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Sensory Play: a success story!

Well, 2021 has been another strange year for everyone, NESM included (not least because the museum was closed for the first four-and-a-bit months due to lockdown). Despite all the trials and tribulations, we've still managed to achieve lots of great stuff this year; from launching two new exhibitions to an amazing Wartime Christmas weekend last year that saw nearly 800 visitors in the museum - a record! One of the other new things we've launched this year has also been a roaring success; our monthly sensory play sessions for under-fives. Here our learning and discovery co-ordinator Rosie Norrell, who developed the sessions, explains more.

When I began my research into under-five activities and offerings earlier in the year, it definitely seemed as if there was a gap in our offering for some of our most popular visitors. So our Sensory Play sessions were born, one Friday each month; originally just a morning session but then we had to include an afternoon session too. They have certainly become very popular! As I write I have just this moment finished setting up our sold out ‘It’s Christmas’ session - what will be our 11th and 12th sessions of the year. I could not be happier with how these sessions have gone and the positive response I have had from our participants. That's not to say there hasn’t been some learning curves along the way, but we have found a nice rhythm. We have some 'regulars' that we welcome back each month (no doubt making use of their annual museum pass!) and I can honestly say those two hours are some of the most fun I have in my job. So I am going to take a look back at what we’ve done this year and then what we have coming up in our sensory play sessions for 2022.

In a previous blog during the summer holidays I explained about our seaside themed sensory play but by the end of the holidays it was everything firefighters! We had a fire engine tent, flashing blue lights, dress up, made our own fire helmets and had fire extinguisher foam, as well as water and buckets to put out the fire! We also used the foam and water to wash our fire engines to make sure they were spic and span. We all created a huge piece of fire artwork using paint and our cars and fire engines (explains why we needed the car wash). We had our usual songs and stories too.

Next we celebrated our NHS with a rainbow craft, getting our ambulances to the hospital and playing with sensory rice and rainbow cereal (ate some of that too). Unfortunately our mascot Rocko the Raccoon picked up a few injuries that needed to be taken care of; luckily we had some bandages to help him heal. Our story was Zog by Julia Donaldson, where we learnt that sometimes princesses want to be doctors too. We sang lots of songs, including heads, shoulders, knees and toes and of course Miss Polly had a Dolly.

Our October session could not be anything but Halloween, with some spooky spaghetti (wiggly worms to be exact) and pumpkin play. We rescued beasts from the ice (a lot harder than it seems), created booing ghosts and used our witch’s cauldron to make different potions (which turned some of the grownups into frogs!). We read the spooky story There’s a Monster in your book by Tom Fletcher and managed to stop it from escaping into the museum! We ended of course with the Monster Mash.

Being an old police, fire and ambulance station we couldn't leave out the police of course. So in November we dressed up as officers and used torches to search for clues, made our own police cars and did finger printing (and a bit of finger painting too). We had to free some cars that we stuck in the sand and we even made some playdoh doughnuts (no stereotyping here at all). We read Cops and Robbers by Janet and Allan Ahlberg and chose our favourite songs to sing (including the Hokey Cokey, which gave us all a workout).

The amazing success of these sessions means that we have already scheduled more sessions for next year. In response to the feedback we've had, we've made sure to include some during the school holidays so that nursery and school pupils can attend too. Already planned for the first half of the year are:

Friday 21 January: Unsung Heroes – HM Coastguard, Air Ambulance and Mountain Rescue.

Friday 18 February: Under armour

Friday 18 March: It’s spring time in Sheffield

Friday 8 April: Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Friday 6 May: May Day

Friday 3 June: A real royal variety

You can find out more about each session, and how to book, at

I would just like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to everyone who has attended any of our sensory play sessions this year. Having two under-fives myself I know what a hard time it has been for us all. I hope that I have created an environment where your little ones have been able to interact, play and engage with activities and make their own choices, but also one where you yourself have felt comfortable to let your child explore. Our sensory play is child led and we want to continue this philosophy into 2022.

Merry Christmas and I hope to see some of you next year.

Rosie Norrell

Learning and Discovery Co-ordinator

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