Blog: The Green Green Glade at Oaklands School by Jack Hunter

14 February 2024


Before Christmas last year, I had the absolute pleasure to work on an artistic residency with the wonderful Willow Class of Oaklands School. It will prove to be exceedingly difficult to sum up all my reflections of the week-long residency in a succinct way. But let’s give it a whirl anyway…

I found the experience to be enriching to my creative practice. I couldn’t help but feel a strong personal connection to the project, being a disabled person myself. When first visiting Willow Class (along with my fantastic co-artists Greg Sinclair, Marie-Gabrielle Koumenda and Ink Asher Hemp) my mind was immediately transported back to my own experience in primary school, when I too was supported in a specialist unit. The familiar atmosphere that permeates through Oaklands school, created by the exceptional staff, and carried by the children, is one of positivity and joy. Upon meeting the kids and teachers of Willow class, the importance of our residency dawned upon me. I wanted to do my best for these children. 

This residency was a challenging experience because this was my first time working (as an arts facilitator) with vulnerable disabled children, with Profound Mental & Learning Disabilities (PMLD). When first meeting with co-lead Greg, to discuss what form the residency should take, my initial thoughts were linked to the creation of narrative and characters. These ideas had naturally spawned from my past experiences as a writer and actor. However, upon discussion it became quickly apparent, that we would have to come at the project from a different perspective.

So, we decided to adopt and follow the principles of sensory theatre to inform our residency. Improvisation and play have always been a strong part of my practice; but I was incredibly excited to see how exploration and play of the senses could offer each child a unique experience.

An honourable mention must go to Oily Cart’s book on Sensory Theatre. In my eyes, this book should be considered something of a sacred text. I’m happy to report that by the end of the week my own copy became splattered with glitter and mysterious marks of unidentifiable gunk…. So, a job well done I’d say.

As a team, we transformed Oaklands school hall into the “Green Green Glade” a make-believe woodland. The hall was split into areas such as The Dingley Den; Grasslands; The Tunnel; The Messy Pond and Sounds of the Season.  Each area made a different sensory offering to the children.  

It was so encouraging to witness the children growing in confidence; and eagerness to explore the hall throughout the week. There are so many memories that have stuck with me; but there is one that stands out. One child, new to the class, was incredibly shy. We were told that she tended to sit and observe activities rather than get involved. In addition, the best way of interacting with her was playing with her ball. However midway through the week, when we were exploring the season of Spring, this all changed. The child was fascinated by our messy pound station: Bowls of frogspawn (green jelly and nigella seeds). She scooped the limey mix out of the bowl and smooched it all over her table (and the floor).  What followed was a 20-minute fascination with the messy pond. The nurses and I were thrilled by the immense fun she was having, offing the Green Green Glade’s frog population by a third… But seriously, what I’ve learned when working with children with PMLD, is that it can be tricky to hold their attention for a fixed period of time. So, this reaction was wonderful to see.

Working with Greg, Marie and Ink was something of a rarity, as we clicked almost instantly. I feel that there was a real cross pollination of ideas and creative flare. Beyond the initial pitching of ideas from Greg and I; all creative decisions, regarding the residency were made as a team. We ensured that each of our creative strengths were incorporated into the heart of the project: Marie & Greg’s musical brilliance; Ink’s laser sharp attention to detail and wealth of experience working with community groups was invaluable.

I was able to tap into my writing skills as I wrote numerous poems about the Green Green Glade and the animals that may live there. However, the poems only acted as layering to the classes’ experience. The purpose was not to dictate what or how the children should interact with the stations; but to underscore their experience. I used rhythm and rhyme in the poems to instil a kind of familiarity with the group; and echo how the teachers use nursey rhymes to signal the beginning and end of activities.

All and all, I have not been able to sum up my reflections in a brief blog. Sorry. But really, that’s a testament to how much I enjoyed working with such lovely creative team, and a fantastic group of children. Working on this residency has expanded my development as a creative and arts facilitator. And I hope I will get the opportunity to return to this line of work in the future.