Today was an exciting one for many of us at school. We had The Animal Man visit with his marvelous selection of rain forest animals including the third oldest honey bear in the world (who incidentally only had one eye), a gorgeous lime green and turquoise chameleon, a fluffy albino skunk, a python and another strange mammal resembling a raccoon whose name has escaped me.
The children absolutely loved the hour long session of petting, cuddling, holding and experiencing these wonderful animals. And a few or our children with SEN came along too and needless to say had a whale of a time. One particular child that responded very enthusiastically to the animals was someone I have the pleasure of working with three afternoons a week. She has Downs Syndrome and therefore needs an adult to facilitate her learning experience throughout all aspects of her school day.
I usually spend afternoons facilitating her inclusion in the first lesson of the afternoon after which we enjoy some music therapy. However this afternoon I and her teacher decided that her experience with The Animal Man was so exciting that we should use it as an opportunity to develop her speech, language, presentation and drawing skills. Although normally almost all lessons are thoroughly inclusive we felt that this particular activity was best done one to one. So the little girl and I found a free table, set up our art materials and began the best half an hour we’d had for the longest while.
I had taken general photos of her, the animals and close up shots of detailed parts of the animals too. I showed her printed out copies of these in colour and asked her to chose her favourite one. Here’s what she chose.
For some reason the owl fascinated her. I explained to her that we would be drawing some of the animals we met in the morning, using the photographs to help us. Then we would show the rest of the class and tell them about the Animal Man and his animals. She understood this and was very excited about the prospect of ‘showing’ it to the class. Her class teacher also explained to her that this was a special project that she was doing and that the teacher expected her to be a ‘good girl’ and do ‘good work’.
I then asked her to hold the fat graphite stick and on the corner of her large A3 paper she explored some mark making. Having done this I explained that she must listen really carefully to everything I said. She agreed that she would and we began. I talked her through every step, every line and every brush stroke. Sometimes I used sounds, words, repetitive phrases to help describe the direction of a line or curve. For example, make this line ‘like a whoosh’, or ‘do a curvy line ROUND like this’ (using my finger to show the shape and direction) She would not only follow my instruction but would also copy the sound I made as she did it.
Sometimes she would make a strange and inaccurate shape, partly due to lack of fine motor skills and other times due to wanting to do it herself. If that happened I would rub it out and ask her to try again. Twice she asked to ‘paint now’ but I enthusiastically reminded her that there was just a LITTLE BIT MORE to do. Having completed the graphite drawing we the picked up our thick paint brush. We talked about the difference between the thick water colour brush and the thin one. She can spot the difference and choose the correct one. She then wet it, wiped off the excess water and gently brushed the point of it on the palm of her hand, copying me as I did. She loves sensory stimulation and really liked feel of the soft wet brush on her hand saying it was ‘tickly’.
I then talked her through how to mix the colours. We used a water colour set with the hard blocks of colour. I would describe in simple words and instructions as I mixed the colours and she loved copying me. We began with a simple colour wash over the wings. She identified several colours such as white, gray and brown which I praised and then checked she knew which part of the owl she was painting. When I pointed to the wings to check she knew what they were called she referred to them as ‘flap’. We talked a little about the main sections of the owl (head, body, wings, tail) and looked at the colours she could identify.
The step by step, stage by stage we washed over the owl, mixed darker/ lighter colours to add detail on top of the base washes for the eye, wing and feathers, feet and fluffy legs. Here’s the finished result. She is 8 years old.
You may ask what she actually learnt from this exercise. Well, firstly extending concentrations levels, we spent 35 minutes on this without a break. Following instructions carefully and with focussed attention, understanding parts of the owl’s body, learning new vocabulary, beginning to identify two types of yellow (lemon yellow and yellow ochre), executing a piece of work from its beginning to the finished product, trying again when its not right, internalizing the basic processes of painting (washing out the brush, wiping off excess water, mixing different colours to produce a third colour, looking at an object and matching colours with it).
To extend the linguistic side of this activity we then used the excitement she had about showing it to the class to focus her speaking and presentation skills. We talked about what she would say to the class. She practiced for 5 minutes the following sentence. ‘I painted a barn owl’. She couldn’t remember the word ‘barn’, so I explained what a barn was and made a few jokes when she got it wrong which quickly encouraged her to get it right. She then presented it to the Year 3 class and teacher whilst saying the sentence word for word without any sign prompts from me.
The next step is to use the sentence we created today to extend her reading skills. I will print out the sentence twice and get her to match the words to each other first. Then once she is familiar with the words she can then read them on their own, pointing to each one as she reads it.
I have written about my afternoon with this little girl because I felt I learnt a lot about the positive way art can be used to enhance the SEN curriculum as well as personal targets. This technique could be simplified and adapted for different learning needs and abilities. For example a child with interests in music could use percussion instruments to learn a simple musical rhythm or rhyme which could then be performed, spoken about, written about or read about. Children with restricted movement can be guided by the adult, physically take their hand gently in your own and describe the movement you make with the graphite and repeat this movement for a while. Then ask them to try it for them selves. See what happens, perhaps there will be a little step of improvement. Everything is about the little tiny steps that lead to something big over time. Often touching an interesting object, feeling it, engaging with it really helps to stimulate interest which can then be channelled towards further learning activities.
Here are some more pictures of smiles and engaged teachers/kids with The Animal Man