Sensing change: creating 'Off to the Park!'

Published on: 26 June 2014 Author: Alex Strick

BookTrust Consultant Alex Strick introduces a groundbreaking ‘touch and feel’ book with the potential to engage all children, including those with sensory impairments and other needs.

Alex Strick

Books with tactile elements have a certain special magic – and it's one which few of us can resist.

However, the vast majority are designed and marketed with the very youngest of children in mind. Of course, tactile elements in books have much to offer babies and toddlers, but there are other audiences for whom they can hold particular benefits and appeal. For example, children and young people who have communication difficulties, learning disabilities or sensory impairments. In these cases, stroking patches of fur on different parts of a cuddly kitten can soon become rather repetitive. So where are the tactile books with a real story and variety, aimed at children over two? The answer is that they don't exist - at least not on the mainstream book market.

Our challenge

Bookstart PackThis makes selecting books for Booktouch packs a challenge. Booktouch is our Bookstart programme for blind or partially sighted children. Each pack needs two of the finest 'touch and feel' books on the market to engage young visually impaired children. Baby Booktouch packs are fairly easy, thanks to books like the 'That's Not My' board book series from Usborne, combining simple text and fun textures, and covering topics from ducks to dinosaurs and mermaids to meerkats. Dorling Kindersley also come to the rescue with books like Touch and Feel Playtime featuring textures like a doll's woolly hair and a palette of delightfully tacky paints.

However, our second Booktouch pack is for children of 2-4 years and by this age, finding any suitable mainstream titles gets tricky. What's needed is a book with an age-appropriate story and a variety of diverse and meaningful shapes and textures.

Our solution

It was this quandary that led us to develop a rather exciting project. We wondered whether it might just be possible to create a mainstream tactile book for ALL children – appealing to a wide age range and engaging all audiences, including those with visual impairments and other needs. Such a project would take a very special publisher – and we were exceptionally lucky to find one in Child's Play. This truly inclusive publisher, already committed to making sure all children are engaged by books, bravely agreed to take on the challenge of creating and publishing such a book. So together we started to form the plan for a touch and feel book with a difference.

For starters, this was a book which would feature a story, ideas, textures, shapes and words aimed at genuinely engaging all children, but particularly taking into account children who happen to be blind or partially sighted. In our quest to achieve this, we wanted to work with those who know best – visual impairment specialists, local sensory services and, most importantly, children, families and young visually impaired people themselves.

New College Worcester studentsAs part of this consultation, we worked with several families and also approached New College Worcester, a specialist residential college for students aged 11-19. They came up with the theme of the book, the truly universal experience of going to the park. Over the course of several visits to the college, we collected key words and descriptions from them, to ensure the text drew on their own language ad experiences. We also tried out an array of different tactile shapes and textures to ensure we got it right and included enough variety and interest. This wasn't always easy, particularly given the safety regulations around the book. We took a mock-up back there for rigorous road-testing, and more changes had to be made. For example, the students quickly pointed out that the branch could be mistaken for a tree, and that a special trip to the park simply had to end with an ice cream. Not just any ice cream, but a 'scratch and sniff' ice cream.

However, the result really is a touch and feel book like no other. A combination of lively rhyming text, diverse shapes and textures and even Braille numbering in the corner of each page. It's not only perfect for Booktouch, but also for many other BookTrust programmes and offers. Look out for it in our Bookstart Star packs too.

The highlight of the process was taking the finished product back to Worcester earlier this month. The students were absolutely thrilled and showered it with the sort of praise only teenagers can offer - comments like 'awesome' and 'so cool'. Most pleasingly, they felt that it now had the potential to engage children from a very young age to well into their teens.

What's next?

Boy ReadingAs the book now hits book packs and bookshelves, the students of New College are already hard at work generating ideas for more books. A huge thank you to them, to Child's Play and to all the partners who helped to create this very special book, particularly young Fred (pictured here) who also came to launch the book in London.

Here's hoping we can work with all these partners and more to build on the success of this unique and revolutionary project. Together we are surely proving that the appeal of touch and feel books need not be restricted to very young children alone.

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