Introducing Chaos & Calm’s Sparkles Sensory Storytime

Natalie Taylor from A Better Start Southend looks at how a story-time session has been tailored for children with SEND.

Natalie Taylor

Working in the Early Years and Education sector during the COVID pandemic, Hannah Davies and Elaine Cornwall saw, first hand, how the lockdowns and resulting waiting lists for support were negatively affecting families with children with SEND. The themes that Hannah (a qualified teacher, and Conductor of Conductive Education) and Elaine (an Early Year’s specialist and portage-trained nursery nurse) were experiencing in their own work with children, reflected what subsequent and far-reaching studies have proven.

Asbury et al (2020) undertook research into the effects of COVID-19 on the mental health of parents and children with SEND during the infancy stages of the pandemic. The early research suggested that the pandemic, and the response to it, was at that time already having a significant impact on the mental health and anxiety levels of children with SEND and their families disproportionately. Furthermore, parents identified loss as a result of COVID-19, meaning loss of routine, loss of support network and structures, loss of specialist input and, for a minority, financial loss.

Elaine and Hannah

Hannah and Elaine reached out to their community with children with SEND and received overwhelming support for the creation of a sensory story-time. From these beginnings, the plans for Chaos and Calm’s Sparkles Sensory Storytime evolved.

Hannah and Elaine knew that these sessions needed to address the very specific requirements of families with children with SEND; a condition of the planning which was even more important considering how little specific play provision there was (and still is) for this audience in Southend.

From the beginning, these sessions were designed to:

  • Help increase carers knowledge of how communication can improve and to give opportunities to explore and understand a wide range of communication methods and select those most suitable for their own child.
  • Enable more children with disabilities to begin school accessing a method that is transferable to an educational environment and that grows and develops with them.
  • Enable children with disabilities to develop their communication and language skills, be this through speech or an alternative augmentative communication (ACC) method.
  • Create a network for families across Southend who support a child with a disability. This network providing essential social and emotional support to the child and family and help prevent isolation.

Following a successful application to A Better Start Southend (ABSS) Community Ideas and Development (CID) Fund, the first sessions were launched at the ABSS Parent, Family and Community Hub located centrally in Southend. Open for all families in Southend (ABSS and non ABSS) with children with disabilities and neurological difference who are up to the age of 4, activities are tailored for each child’s needs, with support provided to enable children to experience and enjoy play.

The project runs two sessions each week - one hosts more active and mobile children with a range of additional needs including autism, ADHD, communication delay and Down Syndrome, and a second session, aimed at children with more complex needs and disabilities. The sessions are 45 minutes in length, with a focus on the development of communication and literacy skills, as well as social interaction and behaviour. Storytime sessions include Makaton and are created with accessibility in mind. The sessions go above and beyond with appropriate props like fake snow for a snow scene.

Hannah and Elaine have created an environment that feels inclusive for mothers and fathers to attend. With shared lived-experiences, families have a common understanding of each child’s potential health risks and behaviours, making the sessions a safe and comfortable space.

Parents now utilise the sessions to gain support and guidance from Elaine and Hannah on topics such as applying for Disability Living Allowance, accessing nurseries or queries about their child's needs. Valuable peer-support networks have also been built between parents attending the group, creating a community environment. Parents have shared how much they value the service, calling it a ‘lifeline of support for them and their children’.

Due to the continued success of Sparkles Sensory Storytime, Chaos & Calm were elevated from a CID Fund recipient to a commissioned ABSS delivery partner in 2023. Their offer has now expanded to include supporting professionals from local organisations to increase their knowledge of working with children with SEND and they have been involved in discussions with local libraries on how they can improve their SEND offering.

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK.

Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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Visit the A Better Start website to find out more.