Blog: A multi-sensory winter landscape at Oaklands School by Kirstin Abraham

12 February 2024


Kirstin Abraham reflects on her experience of working with Myrthe Helms and Andre Anderson to create a sensory winter residency at Oaklands School in December 2023.

There is a lot of change in the festive period. For those with sensory access requirements – be it seeking or avoiding - this time of year can be a tough multisensory landscape to navigate. This was something I was extremely aware of at the beginning and throughout the weeklong residency at Oaklands School, in the last week of term before Christmas, and something I wanted to explore in depth and be mindful of throughout.

Christmas can be a sensory overload nightmare for some people – me included! But it can also be a sensory bliss for others… Everything changes, appearances of rooms with decorations, the same Christmas songs on repeat, the hustle and bustle of busy places, routines change with Christmas events, people are either unusually really happy or unusually really sad (I think it’s because Christmas is such an exaggerated ‘happy’ time, which makes things even harder to those that are struggling). The weather changes to bitter cold, making you more aware of your body, and the snow silences the streets in a magical sensory euphoria.

Working together as a team, André, Myrthe and I chose to explore a series of sessions that focused on this time of year, and the sensory elements that come with it, but in a bespoke, participant responsive and co-creative manner.

We wanted to create a series of sessions that were not typical of the ‘Christmas crazy’ and produce a more thoughtful response to the festive season and winter. We wanted to do this by getting to know the class and finding out what both the pupils and staff enjoyed doing individually and together. This was important to us, as we wanted to create ‘something’ at the end of the residency, that incorporated traces and crumbs of everyone, that could be spotted and picked up whilst immersed in what we made as a team.

To begin with, our first session focused on creating an accessible and unintimidating opportunity, to get to know everyone in the classroom. Their individual interests, behaviours, ways of playing, interacting, communicating - their personalities. We did this by facilitating the session in the classroom, and we very much respected that we were in their space – not the other way round. We had a variety of items and materials that were accessible and familiar, along with some festive staples. Including: Christmas lights, a small rainbow patterned Christmas tree, plastic empty snow globes, reflective materials, textured ‘snow’ wallpaper, bubbles and large chunky chalks in winter palette colours – white, blue and green. For an hour and a half, we used these items to get to know everyone.

This first session became our foundations for the residency, discovering the joy some children got from throwing and knocking down objects, wrapping themselves up in cocoons with material  (play schemas and sensory seeking play), exploring lights and pattern, mouthing objects (oral sensory seeking) storytelling, slapstick play (from both teaching assistants and pupils!), button pressing (action and response!) mimicking and repeating noises and sounds – including the very popular Peppa pig “grunt”! Using what we discovered we were able to plan and create additional sessions in various spaces and rooms in the school that developed on from these highlights. These sessions focused on movement and light, through dance with pops of neon colour in the sensory room, and winter story telling around a glowing silk fire, with object exploration and soundscape making, recording sounds in a ‘snow’ storm play session, filled with soft snowballs, a GIANT silver snowball and wind. Recording sounds of play, interactions and connections from children and staff.

We all come from different practices – Andre’s background is performance, Myrthe’s is dance, and mine is visual arts. We worked well to intuitively piece the sessions together using a snowstorm soundscape to inform and create the narrative and story for our final performance. We dressed three empty classrooms to replicate a winter woodland that we wandered together, whilst our co-created soundscape played, visiting spaces that offered smaller scenes of the story told by sensory immersion. We told the story of the snowstorm, and its intense and calm moments through the woods, with dance, movement and light, with moments of slapstick joy! – Including the woodland Christmas pig and accompanying ‘talking button,’ that played the Peppa Pig theme tune when pressed, played by a teaching assistant (who also enjoyed slapstick play!) that knocked down our neon light Christmas tree, that stood tall in the winter wood classroom.  We sang fire songs inside our campfire room, that glowed orange and red under the silk covered floor, whilst roaring flames grew and fell around our bodies and heads, made by the fast and calm waves of bamboo silk fire fans. Our soundscape then took us deeper into the winter woods, where we encountered the snowstorm in its peak, whilst ice (Myrthe) and wind (André) danced together as we watched and held snow globes filled with ice. Children placing the globes in their hands and mouth, feeling the cold freezing temperature closely. Others experiencing ice being thinly hand grated onto their skin from above, as the snowstorm died down, and we were left in the quiet of the snow as our performance, and exploration of the winter woods came to an end.

What a fantastic week we had at Oaklands. I really feel (and I think André and Myrthe will echo me when I say this) we were just getting started as we ended our residency and believe this could be the start of developing a very exciting alternative seasonal offer for this audience.