A step back in time is a great leap forward for multi-sensory learning

Neil Mears of St Philip’s School is a keen advocate of learning outside the classroom, giving children the opportunity to use all their senses to explore new environments.

Imagine lying on the floor of a Tudor hall and gazing up at the expressions of art all around you, listening to the sound of melodies Henry VIII  would have heard, or breathing in the scent of seasonal herbs that have graced a kitchen garden for three hundred years.

These wonderful experiences would be a treat to the senses for any of us, but for our students who are working towards or at Entry Level 1, multi-sensory learning is an essential part of engaging with the world around them.

A world of senses

Unlike traditional learning which tends to rely heavily on reading and listening, multi-sensory learning aims to incorporate the whole range of senses to help children make connections more easily and develop a better understanding of new concepts.

It’s certainly true that the more our senses are stimulated, the more information we can retain. Just think how the taste of a certain food, or an evocative smell can take us right back to a time or event in our past.

But bringing a wide range of sounds, smells and sights into the classroom isn’t always possible. So, the best way to achieve a multi-sensory approach to learning is to explore the world beyond the school gates and encourage children to immerse themselves in new environments.

Preparation is key

For students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), taking a school trip to an unfamiliar setting can be daunting. Accessing a public space, being out in the community and using social skills are all part of the experience, so to make the most of the learning opportunities, careful preparation is essential.

Students need to know what to expect from their trip, so it’s important to explain each aspect of the day, including any timings of events, travel arrangements and details about the activities that will take place.

In my view, one of the best approaches to learning outside the classroom is to work closely with learning specialists at the settings you visit. Their knowledge of the location itself, combined with an understanding of how to bring the surroundings to life for students with SEND makes for an enjoyable, safe and fulfilling learning experience.

It’s this attention to detail that made our recent trip to Hampton Court Palace so successful. The team from Historic Royal Palaces even gave us a timetable of the day with Makaton symbols representing the activities we would be doing, so we could talk them through with our group of Year 10 and 11 students before the trip.

A fresh perspective

Any visitor to Hampton Court Palace cannot fail to be impressed by the size, beauty and sheer grandeur of the site, but what is the best way to enable children with SEND to gain enjoyment, stimulation and learning from a venue like this?

Seeing the different styles of dress from the time of Henry VIII is certainly interesting, but being able to feel the fabrics and try on costumes makes the experience much more memorable.

Similarly, a walk through the Georgian State Apartments is one way to gain a glimpse of our regal past, but lying on the floor and feeling its chill while looking up at the solemn portraits of historical figures, the ornate ceilings and magnificent chandeliers is quite another.

While students gain enormously from exposure to the art, history and music of a setting like Hampton Court Palace, they also benefit from sharing the space with other visitors. In fact, this is a key part of the life skills programme that we teach.

Just a simple trip to the coffee shop allows the children to practise their social skills, make choices and handle money.

Long-term benefits

But for children to really benefit from a school trip, it has to be more than just an enjoyable day out of the classroom.

The follow-up work that students carry out back at school is a key part of their learning. While for some students, this could take the form of a piece of writing, we also encourage the children to build their sensory experiences into the project work they create.

For instance, some students enjoy taking their own photos when we are visiting a location, and they can then print these at school and use them as the basis for a discussion. Other students like to express their learning through art, by painting objects, scenes or events from the day.

One student even composed his own piece of music which was inspired by our trip to Hampton Court.

Incorporating all the senses into teaching and learning can be incredibly powerful, and the opportunity to experience unfamiliar surroundings in a safe and structured way can help young people access the world around them.


Neil Mears is a Key Stage 4 teacher at St Philip’s School. a special educational needs school for young people aged 11-19 years.

To find a learning resource to use in the classroom or on a visit to the palaces visit: https://bit.ly/2QTPSrB

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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