How Makaton helped us communicate our classes during Covid-19
New virtual classes 100,000 views and national TV coverage thanks to pioneering inclusivity online
Flamingo Chicks is an inclusive community bringing children together through dance. Early on in this pandemic we realised just how much of a challenge lockdown would be – as both CEO of Flamingo Chicks and mum to a child with Cerebral Palsy – I too was having first-hand experience.
We knew we had to find a way to continue supporting our families when our usual face-to-face classes weren’t possible. Parents told us two big challenges were getting their children to exercise and also home-schooling.
Whilst there is an overwhelming amount of materials online, there is little that’s accessible for disabled children, particularly in terms of exercise. And even less that is communicated in a way that they can access and understand.
Being out of routine and missing the familiarity of support from school and the raft of healthcare professionals is so unsettling - many families reported it felt like their world had been turned upside down. We wanted to recreate our content to provide that familiarity, a way for our children to express themselves and a moment of calm for parents/carers.
We partnered with science charity Lightyear Foundation to offer a unique blend of movement and science – supporting families both in terms of their child’s physical and mental wellbeing, but also keeping up their school work, with each session linked to the national curriculum. And importantly, we recruited Makaton Tutor Nicola Pike from Better Communication Bristol as it was really important to us that our communication methods were accessible and also familiar to the children we work with, lots of whom we see regularly in special schools. Enter Makaton! Nic appears in all of our online classes, signing alongside our teachers. We know she’s a big hit with our viewers! Subtitles are also available on all of our videos.
Each week we release a new ‘virtual class’ with it's own theme, from Space to Le Corsaire (pirates) and Madame Butterfly to the Human Body. Each has a STEM sub-theme and a spin-off science experiment from Dr Sarah Bearchall. Sarah is not only an experienced Science Presenter, she also specialises in working in SEN, and includes Makaton in her videos too.
As well as helping with home schooling, we know how much our children value story-telling and delving into their imaginations. We have produced a collection of children’s stories, written by our truly incredible volunteers, based around the theme of inclusion. Read by celebrities such as Ben Shephard, the extra sparkle is definitely the Makaton, again signed by Nic. The clear concepts that Nic signs really pull the stories together and enables everyone to engage with them.
Dance and movement provides a way for disabled children to not only develop their physical skills, such as balance and co-ordination, but to also express themselves in different ways, increasing their confidence, and enabling them to reach their full potential. Dance also develops key skills such as teamwork, communication skills, and problem solving whilst immersing children in a creative environment where they can feel free to be themselves.
Translating our inclusive and highly interactive classes into filmed sessions has certainly had it’s challenges. From green screens and lights in our living rooms, to matching up the Makaton with the class footage (ensuring the speech and signing are in unison) - all whilst working in isolation! However, our teachers found that Makaton was a really useful tool in keeping the content of the classes concise and clear. A key learning was to try and simplify the language of the sessions, to aid children's understanding. Knowing that the footage was being sent to Nic to sign really helped our teachers, as Nic would then pull out the key concepts, instructions and words from their speech to sign. This in turn helped the teachers realise the key message of their dialogue, and reduce their language as much as possible, to concentrate the content.
We are now on session 7 of our weekly virtual classes and the response has been phenomenal. We’re up to 100,000 views across our platforms and we’ve been covered by a host of national TV programmes including Good Morning Britain, This Morning, Sky News and Channel 4. We’ve had a sea of emails, messages and social posts from families as well as health, social care and education professionals saying how valued these new resources are. We know they are being used in homes across the UK but also in settings like children’s hospices and hospitals and SEN schools looking after key workers’ and vulnerable children. The thread through all the responses is the sense that disabled children and their families don’t feel alone – they feel connected again and part of something.
Feedback from families regularly includes the delight in Makaton being used so heavily, and some of the videos we’ve received show children excitedly pointing to Nic signing on the screen. We hope that our classes will provide people with truly meaningful experiences that brighten their day and provide joy in the moment. We also hope they empower our young people - building confidence in their abilities and helping them learn new skills, whilst also celebrating who they are and creating a community of people that feel included, recognised and able to fulfil their potential.
Update: Flamingo Chicks have won the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service