Engaging the Senses symposium – documentation from the day

Helium Arts in partnership with Kildare County Council Arts Service hosted the Engaging the Senses symposium and practical workshop on 30 May 2018, exploring multi-sensory, interactive arts for young children with complex needs. Over 85 people attended Riverbank Arts Centre on the day from a diverse range of backgrounds including artists, arts professionals, healthcare professionals, parents, childcare specialists, educators and librarians.

The symposium was informed by outcomes and learning from Helium Arts’ Pop Up Picnic, a multi-sensory performance project created in partnership with the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation.

Keynote by Tim Webb

We’re trying to find a way through, to find the key that will unlock the door to each individual.’

Tim Webb, the Co-founder and Artistic Director of internationally renowned UK theatre company Oily Cart, gave the keynote address. Established in 1981, Oily Cart creates multi-sensory and interactive theatre productions for the very young, for young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, young people on the autism spectrum, and young people who are deafblind. Tim mentored the Pop Up Picnic creative team during the project development phase and we were delighted to welcome him back to Ireland to talk about the work of Oily Cart. Tim’s keynote included video excerpts and this audio file has been edited and shortened for clarity.

Presentation: Benefits of Multi-Sensory Play on Participation, Learning & Development

Margaret McGrath, Senior Occupational Therapist, and Eimear Quinlan, Occupational Therapist, with the Early Services Team at Enable Ireland’s Dublin Children’s Services, talked about how they use multi-sensory play in their work. They looked at the OT role in play development, sensory influence on play development, how to support and facilitate play, and how to structure sensory experiences.

It’s finding the child’s intrinsic motivation, that’s one of the biggest things we spend time on, because this fosters their curiosity and their desire for more.’ – Margaret McGrath

Margaret McGrath, Enable Ireland

Eimear Quinlan, Enable Ireland

When they’re being exposed to a different sensory experience, it’s leaving that pause and trying to read the child’s signal of whether they like it or they don’t … A lot of the children we work with, it can be something very simple like a kick of their leg or a move of their hand or a blink of their eye.’ – Eimear Quinlan

View the PowerPoint presentation: http://www.helium.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Margaret-McGrath-and-Eimear-Quinlan-presentation_Engaging-the-Senses-symposium.pptx

More information on the work of Enable Ireland can be found here: www.enableireland.ie

Panel Discussion: Integrating sensory performing arts in health and community settings


I think the small-scale work is the most important because of the way it allows the family and it allows the home to be the centre of the work.’ – Tim Webb

The discussion was chaired by Lucina Russell, Arts Officer with Kildare County Council Arts Service, with the following panel: Tim Webb, Oily Cart; Margaret Naughton, Specialist Liaison Nurse with the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation; Eithne Hourihane, a participating parent on Pop Up Picnic; and members of the Pop Up Picnic creative team – Director Joanna Williams and performers Thomas Johnston and Niamh Lawlor.

This audio file has been edited and condensed for clarity.

We do try to use now as much as possible the multi-sensory approach, so we’ll always have music, there’ll be something with touch and there’ll be something with smell, you know the way. And I think that is the real value [of Pop Up Picnic], it’s how it has educated us on how to use it and bring it forward.’ – Participating parent Eithne Hourihane

Participating parent Eithne Hourihane, pictured with her daughter Ailís during the panel discussion

For me, it’s a real pleasure to be able to work like this, to work one on one. As a performer or for my own practice in theatre, it’s a real pleasure to be able to respond. Like any theatre experience, it’s a conversation between the audience and yourself, but obviously on this scale it’s much more intimate and rich and [there’s] much more collaboration, so that was amazing. And also just to see the delight and the pleasure, it’s really life-affirming. – Pop Up Picnic performer Niamh Lawlor

Pop Up Picnic performer Niamh Lawlor (centre), pictured with Lucina Russell and Tim Webb

As everybody knows children are much more comfortable in their own home, in their own environment with their familiarity. So to bring something into the home and it’s bespoke and it’s individualised, it’s just fabulous and I’d love to see it rolled out nationwide.’ – Mags Naughton, Specialist Liaison Nurse with the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, on Pop Up Picnic.

Mags Naughton, Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, with performer Thomas Johnston

Pop Up Picnic in action

Attendees were treated to a very special performance of Pop Up Picnic. Performers Niamh Lawlor and Thomas Johnston were joined by a family from Kildare and a family from Tipperary who had taken part in the home-based project. The audience also got involved, with attendees giving each other a relaxing orange massage!

Practical workshop: Engaging the senses in early years

Practitioners explored how to engage multiple senses when developing early years work with Joanna Williams, Thomas Johnston and Niamh Lawlor of the Pop Up Picnic creative team. It was fantastic to welcome a diverse group for this workshop, with artists, parents, healthcare professionals, educators and more taking part. The workshop sold out quickly and there was a long waiting list. For those who missed out on a place, Helium aims to run more practical workshops in 2019. Keep an eye on www.helium.ie for the latest opportunities.

Director Joanna Williams, centre, leads the Engaging the Senses workshop

Sensory Delights

Attendees discovered the sensory delights of the Pop Up Picnic in a playful installation curated by the Pop Up Picnic team and watched Pop Up Picnic come to life in family homes in this charming film.

The full programme and biographies can be viewed here: http://www.helium.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/FINAL_Engaging-the-Senses_hard-copy-programme.pdf 

What you said

Engaging the Senses does exactly that in a totally slow, but relevant and exciting way.  Thank you for a lovely day.’

I think Helium Arts’ Pop Up Picnic should be experienced by every family who has a child with special needs. Thank you for a very special day.

It was engaging and unassuming about the experience or knowledge [of attendees]

[I learned] a lot, practical information on different types of needs, tips on how to isolate interest and sensation’

Highly recommended talk

Making this an open, free event is fantastic and I am proud to be associated with County Kildare for bringing this


Engaging the Senses was funded by the Arts Council, Kildare County Council and Creative Ireland. We gratefully acknowledge the support of Riverbank Arts Centre. Photographs by Paul Gallagher.