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Ailie Finlay: Taking multi-sensory storytelling events online

Multi-sensory storyteller Ailie Finlay shares her insights into taking events online and building different kinds of connections

Language: English
Age group: Adults
Audience: Adults, Professionals

Last updated: 13 May 2021

As storytellers, writers and illustrators we use our events to make a direct connection with our readers. I think most of us would agree that this is much more difficult to do at an online event than face-to-face, particularly when the audience are children. And I realise, thinking about how I have been working over these last ‘strange’ months that this is actually no longer my main aim when I am doing these events. I still find online events valuable, but in a different way from face-to-face events. I no longer focus on building a connection between myself and the children during a story session, my focus is now on the connection between each child and the adult they are with.

I am a multi-sensory storyteller working mainly with children with complex additional needs. My storytelling is quite specialised, but I think that viewing online Live Lit or residency sessions in a slightly different way could be helpful for many authors and illustrators working with children at the moment.

My shift in focus during online story sessions started out of necessity. I use multi-sensory props during my sessions. Giving a child a tactile prop or offering them something to smell is of course impossible in an online session. Instead, I encouraged participants to gather some props – ordinary household objects – together before the story started. Then the adult in the room could ‘carry’ the sensory aspect of the story to the child for me. I realised that an added benefit of this was that it helped the adult as well as the child to become more involved in the story. A successful online session for me now is one in which the adult and child take part in a series of shared experiences, relaxed, amused and absorbed – and as the storyteller I am actually somewhat in the background.

These events are a little like an online cookery class. I send out the recipe beforehand. The ingredients are the story props and the text. Then I go online and do my ‘cookery demonstration’, telling the story and using the props. And at home or in school the adults follow along, ‘cooking’ up the story for the children.

There are lots of ways to cook up a story, but these are some things that I have been putting in my recipes:

Establish the role of the adults in the room before the session begins

I explain before the session begins that I will need the help of the adults in the room to ‘carry’ the story to the children. In a classroom of children with complex needs the ratio of adults to children may be almost one-to-one and in this case the adults can sit in between the children. In a mainstream school setting it is best if the children can see the teacher as well as the screen. I often start the story session with a simple rhyme or activity that encourages the adults to interact with the children.

Repetition

One of the wonderful aspects of live storytelling is that it allows us to be tuned in and completely responsive to our audience. Even if all the technology is perfect (and it seldom is!) this ‘tuning in’ is very difficult to do at an online event. Working with children with complex additional needs I am often responding to very subtle signs of engagement, a slight shift in somebody’s facial expression or body language. These subtle shifts generally get lost on a screen. And children in general are, I think, less likely to be spontaneously responsive at an online event. This is definitely not an ideal situation. To make matters worse I find that when It is just the camera and myself in the room my tendency is to speed up and to forget the repetitions of rhymes or story phrases that come naturally during a live session. I try to remind myself that slowing down, backtracking and re-telling are the very least I can do given that I am relatively unaware of the audience’s response. It is vital to do these things when working with children with complex additional needs, but actually all children (or at least certainly younger children) can usually benefit from a slower pace. When I feel the need for a lesson in perfect pacing I binge watch clips of 1970s children’s TV programmes on YouTube. (Try Fingermouse!)

Using ordinary objects as sensory props

You can start by looking at a general guide to making your picture book more sensory(this will open in a new window). Adding sensory elements can create extra interest for any child, but particularly for those with additional needs. For children with complex additional needs a story may become completely meaningless and unengaging if the sensory element is lost.

If you want to add some sensory interest to an online story session then you can encourage participants to gather together some objects beforehand. Try to use objects that people will have to hand at home or in school. Some very ordinary objects are surprisingly engaging:

Look around your office or kitchen and see what you can find!

Find out what rules the school you are working with has around sharing resources during COVID times. Many Special Schools are not sharing resources between pupils at the moment which means that you will need to choose props that can be easily duplicated.

Instant sensory experiences

In my experience not everyone will manage to gather the object suggestions together before you tell your story. For this reason I try to always include plenty of instant sensory experiences; for example, clapping, clicking fingers, stamping feet, snapping hands together like a crocodile, patting shoulders, feet or knees, ‘rain’ (very gentle finger touch) on the arm or head… I always make sure that the adult participants know to only join in with actions that they are sure their child or pupil will enjoy. And I try to give alternatives as I go along to take into account different needs and likes/dislikes. For example, I might say: ‘Why don’t you stomp along with the giant, or you could tap along on your child’s knees or feet.’

Names

We all love to hear our own names! And hearing your name coming from the computer or iPad can be a nice little nudge to encourage engagement. As the sound quality can really vary with online events, I tend to ask teachers in Special Schools for a list of the participants beforehand. In this way I am able to familiarise myself with the children’s names before meeting them and can hopefully avoid mispronunciations. Of course, this would not be possible in a mainstream setting with a larger class but in this case you can use the teacher as a go between and learn at least a few names as you go along.

Illustration by Kate Leiper from sensory story project with Ailie Finlay for Wigtown Book Festival, we have a companion blog from Kate too. Both pieces were comissioned as part of our Digital events for authors Industry Lab(this will open in a new window).