Using sensory theatre to achieve communication breakthroughs with SEND children

March 24, 2016

Rachel Riggs – creative director of ‘Imaginary Leaps’ – theatre play for early years and DNA Puppetry & Visual Theatre, UK, reflects on sensory play and its importance in finding ways to communicate effectively with special needs children.

For the past four years whilst resident in Western Australia, I have been exploring the world of sensory play with special needs children of all ages. As a founder member of Sensorium Theatre (special needs theatre based in Perth) I have experienced working in special schools through many different roles. As a performer, workshop leader, stage director and stage manager with the company, I have witnessed the undeniable benefits of first hand experiences with sensory stimulation. This always takes many forms presented in performance and embedding workshops, using objects and materials to touch, taste, smell, hear and see, in a multi-layered approach of sensory interaction.


At the core of my work with Imaginary Leaps play research workshops, is a creative open learning process, child-led, with active learning through puppetry, often innovating original theatrical material with and for young children.  The sessions also explore sensory materials and objects, with music and movement, to stimulate imaginative play, engaging the children as participants and audience in a process of creating characters, stories and mini-worlds.

There is a fragile border between play and theatrical dimension’ (Roberto Frabetti, La Baracca Theatre, 2009)

Our aim is to go on an adventure – a journey of investigation with the children, to support and develop their imaginations and learning. Using different themes and narratives, sensory learning environments are created to immerse children and staff into a transformational world of colour, texture, light, movement and sound.

In an Imaginary Leaps session, the puppet is the sensory focus, beginning an investigative framework of activities, scaffolding different sensory play techniques within a theme or story. Sitting in a circle to make a clear space, provides focus for the puppet and welcomes everyone in a secure routine. Bobby is a soft, tactile child puppet where characteristic gestures and features are only gently suggested so the children’s own imaginations can imprint what they want to see. Simple eyes and a curved line for a mouth, allows the child the freedom to ‘fill in the gaps’, changing its expression in the eyes of the child. Bobby is non-verbal, and built to be touched and embraced, as required by the child, and can be any gender or culture.

Over the sessions, most children build a strong bond with Bobby and every child has their own relationship with the puppet. As they get to know the puppet and the puppeteer in the sessions, they often spontaneously show affection when they say hello, touching and enjoying expressing how they feel to the puppet, even if that is sometimes a punch! I remind them that Bobby is a real baby puppet, gathering him up and modelling comforting. I model treating with respect, that hitting and punching is not tolerated, as the puppet is an image of a human being and it can imply it’s OK to hit real people too, so it is necessary to model good, positive influences.


Children practise all skills through rhythmic repetition and it is through play that children imitate ‘are we happy or sad?’ or more complex emotional states. Bobby the puppet listens to a four year old girl expressing her feelings, she says she feels ‘tickly inside’ and ‘she’s not right’ she says in the third person, echoing her parents’ voice, as she has been feeling unwell.

Puppetry has a ‘distancing effect’. Just as Rod Hull was never blamed for his puppet emu’s bad behaviour, a young person can make a puppet say and do things which they would feel unable to do. This allows children to express what they truly feel and gives a greater understanding of how to meet their needs. The affirmation that the child is able to communicate with other children, other people, through the puppet increases self-esteem and confidence.

Puppetry in its play, is an activity that provides sensory stimulation simultaneously for intellectual and emotional development. In practice, for the participants in the sensory play, it brings the human basic feeling of oneself, a feeling of one’s unique value, coming from deeply inner fields of their own personality, not from external incentives or rewards.  It is a great experience for all, children and adults, to become participant and audience of this unique process of imagination.

Sensorium theatre’s first show ‘The Jub Jub Tree’ is set in a forest installation setting, made of tactile materials. One of the animals in the story, Rooster (a puppet character), plays with the children to role play ‘a day in the life of a Rooster’ and make up stories in the embedding workshops. They make Rooster puppets, with hand over hand application to aid, but letting the children do as much as possible.

From the children’s ideas, exploring the sensory environment with their Rooster puppets, they communicate suggestions for a ‘Mrs Chicken’ with eggs and nest building materials, which are supplied to aid their play. There is a wealth of individual creative processes and learning journeys, with adults spending more time with each child, slowing down and exploring the different sensory qualities of the materials such as feathers. Techniques are adapted for individual needs, for example, a boy had a phobia about feathers so instead, tissue paper became his sensory material to play with.


The children take ownership and pride in the puppets they have made; they continue their experiential journeys in the classroom or at home or bring their creation to the final storytelling performance. Many children begin to show progression in speech and language, motor skills and concentration, even in the first few sessions of role play, growing in confidence to participate more and enjoying the freedom of the sensory play, communicating and connecting.

More recently, as Early Years consultant with Sensorium Theatre, I helped the company to create and develop a new research initiative into sensory play with preschool children. Over six weeks, with the narrative of the popular story ‘Were Going On a Bear Hunt’, sensory objects and materials were used to stimulate and aid early development within a framework of rhyme, movement and repetition to compliment the School for Parents’ conductive education programme.

Each week within the 45 minutes session, the one to four year olds, staff and parents moved through a different environment relating to the text, experiencing related sensory elements. For example, ‘Grass – long wavy grass’ is illustrated with real grasses and theatrical props. Long green fringed cloth waves over and around the children. Baskets of fresh cut grass, straw and a tray of wheat grass are shared.

‘The smells and music are really calming for the children. The children are more animated. They are more tolerant and trying everything, lasting the whole session.’ Conductive Education Teacher

One to one sensory play with small groups of preschool children, gives time to engage and understand the individual child’s needs and the parents, to gently challenge or know that a stimulation peak has been reached and to withdraw. Also how to present appropriately for the child, for example when a child is partially sighted, or has an autistic spectrum disorder, to tell them what is going to happen, before it happens and support them in making choices, aiding communication.

The empathy from the artist/adult facilitator, together with the children, to see how they experience the world is very important. When the child sees the joy and interest the adult facilitator takes in sensory exploration and joins in with the play, exciting transformational processes can take place, which extend the imagination and aid communication development. An emotional connection creates an intimate journey together, with a complex series of symbols and language, like the relationship of parent and child. Through the comfort and confidence in daily repetition, continuing weekly stimuli from the story and sensory exploration – the doors to engagement open.

Theatre is transformation. It is a vision created by an artist…transforming…himself or a puppet or even an object into an imagined character’ (Jurkowski,1988)


ImaginaryLeapsLogoRachel Riggs M.A Fine Art & Early Years Professional
Creative Director and Consultant, Imaginary Leaps
Website:  Imaginary Leaps
Tel UK: 0161 408 1720
Tel:  AUS 0435 591243


Dynamic New Animation 
Sensorium Theatre



Rachel originally trained in puppetry and theatre arts at Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, London, and worked in British theatre and television. Following her Masters in Fine Art and Early Years Professional status award, she moved to Australia for professional development, but continues her artistic directorship with DNA puppetry & visual theatre. ‘Imaginary Leaps’, is the early years creative engagement programme to research and document ‘the language of play’ with children around the world. She believes there are many developmental aspects in a child’s growth and understanding of the world which connect profoundly with theatre, nature and the ritual life of objects. Her play research connects and feeds into creating participatory, immersive experiences which involve installations, puppetry, animation and theatre. Recent performances and programmes include touring to Iran, China & Kazakhstan, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the State Library of  WA, Awesome Children’s Festival and Perth International Arts Festival.

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