Both Tracy and I originally learned to use Makaton with our own oldest children, who both have special needs.
As parents, we then found it instinctive to 'sign and sing' with our children. But our company Singing Hands was only formally established when our children were due to attend mainstream nursery in 2003.
At this point we both felt we had more time to begin to develop our programme and resources, which aim to bring signing and singing together in an innovative way.
The programme provides a dynamic but practical approach to signing. Initially, sessions are run with children and staff to introduce the use of signs through songs, stories and games.
This is followed by a staff workshop where relevant vocabularly is practised and where a handful of songs are explored in detail. Ideas for games and activities naturally follow on from this.
Local education authorities have supported the training by providing five settings with a copy of guidance material, Writing with Symbols 2000/Communication in Print. This allows staff to create relevant resources in preparation for a follow-up visit where we observe a singing session, monitor progress and manage any concerns. Altogether there are 106 nursery settings currently involved in the programme, ranging from small sessional nurseries to large daycare settings. Those nurseries which have SEN children are marked out as priorities by area SENCOs.
Practitioner response to the workshops has been very positive - they are doing anything from delivering well-prepared singing sessions at the follow-up session, to using symbols extensively around their setting.
Babies have a natural tendency to use gestures such as clapping and waving 'bye-bye', and our activities build upon these normal patterns of communication.
Songs are a perfect vehicle through which to introduce signs, as they allow children to rehearse the use of age-appropriate language. Nursery rhymes form one of children's earliest musical experiences and through repetition of simple rhymes children begin to learn how language is constructed.
From a practitioner's perspective, singing songs is a natural, child-centred activity which can help to develop children's conceptual thinking and memory skills as well as encourage the adult to be a more involved and responsive communication partner.
By using signs, symbols and props, we appeal to children's different learning styles - visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), kinaesthetic (moving) or tactile (touching).
Wherever possible we offer a multi-sensory approach. So, for example, when we introduce a song such as Incy Wincy Spider, we say the word spider, sign spider and show a symbol of a spider, with the word written underneath. We also pass round a rubber spider for the children to touch.
Signing here, there and everywhere
In April we were invited to visit the Education Centre for Children with Down's Syndrome. This is based at the £37.3m Education Village in Darlington, a pioneering project in the UK bringing together three schools - a primary, secondary and special school, all on one site. The village offers a 'learning campus' to develop a unique approach to inclusive schools catering for 1,400 pupils aged from two to 19.
As part of their Family Fun Day, we ran singing sessions for the children, their families and various professionals, building on social communication skills such as joint attention, listening and turn-taking.
Children with Down's Syndrome have particular difficulties with their spoken language development and often have some form of conductive hearing loss and auditory discrimination difficulty. Signing is widely accepted as beneficial to children who have Down's Syndrome because of their strengths as visual learners. Signing can assist with auditory discrimination, help promote spoken language and offers benefits for both comprehension and speech production.
Feedback from the sessions was very encouraging and parents welcomed the opportunity to get involved in activities that they could develop at home with their children.
CONCENTRATING ON SKILLS
Sally Allen, manager of Playwam nursery in Teddington, Middlesex, explains what the Singing Hands programme has meant for her setting
'We are a mainstream sessional nursery with one child who has an identified speech and learning delay, one child with cerebral palsy and several others who have been diagnosed with glue ear. Singing Hands has provided lots of encouragement in how to use signs at music time with props and instruments.'
Sally was particularly delighted by the wide range of songs and the level of concentration achieved by the children.
'Using our software we have created a Topic of the Week chart and daily activities board. Children are becoming familiar with the symbols and seeing the words underneath is contributing to their pre-reading skills. We've created games to use with our children with additional needs alongside their peers. This inclusive way of learning has been immensely positive for both children and staff alike.'
- Two signed songbooks and CDs are available in conjunction with the Makaton Vocabulary Development Project, each containing 30 songs from its classes: Singing Hands Book of Songs and Song Time CD Volumes 1 and 2, both at £22.50 plus p&p.
- Singing Hands is also featured in the five nursery rhyme episodes of the award-winning signing programme 'Something Special' on C-Beebies' 'Tikkabilla', which was screened in 2005. These five episodes are not available on DVD.
- For Makaton see www.makaton.org
- For products and video clips see www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies and click on the link to 'Something Special'
- For information about writing with symbols and communication in print: www.widgit.com.