The Multi-sensory Assembly Guide
Standing up in front of 200 primary school children can be daunting enough, but can you create an assembly that will hold everyone’s
attention? Eva Leaf shows you how.
The greatest milestone in my understanding of how children learn came as I began to help my four children explore different ways to do so. They all suffer from dyslexia or attention deficit disorder and, as I worked with them, they taught me that no matter how difficult the circumstances, children want to learn. I discovered that methods are only methods. Dr Harry Chasty, the former director of Dyslexia Action, says, ‘If the child doesn’t learn the way you teach, teach him the way he learns.’
This journey of discovery was a revelation to me, but it was also unsettling. Helping children find the ways that they can best learn often means working outside our own comfort zone – our own desired way of working and facilitating. However, rising to this challenge can bring enormous benefits, both for the children and you.
‘Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.’ Chinese proverb
There are many ways that children explore the world around them. As babies, they look, touch, chew, taste, smell and listen. This use of different senses continues into adulthood. Some people learn better by seeing (visual learners), some by hearing (auditory learners), some by handling (tactual learners) and still others by moving around (kinaesthetic learners). In their book, Learning Styles, Doctors Barbara Given and Gavin Reid explore these different ways of accessing material. They discovered that less that 30% of children are auditory learners, while the remaining 70% may only retain 30% of what they hear at most. And yet, how often do we rely on this auditory style alone?
‘With multi-sensory learning [combining different modes of learning] children are empowered to participate with equal value in the ways suited to them,’ write Given and Reid. An RE assembly that encompasses every learning style will enable children to take part, learn and interact with your assembly, because they are able to engage with the material in a way that suits them.
To appreciate this fully, we must realise that, as the authors state, ‘young children are primarily tactual and kinaesthetic, and gradually become more visual during the middle school years [ages 11 to 13], and increase their auditory preferences as adults.’ When we, as leaders and facilitators, recognise and understand these changes, we can use the knowledge to inform and shape our assemblies, creating a multi-sensory environment that embraces all children, not just those who share our own preferred way of learning.
Putting this into practice
What does a multi-sensory assembly look like? Here are some examples to start you thinking, using the story of Jonah to illustrate how we might engage different learners in one assembly.
Seeing the story
Creating visual representations of the different locations in the story can help visual learners locate the events as they unfold. Use chairs draped with large pieces of coloured cloth to create Nineveh and the ship. Create the big fish by covering a table with a large net (so that the children can see inside). Children have awesome imaginations! If you throw a piece of brown cloth over four chairs and call it a boat, that’s exactly what they’ll see – you don’t need to make it realistic, just representative. And if you’ve set everything up in advance, the visual impact as the children come into the room will heighten interest and raise expectations.
Touching the story
If you’re working with a small group, the use of a props bag or similar device can be effective, and can help children who learn by handling objects connect with your assembly. It can also help those who like to fidget, as it gives them something to do with their hands during your time together! Before the session, gather a collection of props that link with the different sections of a Bible story, and put them in a large sack or box. For the story of Jonah, you could use a toy ship, a large soft toy fish, a walking stick, a large plant and a picture of a worm. At each stage of your story, pass the relevant object round the children, so they can engage with the material on another level.
With multi-sensory learning children are empowered to participate with equal value in the ways suited to them
Admittedly, this might cause a bit of a distraction, as children may want to keep hold of objects longer than they need too, or start playing with them. However, properly managed, this kind of storytelling can unlock the Bible for children who might have difficulty listening to a story for any length of time. If you have the time and resources, you could create several sets of objects, so that children have the chance to explore the story without having to wait too long for an object.
Moving the story
Kinaesthetic learners love to move about and interactive drama is an excellent way to help them become part of the story. The story of Jonah affords several possibilities for children to take part: you’ll need a Jonah, sailors and citizens of Nineveh. No rehearsal is needed, the children only have to act out the words that you say. The remaining children can be the ocean – you could get them to practise creating a storm by swaying and bobbing, waving their arms around, clapping their hands and making other sound effects with their voices.
It’s worth noting that this kind of engagement can be more noisy and chaotic than merely sitting and listening. Nevertheless, the value of taking part in the story and experiencing the drama and emotion of what happens (however representative your props and setting) far outweighs any difficulty you might have in keeping order. And remember, teachers are likely to be with you in the room and can help, if you let them know what is going to happen in advance.
Hearing the story
Having a good storyteller on your team is invaluable. Creating hooks for children to bring them into the story can spark a child’s imagination and help them engage with the story further. For example, the story of Jonah gives you lots of opportunities for repeated phrases (Jonah finds himself in a succession of stressful situations, so a recurring phrase like ‘Jonah gulped’ followed by a gulping action would be effective) and actions (the splish-splash of the water, the trudge-trudge of Jonah walking through Nineveh).
Eye contact and smiling are powerful, non-verbal ways to reinforce a child’s worth and value
There are several books that will help you understand the basics of storytelling, and give some inspiration for your own storytelling. Some of them are listed in the resources section. When a good story is told, even the most distracted child will engage with it and remember many more details than you might expect.
These storytelling devices help a child engage with the story both mentally and emotionally. However, there are additional ways with which you can help a child engage spiritually with your message.
Children desire to see acceptance
Our attitudes as assembly leaders can attract or repel children. It is essential that each child is treated with dignity and respect. Eye contact and smiling are powerful, non-verbal ways to reinforce a child’s worth and value. Each one need to know that you care.
Children desire to express joy
Children love to sing and take part in interactive action songs. Songs connect with the spiritual side of a child in a special way, and enable a child to express emotions which might otherwise be difficult to get out. In a multi-faith setting, such as a school, it is inappropriate to sing what are referred to as ‘confessional’ songs – songs that express a belief in God which children in school may not share. ‘Non-confessional’ songs are much more suitable. These songs talk ‘about’ God, rather than being ‘worship’ songs. There are some suggestions listed in the resources section. Alternatively, you could write your own words to popular tunes.
Children desire to feel secure
Boundaries bring security to a child’s world. Rather than rejecting sensible rules or guidelines, children welcome them, as they allow them to function together in a group without dispute, friction or hurt. At the start of your session, set out what you expect from the children and what they can expect from you. This helps children understand that you value them and their contribution. It means that they can explore the story in safety.
Children desire to wonder
After you have told your story, it’s useful to ask some questions. These are not factual questions about the events of the story, but emotional and spiritual questions. Questions such as these (again using the story of Jonah) are effective in helping a child process the implications of a Bible story:
• I wonder what Jonah thought when God spoke to him for the first time?
• Can you see yourself in this story? Which character are you most like?
• Lots of people found it hard to say sorry in this story. I wonder how difficult you find it to say sorry?
Answering these questions out loud is not important, but some children will want to do so – many will want to share their thoughts and experiences. Remember to thank each of them for their contribution.
Puppets are a wonderful asset in reflective times such as these. They can be funny and cheeky, but they can also express emotions and responses that the children will share, and do so in a way that is on a child’s level, rather than coming straight from an adult’s mouth. Asking a puppet what their responses to these ‘wondering’ questions are will help children form their own answers.
Children desire to explore faith
Children from all faiths and none are fascinated with spirituality; helping each explore their reactions to your assembly is important. Just as with singing, make sure you’re not asking children to do or say anything that they may not believe or agree with. Ensure that responses from the story are appropriate to your context and if you pray, be inclusive with your language and don’t attribute emotions or responses to the children which are not valid.
So, creating assemblies that help children engage in many different ways will take some effort, and it will take us outside our own comfort zone. However, the rewards for the children taking part, and for us, will far outweigh the time and effort that goes into the planning. In helping children engage with God’s story in creative ways, we are opening up the way for them to connect with God, no matter what their background.
Bible-based Assemblies (Scripture Union) biblebasedassemblies.com
Barnabas in Schools assembly plans barnabasinschools.org.uk/find/all/ideas/1/assembly
Friends and Heroes school resources friendsandheroes.com/uk/school-resources
Assemblies Online (Damaris Trust): assembly plans that link films, music and TV programmes to biblical stories assembliesonline.com
More Bible Storybags, Margaret Cooling (BRF, 2012)
Story Assemblies for the School Year, Edward J Carter (BRF, 2010)
Care for the World: Thirty Junior Assemblies to Encourage Action and Responsibility, Chris Stafford (Kevin Mayhew, 2008)
Anyone Can Tell A Story, Bob Hartman (Lion Publishing, 2002)
New Testament Tales: the Unauthorized Versions, Bob Hartman (Lion Children’s Books, 2012)
Light for Everyone, Various (Scripture Union, 2004)
Reach Up, Various (Scripture Union, 2005)
John Hardwick also writes songs suitable for a school setting johnhardwick.org.uk