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Learning through movement  

Vibrant, inclusive performing arts sessions at a school for pupils with complex learning and development needs

This case study follows the development of a performing arts programme with learners from St Christopher’s School Wrexham. Inclusive by design, the sessions support the skills that will contribute towards their learning qualification. Written by performing artist Emma Bailey.

This is one of 25 case studies highlighting the value of arts in schools and education settings, curated by arts education researcher Sarah B Davies. The suite of case studies illustrates the research The Arts In Schools: Foundations for the Future, by Pauline Tambling and Sally Bacon, due to be published in 2023.

About the Project

“A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life.” Elizabeth Gilbert

As a performer for most of my life, I understand the importance and benefits that this industry can have on individuals. How many of us hear a song and it evokes emotions within us? How many of us watch a film and the same effect happens? How many are moved by a beautiful work of art?

When I first entered the teaching profession almost 20 years ago, I knew the impact teaching performing arts could have on learners. Not only those who wish to pursue a career in the industry but for the transferable skills they would gain by studying this subject. It boosts confidence, generates focus and determination, it creates a gentle competitive nature, teamwork, communication (verbal and body language) and creativity to name a few.

When I was approached to deliver performing arts sessions at St Christopher’s Wrexham (a school which provides education for pupils aged 6-19 years old who have a range of complex learning and development needs), I was very excited to have the opportunity to work with such an inspirational group of students and staff. I have been given two groups to work with, aged between 16 and 18 years. In a short space of a few weeks I have already seen such a development and progression, not only technically but socially and with learner engagement.

With one group (LA) I decided I would start with an inclusive session which would have differentiation and meet the needs of all the learners. I began with a mixture of movement and music-based activities, as well as visual storytelling. Seeing how the group engaged with each of these activities I then created a programme of study which would show a clear development each session. The students all start the session with the same warm up routine. This instantly enables the learner to recall previous sessions and have that connection with myself as the tutor so a level of expectation is established from the offset. The first session was about learners developing their physical expressions to show emotions. We added in sounds to enhance the emotion. The learners were able to do this successfully and identify all the different emotions that a person could feel and how to express them. We then engaged in some visual and physical storytelling. I gave them a blanket which we would change into any environment, it was lovely to see the learners being creative and making their own decisions about what the environment could be (e.g. the blanket became a superhero cape, then it became the beach!)

I then developed my sessions to include more movement. Each week we developed a dance routine so the learners were able to recreate and perform set movements to perform as a final dance. The first one we developed was for Halloween and the group recreated movements to the ‘Monster Mash’, this was lovely to see how they performed their own individual characters in the dance. Each learner was given a specific character to create, and had to make facial expressions and create an appropriate sound – for example a werewolf. In their art session the students had made masks for their characters to be used as part of the routine.

Over the last few weeks, we have also recreated the stories of ‘The Three Little Pigs’, ‘Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Goldilocks’. It was lovely to see the learners volunteering to play certain roles. All learners were included, and the performances were designed so that every learner would be able to participate.

The last project we have worked on was creating a dance routine to ‘Can’t stop the Feeling’ by Justin Timberlake. The learners really enjoyed the high energy movement and upbeat song. They were able to perform the dance as a full routine after remembering the movements (it helped by giving the movements a reference that would help them, for example waving arms out to the side was making ‘wiggly worms’, so saying wiggly worms they were able to recreate this part of the dance.)

I believe that taking part in these sessions the learners have grown in confidence, been able to retain movements, motion memory, their focus has improved and they are communicating verbally and non verbally successfully to each other. They love to come to the sessions, they always participate and it has been a pleasure teaching the learners and seeing how much they are enjoying performing arts.

For the second group (MA), I decided to use a similar format as with the other group, but as they were able to be more interactive creatively I took this opportunity and introduced them to TV acting. As well as this group having the same warm up routine each week, I made theirs a little more complex and they reacted positively to this. My very first session I asked the learners to produce a devised piece of theatre about a fairground, I asked them to think of what we would find at a funfair and each learner had the confidence to contribute to the discussion. We then gave each learner a role and we recreated activities such as a rollercoaster and ghost train (using just their bodies and sound effects). Seeing how successfully the learners engaged with this session, I decided to see if they would like to create their own ‘Soap opera.’ We discussed as a group what situations are usual as part of a soap opera and each learner was able to input. We decided upon 4 scenes: a café scene, pub scene, school scene and a house scene.

The learners were encouraged to create their own dialogue and volunteered which role they would play in each scene. Once we started filming, I brought in a clapperboard and a megaphone to try and recreate a ‘tv studio.’ This also helped me link the work they were doing to real life job roles and scenarios. The stories that they created for the soap opera enriched their life skills and made them aware of social issues that they could be facing within their own families, helping them understand, identify and deal with them.

What can others learn?

The flexibility that you can have with performing arts is such that you can adapt very quickly to the needs of the learner and also include activities that they would instantly engage with. When the world cup was taking place, we created a movement piece based upon being part of crowd and on the pitch. They were able to understand and display slow motion movement and timing to great effect. So for the last few weeks they have also created 2 dance pieces, 4 scenes of a soap opera and some devising and improvisation activities.

First and foremost, the project was intended to support the learners’ interpersonal and social skills. But as the weeks progressed, it became clear that the students were doing so well we could explore applying for a drama award that achieves learning credits that can be useful in later life. Now, all their work will go towards an Agored drama qualification, which will also enable the learners to progress onto a higher level qualification as they continue to explore and develop their performing skills further.

Finally, I think the success of this programme is due to the fact I delivered with a high energy, non-judgemental approach with a huge element of fun. No matter what our individual abilities are, expressive art breaks down barriers and allows us all to drop our inhibitions and be ourselves if only for a short moment. I may not see the long-term effect but I’m certain there have been moments that will stay with that person long after we may realise.