Joanna Grace is an international sensory engagement and inclusion consultant. She is the founder of The Sensory Projects and has a personal and professional background in the world of SEN. Through her work Joanna looks to contribute to a future where people are understood in spite of their differences.
Jo tweets excerpts from research about the sensory world from @jo3grace
We met Joanna at the TES SEN show 2016, the largest SEN-focused event held annually at the Business Design Centre in London. This show is designed to provide teachers, SENCOs, support staff and parents with the tools and skills to help all pupils achieve their full potential. Joanna was at the show to deliver a seminar and visited our stand on the first day. She was immediately drawn to our hand pointers and explained to us how she used them in her work. After revealing some hidden benefits we teamed up with her on this guest post to share her ideas with our readers.
A box of hand pointers arrived at my house. They were instantly tested for safety by The Sensory Project’s small assistant. I can confirm that if you beat them on chairs, cushions, stairs, floors, walls, tables and kitchen tiles they do not break! I was then treated to a rendition of Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes with two Hand Pointers (first chosen at random but then selected to be matching in colour – a good little skill there, let’s just say it’s not so easy to point to your nose when your arm is twice as long!
That evening a secondary school maths teacher friend of mine came to dinner and I automatically lost half of the hands into her gleeful grasp. “Oh I’m going to use these for group work” she declared.
I once worked as a supply teacher and in my bag of essentials I always carried a bunch of neon hand shaped fly swatters which I used to engage children in my lessons. The people holding the fly swatters were the only ones who could answer questions; once they’d answered a question they passed the fly swatter on to the next child. In this way I was able to encourage everyone to be involved in the lesson. The fly swats were great but they can’t operate an interactive white board like the pointers can!
My next outing with my remaining hand pointers will be to a special school where I will use them to encourage students to explore the world around them and have some fun. But beyond these tactical teaching ideas and general playfulness, there is a sensory something about these Hand Pointers that you may not know about.
In my work at The Sensory Projects I provide training to mainstream and special settings across the UK. I teach people how to use sensory engagement strategies that will support the learning of their students. I tend to, for pragmatic reasons, restrict myself to seven sensory systems, very occasionally slipping into eight when my resolve weakens. I sometimes get into debates with people who argue for there being nine or eleven primary
senses but, did you know, we actually have thirty three sets of neurons that control our sensory experiences, so arguably there are thirty three senses!
These Hand Pointers are ideal for developing one of these sets – the peri-hand space.
In your brain you have a set of peri-hand space neurons. Your peri-hand space is the space all around your hand and your hand itself. It goes to about 10 centimetres around your hand (if you’re an adult, with children it will be proportionately smaller). You also have peri-head space neurons and a set of neurons dedicated to the area of space around your body. These spaces are important for our safety and our interaction with the world, it makes sense that we would evolve to have extra attention in these spaces, and that is essentially what these extra pockets of neurons are.
Here is where, it gets even more fun: at a single cell level your peri-hand space neurons are sight, sound and touch all at once! This means that, for example, when you look at something within this space your visual neurons process the information and so do your peri-hand space neurons. Extra bits of your brain get involved in the looking. It is quite amazing. So getting children to point at the words they are trying to read is a really good idea, because you are coaching them in a way that means they end up getting extra information from their brain about the symbols they are trying to decode.
Now, if the single cell level information blew your brain wait for the next bit! I’d like to describe this as magic, but I don’t believe that is the scientific term for it. Studies have shown that when we hold an item, such as a pen, or stick, or pointing hand, our peri-hand space neurons attend to the space around that object as well as the space around our hand. In essence that zone of extra sensory perception extends to the end of whatever we hold. So using a pointing hand to point at something on a white board that you are trying to read is a way to fractionally boost a child’s ability to process that information.
Knowledge like this usually only appears on programmes like QI, but knowledge is power and power should be used for good, so arm yourselves! Go out there and point at things. Use it in your own life too, don’t stand there squinting at the tube map, point at it! Instruct students who aren’t sure which answer to choose to point at their options as they consider them. Get some Hand Pointers, channel your inner stockphoto teacher or 1950’s school mistress and get pointing!
You can find out more about Jo’s work at The Sensory Projects