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Multisensory Storytelling – A Play Therapist’s perspective


Here at Total Communication Services CIC, we have been having a lovely summer! We received some funding from the Bury Council Lets Live Well project to run Multisensory Story sessions for children and adults around Bury. We were also commissioned by Bolton Library to run some sessions in the beautiful venue Smithills Hall. As well as running sessions, we have been training staff and supporting centres with their own home-made story planning sessions. It’s safe to say, we have thoroughly enjoyed running this project, just as much as the participants attending our sessions. For more information about our project, please see our other blogs linked below.

I first heard about Multisensory Storytelling when I was at university in 2014. I was trained as a storyteller by Bag Books and I enjoyed the approach so much I went to complete my undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations all about Multisensory Storytelling. I’m now back at university once more, training to become a (BAPT registered) Play Therapist. Through this training, I have been learning about attachment, relationships and emotional development. With these new ideas in mind, it has been interesting to experience Multisensory Storytelling from a different perspective during this project.

What is Multisensory Storytelling?

Multisensory Storytelling (MSST) is an interactive approach combining sensory experience and storytelling. The approach is typically used with children or adults who have additional support needs and is most often facilitated in a small group. The approach uses different objects (stimuli) which stimulate the five senses, touch, smell, hearing, taste, and vision. Each stimulus is linked to one sentence of a short story. The stories are designed to be interactive, playful, and fun. Repetition is an important part of multisensory storytelling and sessions are often run over a number of weeks.

Why is Multisensory Storytelling beneficial?

MSST is beneficial for people for many reasons. Firstly, opportunities for sensory exploration and experience are offered. Sensory experience and stimulation are important for brain development, and during MSST participants might experience new or interesting textures, sounds, smells, or visuals. Repetition of experience builds new neural pathways, important as brain development is use-dependant (Hong and Mason, 2016). Participants are able to explore the stimuli at their own pace and often gain the confidence to try something new.

Furthermore, opportunities for developing early communication skills also occur through MSST. Research has found that MSST supports engagement and responsiveness in people with complex support needs, and they can help people to develop skills in social communication, such as turn taking, eye contact, and choice making (Halfens, 2012). A key feature of MSST is the repetition of the story and the anticipation which occurs when in a group setting. We have found that some people really enjoy being last in the group. This is because going last builds excitement, participants are able to watch other group members take their turn and thus, anticipate their own.

This also allows children who are nervous about being in a new environment the chance to see what happens before it is their turn.

This picture shows one participant watching his cousin explore the object. He particularly enjoyed watching the other members of the group go before him and was able to anticipate his turn in the group.

Shared Interaction

As well as the communicative benefits, MSST offers opportunities for building positive relationships, through the pleasurable, shared interaction with a communication partner. As MSST is designed to be playful, there are many opportunities for joy, pleasure, interest, delight, humour, laughter, and fun. It is a shared experience between the storyteller and participant, and also, between the participant and their caregiver. At Total Communication Services CIC

we feel it is beneficial to involve caregivers who have come to support participants within the session. This is because opportunities for pleasurable, shared interaction are then extended. Research into attachment shows us that a common feature of securely attached relationships is mutual pleasure in each other’s company (Beebe et al., 2012); we often find that participants and their caregivers experience mutual delight in the other person’s participation during MSST. An example of this might be a child finding it humorous or enjoyable to see a caregiver wear a silly hat or pretending to run away from a pirate. Parents have reported enjoying the sessions, as they might see the child engage in ways that are unusual. For example, speaking out loud or touching something they usually would refuse to. The interaction elicited through MSST supports positive relationship building; participants share mutual pleasure in each other’s company through joyful, playful, meaningful experiences.

Further opportunities to support positive experiences in relationships occur in the relationship between the storyteller and participant. As a storyteller, it is important to build rapport with participants and notice subtle changes in their presentation and communication when delivering MSST sessions. This might look like a short smile when engaging with a certain stimulus or it could be that someone is looking worried before having their turn. It is also important for the storyteller to respect boundaries, know when a participant has finished or had enough, or is overwhelmed by a stimulus. As the trust in the relationship builds week upon week, the storyteller becomes more able to assess the participants needs and can make judgements about when to gently encourage exploration and when to take a step back. The storytelling session becomes a dynamic process, adapting to the needs of each participant. This might look like giving a participant longer to explore something if they seem to be enjoying it. It could also look like skipping a certain stimulus or modelling how it used on yourself first if someone seems unsure. Noticing how another person feels and acting accordingly is called attunement. Attunement is an important part of building relationships and helps another person feel heard, valued and understood.


It has been interesting and valuable to consider the ways in which relationships are positively impacted by MSST from a new perspective as a trainee Play Therapist. Running the sessions as a storyteller have been rewarding and we would love to run more sessions in the future. This blog explores MSST from a relationship building perspective but our other blog explores the other part of our project, where the self-advocates from Bury People First became the ones to tell the stories.

More information

Beebe, B., Lachmann, F. M., Markese, S., Buck, K. A., Bahrick, L. E., Chen, H., & Jaffe, J. (2012). On the origins of disorganized attachment and internal working models: Paper II. An empirical microanalysis of 4-month mother–infant interaction. Psychoanalytic dialogues, 22(3), 352-374. Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental psychology, 28(5), 759

Grace, J (2015). Sensory Stories for Children and Teens with Special Educational Needs. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Halfens, J. L. (2012). Multisensory Storytelling: the effect on positive social responsiveness in children with profound multiple disabilities. Utrecht University.1-62. Hong, R., & Mason, C. M. (2016). Becoming a neurobiologically-informed play therapist. International Journal of Play Therapy, 25(1), 35. Perry, B. D. (2001). Attachment: The first core strength. Early Childhood Today, 16(2), 28-29.


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