At Accessible Arts and Media (AAM), we believe that everyone can learn, everyone can be creative, and everyone can play a part in their local community. They just need the right support, and that’s where creative learning plays a crucial role.
Creative learning isn’t like the traditional learning you might typically find in a school classroom. Reading and learning facts and figures for an exam, for example, may work for some, but for a lot of people this is inaccessible. Creative learning’s about acquiring new skills and knowledge through different experiences and techniques.
There are no constraints, it’s person centred, and it’s an ever-changing process to suit the needs of the person you’re working with.
To enable learning for people with learning disabilities, there are often communication barriers that need to be addressed before any learning can take place. Communication is key to learning new skills and building the confidence to put those skills into action. We therefore need to understand any communication barriers and find a way of communicating that works for that individual.
At AAM, we work with people with a wide range of disabilities and communication needs, older people living with dementia and memory loss and people with mental ill-health.
Many of our participants are non-verbal, some may have mobility or behavioural challenges, some are deaf with a learning disability, some are verbal with echolalia so what they’re saying isn’t what they want to convey. One communication method won’t suit all our participants, so we use Total Communication, an approach that uses a combination of methods that strengthen meaning for individuals.
Typically, we always use simple speech, eye contact, body gesture, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and a sign-supported communication approach.
Then for individuals. we might add in hand choices, or eye pointing, intensive interaction (a practical approach to interacting with people with learning disabilities, based on the early developmental stages of communication), colours, objects of reference, symbols, textures, smells, photographs and text, or electronic communication aids.
The environment in which we’re learning is also very important. Changing the lighting in the room so it’s not too bright or too low, having no background noise or background clutter and being aware of where you’re positioned in relation to the person you’re communicating with are all factors that need to be considered when going on a creative learning journey.
Once communication barriers are overcome and understanding between facilitator and participant has been achieved, we can then start to learn creatively. We do this in many ways in our projects. We start by providing a consistent environment, with structure and routine our participants understand and have helped shape (our projects are user-led). This makes sure that participants feel safe and are able to express themselves freely.
One of the participants in our young people’s project, IMPs (Inclusive Music Projects), suffers from anxiety, cerebral palsy and has a learning disability. When he first joined IMPs, he didn’t engage much, didn’t speak to anyone, and said that he’d never be able to play an instrument due to his disability, but he chose to come back week on week.
The structure of the session was the same each week – a bit of social time with a creative activity to encourage socialisation, fun musical warm-ups, a signed song and a musical instrument activity, and ending with a simple feedback question like ‘what was your favourite thing today?’
Through this structure, this allows creative learning to have a great impact on the young people, by teaching them social, creative and musical skills. The group might learn a different warm-up that gets the body ready for music making in a different way; or sing a new song that might help the young people learn new signs, words or vocalisations.
They’ve grown their creativity and musical skills by learning instruments and then building that skill into writing their own songs. The sessions are fun and in a safe environment and the young people are learning new skills without them recognising that it is learning.
Because of the familiarity of both the sessions, the participant started to feel safe and supported and he started to engage more and more. He started to use his voice, first by joining in with the singing, then by being able to make and express a choice in the feedback question chat.
He’s now speaking freely, joking with friends and staff and writing lyrics in the song writing activities, which the group wrote melodies and created an instrumental backing track to sing along to.
Through the creative learning process, he has become a confident young man. He has made friends through having the structured social activity, and through the repetitive nature of the activities, this builds up his confidence and gives him ample time to learn new musical skills (such as learning the guitar) in a relaxed and informal way.
Because of this learning process he has the confidence to co-deliver outreach workshops with a facilitator which involves planning, delivering and evaluating the workshops.
As part of his schoolwork experience, he chose to help at one of our adult projects, showing phenomenal social and communication skills and since leaving school he has continued to support this project by volunteering.
Creative learning is a process that’s constantly evolving and adapting to whoever you’re working with. It’s a process that takes time, patience and, more than anything, it should be fun for everyone.
Over the years, we’ve seen time and again how supporting people to explore and learn creatively can open up the world to them. Whether it’s learning how to make and express choice so they can have more of a say in the things that matter to them, or coming up with lyrics that express how they’re feeling, creative learning helps our participants shine.
Accessble Arts Hands and Voices Choir are performing before the Radix Big Tent Leaders’ Summit at Dean Park, York, at 1pm on. Friday 17 June.