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SENsational Story and Play

Collaborating with Children’s Services in the LGA Family Hubs Peer Review, Dorset Library Service began to explore how we could develop our contribution to the Best Start in Life* and Dorset Council’s: Our Children, Young People’s and Families Plan 2020-2023.

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The challenge

The percentage of children with Special Educational Need has increased in Dorset each year since 2017 and there are 2,800 children with Special Educational Needs supported through an Educational Health and Care Plan. Family Hubs research findings have also flagged up a clear message that families in Dorset are looking for more groups and accessible support around SEND.

In order to respond to the challenge of creating more activities for the under – fives and their families we needed to address the following issues:

  • ensure that our libraries were welcome and inclusive places, where young people with Special Educational Needs Disabilities can make friends and be included in community life.
  • discuss with specialists the layout and equipment that would best meet the needs of the children.
  • work on a training plan for library staff which would include specialist advice and support.
  • collaborate with partners to market the sessions and attract families.

The solution

Introducing SENsational Story and Play sessions to enable the rollout of an inclusive early years library activity and provide an opportunity for SEND children, their parents and carers to meet and make friends and help reduce isolation and loneliness. The sessions were piloted across three libraries Weymouth Library and Learning Centre, Bridport and Gillingham Libraries with a plan to gather feedback from families, library staff and Children’s Services Portage and use this feedback to develop the sessions and continue a phased rollout across the other 20 Dorset Council Libraries.

The session is designed to start with a Hello Song, a Rhyme, followed by a Bag Book Story, another Rhyme and then Play time with sensory toys. We chose Bag Books as they provide a multi-sensory experience and library staff can tell the stories though emotion and voice rather than words and pictures and use the selected objects which the children are able to touch, hear and smell.

Library staff received training which included signing rhymes and Gillingham staff use their large screen TV to assist the parents and children to sign and sing along to rhymes such as Five Fat Sausages.

Dorset library social worker helping a special needs child sitting on the ground

To create an inclusive library environment for all children to enjoy and benefit from, sensory toys, playmats and specialist books for children have been purchased. Books for parents and carers include information books on autism and other disability subjects. The SENsational Story and Play sessions were marketed through Eventbrite, Children’s Services SEND newsletter, the Children’s Information Service Digital Directory and the Library Service e newsletters.

The impact (including cost savings and income generated if applicable)

The first sessions were held in Weymouth Library and Learning Centre, Bridport and Gillingham Libraries in July 2022 and attracted an average of twenty families.

Feedback from the families who attended was encouraging and included the following comments “The quality of the professionals running the session was amazing.” “Plenty of things to do for my little one.” and “This session was fantastic! A great resource to support young children. Please can we have more of these sessions on a weekly basis.”

Child sitting on the floor wearing an over-sized Mexican styled hat

Staff have relayed that a parent talked about the benefits of having an activity for children with SEN because in other toddler groups she felt more anxious about her child’s behaviour and that other parents were judging her and that she constantly had to intervene and explain. She said she would like to make friends with other parents in the same situation.

The layout is important as it was the first time any of the children had been in the library. We learnt that they loved the bubbles and enjoyed exploring the space.

They all joined in, to some extent, with both the songs and the story. Non-verbal communication to convey a story such as physical, visual and tactile was well received and families especially enjoyed the sensory elements of the stories and using props to make sounds and using sounds such as “Uh Oh” to express emotions, Following this feedback, the sessions are being held on a monthly basis and plans are in place to rollout the programme across the service. The ultimate ambition is to encourage SEND families to visit libraries, borrow books and incorporate the stories and rhymes into their family time

How is the new approach being sustained?

  • Children’s Services are running Sign Language training for library staff and we are sharing our early years programmes and training with colleagues in the Speech Language and Communication Network.
  • A Development Librarian is undertaking Dingley’s Promise Comic Relief Early Years Inclusion Programme, to ensure that we are an informed service who can support the under- fives with SEND and their families through cascading information and training to all library staff.
  • The Library Service’s Early Years activities have been added to the Balanced System framework to help support children to develop their speech, language and communication pathways.
  • We need to promote and educate SEND awareness and inclusion to library customers.
  • We are designing a SEND booklist for children and families to encourage borrowing.
  • Reducing isolation and loneliness for SEND children, parents and carers by creating inclusive library environments and planning specialist activities and events for all age ranges.
  • We are sharing our Early Years guidance with colleagues such as Dorset Healthcare University NHS Foundation Trust, the Early Years Support and Advice Officer and the Education Challenge Lead who is working on the School Readiness Ready to Thrive Offer, to illustrate how we can contribute to the Speech and Language Communication Pathway.
  • The Library Service are joining the Dorset’s Speech and Language Communication Pathway Steering Group, so there will be opportunities to shape this agenda.

Lessons learned

Parents at Weymouth Library have fed back that they enjoyed the interactive session and the story at the end and “Lots of good resources, toys and books”. When quizzed on what we could do to improve the sessions, comments included maybe an extra story and perhaps having the sessions later on a Saturday morning. Feedback from staff has been encouraging in that “the new sensory toys are a big hit! and that children enjoy the touching of the story cards.

It is important that library staff are empathetic and have received training to identify SEND needs that some of the children may experience; communication and interaction needs, coping and learning difficulties, social emotional and mental health difficulties and sensory and / or physical needs. Library staff were pleased that a young child enjoyed the session as the mother explained that it was the first time that they had visited a library and she was apprehensive that her daughter may scream and cry as this was a new place and a new experience. For most of the session the child ran around but toward the end she sat down with the other children and played with the toys and has been coming back to the sessions.

We found it really helpful to work with Elaine a member of the Dorset Parent Carer Council (DPCC) who provided constructive feedback on images and wording for the SENsational posters and promotional material.

Library staff have identified the need to extend their sign language skills as all the children/parents use signing to support their speech and an Introduction to Signing course has been delivered by the Team Manager, Education and Early Help.

In addition to working with Children’s Services library staff in Bridport Library have found it helpful to link up with a local school that have young children with learning difficulties.

*Best start in life for children - Dorset Council