Out to Play with Hollybrook Academy – ASN Blog 1: Sensory Storytelling

Written by Alice Donnelly

Welcome to the first in a series of three new Drama Artist blogs exploring outdoor Sensory Storytelling (Blog 1), Play (Blog 2) and Nature Connection (Blog 3) in Additional Support Needs (ASN) settings, inspired by an Out to Play residency I led at Hollybrook Academy in Glasgow in autumn 2023. I hope the blogs can be useful to teachers and practitioners working with children and young people with Additional Support Needs, who are keen to give sensory-based creative outdoor learning and play a go!

In this first blog I’ll share a number of practical sensory, outdoor storytelling tips – including examples of the sound, sight, touch, smell and taste-elements that most enabled pupils at Hollybrook Academy to engage in storytelling as part of their Out to Play residency.

Human beings have always been drawn to stories; it is intrinsic to who we are as a species. Storytelling began as a visual artform with cave paintings but as we evolved and developed the ability to express ourselves, our ideas and our world through language, a new tradition was born. For years, stories would be passed on from generation to generation through word of mouth and so oral storytelling traditions were forged in all cultures around the world. Stories were used not only to entertain, but to pass on knowledge and experiences to others – to share viewpoints, ethics and morals and to help people understand the world around them. In modern times, we consume stories through books, film, TV, social media and many other forms every day.

While stories are compelling, it can be challenging for pupils with Additional Support Needs (ASN) to remain engaged in oral storytelling without additional elements. Sensory stories are a way to not only hear, but also feel the story as you tell it – focussing on engaging our basic 5 senses to develop a variety of different skills while supporting learning in a more compelling manner. While sensory storytelling may seem daunting, we will explore the senses in more detail with some examples from the residency at Hollybrook Academy.


By telling the story out loud we engage our sense of hearing, and this can be developed further in a number of ways; using character voices, creating live sound effects (crinkle plastic to make the sound of a fire, or if there is a snap sound break a twig), having a related musical track to underscore the story, or asking pupils to use instruments or their voices to make sounds in the story. While at Hollybrook Academy, I told the version of ‘Amrita’s Tree’ from The Barefoot Book of Earth Tales in which a woodcutter is attempting to chop down the local forest. I asked the pupils to stomp their feet every time they heard me say ‘Chop!’. This not only gave us the effect of the loud sound to emphasise the story but encouraged the pupils to listen closely for their role in the story.


While telling the story you can have visual props to support learning. For my telling of the Aboriginal dreamtime story of ‘Tiddalik the Frog’, I used different sizes of fabric to demonstrate the increasing size of bodies of water that are being consumed by Tiddalik, so that the pupils could visualise this process. Large pieces of fabric are great as they can be used to create bodies of water, the sky, character costumes, anything you can imagine really. You can also use 2D images of characters or settings. For example, you could hide an image of the character for pupils to find or ask them to select the image of the character you have been talking about to reinforce their learning.


Similarly to sight, bringing in props for the pupils to feel and touch can make a story more compelling. While telling the story of Amrita, I gave the pupils wood slices and pinecones for them to touch so they would have a connection to the story. During our teacher-led weeks, the teachers gave pupils ice to touch so they would feel just how cold it was in the Artic. Consider what is happening in the story and how you can recreate that by using the materials you have in your classroom or out in the playground. I also created a themed sensory box each week for pupils to explore in their own time – that was a great resource!


Smell is a very underrated sense but can be very visceral and stimulating. You can use all sorts of lotions and potions to enhance the story you are telling. For example, if your story takes place in a garden, spray some floral perfume to transport the listener there. This can unlock pupils’ own memories and can support learning. For the telling of Tiddalik, I used seaweed for the pupils to smell the scent of the ocean, before it was drained dry by the giant frog.


As we had the seaweed for smell, I also encouraged pupils to taste it in order to understand what it might have tasted like for Tiddalik. Although taste can be challenging for ASN pupils, it is another element that can augment the experience. There are recipes for edible sand and chocolate bark, but don’t be afraid to go simple as well – if there is a monkey eating a banana, hand out slices of banana for pupils to taste alongside the character.

When creating a sensory story, I would recommend starting with a senses map, highlighting what can be seen, heard, felt, smelt and tasted, then use the fantastic imaginations that you as a teacher or educator have, to bring them into the real world!