Never a Mermaid

In my webinar interview for Earlyarts I spoke about the power of stories in our lives. Stories are so much more than books we share with children at bedtime, they are powerful tools. Through stories we shape and share our identities, effect change, connect with others and learn about the world and who we want to be within that world. I grew up at sea, on a concrete boat cruising the Mediterranean.  My infant school put on a school play in which all the girls from my class were mermaids, combing their long flowing hair whilst music played and the stage was flooded with a blue light. All the little boys had to be soldiers. My hair was very short, as is practical for life on board a boat where water is not in plentiful supply. I was not allowed to be a mermaid.

I immediately began growing my hair; so that next time there was an opportunity to be a mermaid, I would be ready. I am now 36 and I can sit on my hair, something any 8 year old would be terrifically proud of (and me too).

Telling you this story connects you with me, through it you learn about something that is set deep in me. You learn more than that I wanted to be a mermaid, you learn a little bit about what sort of young person I was, and what sort of adult I am.  Stories have such power to connect us.

Stories also teach us things and help us to shape our morals. Overtly moral narratives like religious stories or fables actively teach us right from wrong but we all continue to shape and refine our moral compasses through sharing in stories. When you watch a soap opera and react to what a character does with “I wouldn’t have done thatyou make a moral judgement on your own life and intended choices based on your participation in a story.

Political change comes about through the telling of stories, we tell a story of how things are now, and another, better one, about how we want things to be.

Stories guide us through difficult times. In times of stress hearing stories from people who have had similar experiences and survived can be comforting. We use stories to tackle difficult topics with young people. When I deliver my training days I always travel with the wonderful book Rabbityness by Jo Empson – it is a beautiful way to begin conversations with children about how to cope with grief.

The stories around us teach us about the world we live in; they are mirrors to it, reflecting it back to us in a different shape, allowing us to see sides of it we would not necessarily appreciate through straight experience.

Think about Star Trek (or find a Trekky and get them to tell you about it), in the original series the Klingons were a scary foreboding presence out there in the galaxy. This series was written during the cold war when the Russians would have seemed like a scary foreboding presence out there behind the Iron Curtain. Come forward in the series and you have a Klingon collaborating with Kirk on the deck of the enterprise. Meanwhile in the real world the Iron Curtain has fallen and the Russians are collaborating with the West.

The most recent film has themes around terrorism in it (as do many of our current drama series). Whether we follow politics or not, through taking part in these stories we get a sense of the world we live in, we get to explore scenarios that give us greater understanding of that world and how to move within it.

Stories enable us to make instant connections with others. Discovering that you and a person you are newly meeting watch the same TV programme or have recently read the same book creates an instant rapport.

We form our idea of self through the stories our families tell us about who we were when we were little. We continue to shape our public self through sharing of some stories and keeping secret of others. Certain stories are especially powerful, you probably have a story you would share with your partner and no one else. That story connects you.

Our identities are also formed out of the cultural and historical stories that accompany us. I am an English woman and we all have a certain notion of what that means. Recently I lived in Germany and was often met with German notions of what Englishness is, and I, in turn, met them with English notions of what Germanness is!

Stories connect us in families – that story about the cat last Christmas that makes you all laugh. Stories connect us in communities – did you know the number 78 bus has stopped running? Stories connect us in faith groups, where we share in a huge collection of stories passed down through generations.

Stories are much more than books shared with children at bedtime.

If you are not telling stories in a way that is accessible to the person with whom you’re sharing those stories they miss out on all of this. Take a look back. Imagine growing up without hearing a story about yourself in a way you can access. Imagine what the world would look like to you without the knowledge you’ve gained through the stories you’ve shared. It would be alienating.

On my training days, (and in the Earlyarts webinar) I talk about Rich Inclusion. An inclusion beyond disabled access to buildings and appropriate toilets. These things are important but they should not be seen as the accomplishment of inclusion. Telling stories in a sensory way is one way of inviting people who might otherwise not be able to access narrative into the story telling space, and the story telling space holds a magic beyond even what I’ve written about here.

Earlyarts is keen for practitioners to base their practice on research. Read the research on the story telling space: it is a wonderful, wonderful place. A place where we feel brave. A place where we are bolder and better able to cope with difficult things. And a place where we feel more connected to the others who share that space with us. Supporting people to access the story telling space is an incredible thing to get to do as a part of a job and, if it is a part of your job, cherish it!

The Sensory Stories from The Sensory Project have been used to include people with: profound and multiple learning disabilities, autism, sensory processing disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dementia, learning disabilities, the very young (I’ve shared them at baby groups) the very old, and everyone in between. I’ve shared them in mainstream nursery, primary, secondary schools and even a couple of universities, in the story telling space.

The Sensory Project’s bank of stories is ever increasing; there are now 18 stories on a range of subjects to suit a range of audiences. There’s a magical realist tale of a princess, a trip to a tattoo parlour, myths and legends, poetry, maths, science, history and more in the writing. There’s also a book of five stories with associated activity plans and ideas and lots of information about sensory engagement and narrative. The profits from all the stories sold go to creating new ones

We hope you get to share a sensory story soon.

Joanna Grace Founder of The Sensory Project, International Consultant,Trainer and Author, Joanna is a highly qualified and experienced special educational needs and disabilities consultant. She seeks to contribute to a world where everyone is understood and appreciated for who they are in spite of differences. Joanna founded The Sensory Project in 2013.

The Sensory Project recognises that sensory stimuli do not need to be expensive and that everyone has a right to be included in a rich range of narratives. Well facilitated sensory stories enable individuals with profound disabilities to engage in narrative, develop communication skills and learn. Sensory stories also hold particular benefits for individuals with learning disabilities, autism, Sensory processing disorder, dementia, and for children in the early years.

Contact Joanna

Image credits: Joanna Grace, Richard Hirstwood and Tigger Pritchard