floor with about 40 sponges. Then he picked them up meticulously and puts them back into the tub and gets back in. I offer him different coloured sponges but he’s not having any of it, each blue or pink sponge that is put into the tub is rejected. He carefully sorts and chooses until only yellow ones remain. We squash, we roll, we slide, a conversation made up of our hands, feet and faces. Some of it is my idea, some of it is Amis’. We’re journeying together, making a new experience, creating it afresh, it’s a collaboration.

I pull a sheet of white lycra over our heads and again Amis smiles. His feet are now sticking out of the bucket straight into the air. I waft cool air onto us both and pull the lycra over and around us. Amis is very calm, very content and smiles a lot. Staff are busy writing on post it notes… a number of staff write the same observation about Amis and then realise that they have both clocked the same thing. Everyone feels boosted and confidence rises.

I look around the room, it is a carnage of sponges, lycra, brightly coloured plastic tubs and bodies pulling, rolling, hiding, sharing, communicating. The session ends 25 minutes later and a teacher writes “Amis has been 100% engaged; initiating, copying in the sponge tub play. Job satisfaction? A big fat yes….

 

 

Guest Post : Liz Clark

 

Atelier is the French word for “workshop” or “studio” where artists and students can work together producing pieces art.  In the Reggio approach to education the atelier studio is equipped with a variety of open ended materials that gives children a change to explore, experiment, express themselves, make mistakes, follow through an idea, plan and then create and share ideas with their peers.

The studio offer lots of ways for children to interact and explore, there is no right or wrong way for them to do something. This means that they can find their own way of working, their own preferred materials to use and their own ideas to follow.

 ‘Our image of the child is rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent and, most of all connected to adults and other children.’ Loris Malaguzzi

My role as a Sensory Atelier at Ashmount Special School is to introduce new concepts, materials, music to the children, to spark their curiosity and creativity and establish a new explorative way of learning.

“A place to represent the world in many different ways…

A place for creativity, imagination and exploration…

Of provocations and challenges

Of tenacity and problem solving.”

‘Atelier’ by Patricia Hunter-McGrath

In a traditional Reggio setting the provocations are mainly the visual arts, and the atelier steps back and observes how play unfolds, joining in at carefully chosen moments. As a dancer I’m interested in bringing the moving body to these journeys of discovery, using the body as an invitation, a provocation. What’s interesting about the moving body is that it’s an invitation that children take up gladly.

We can’t under estimate how fertile this invitation can be. For children who seem ‘in their own world’ it difficult to break into that place and to begin communication. But the body speaks, conversation can be had, senses can be explored and art can be created through and with the body. It’s exhilarating, making that connection with a child, taking that journey together…