Absolutely Education explores how one art therapist is using virtual reality to help children with Special Educational Needs

Technology has transformed the world of education. Chalky blackboards and copying lines have been replaced with smart boards and digital homework programmes, and online resources have made teachers’ administrative duties more bearable. But there is a new realm yet to be fully explored by education professionals: virtual reality (VR).

Sabine Ben-Haim was working as a private art teacher when she found increasing numbers of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) were coming to her for lessons. Eager to look deeper into how art could help children who didn’t fit into the traditional education system, Sabine trained as an art therapist and set up her own studio, Ruby Red & Crimson. 

“Art therapy uses art to start a conversation. The art is the visual language used to dig deeper inside and discover what people cannot say with words. I work with a lot of people who suffer from trauma who find it very hard to express themselves,” Sabine explains. “For example, a child with ADHD can be given a block of clay and we might discuss ‘what shall we do with it?’ but as soon as their hands touch the clay, the creation takes on a life of its own.”

Sabine’s son Yoni spotted that there could be a link between his interest in virtual reality and her occupation as an art therapist. “I saw my mum give a child that couldn’t focus on traditional mediums an iPad for drawing. They found the technology exciting and they could focus on it, whereas a canvas and paintbrush posed too much of a challenge,” says Yoni. “I then told her about a Google software called Tiltbrush, where you can paint in a 3D space – it’s incredible.”

Tiltbrush is indeed a fascinating experience. Putting on a VR headset plunges you into a 3D blank canvas where you can paint and build whatever you like, see your creation from a 360-degree perspective and even walk through it. With no visual distractions, you can become fully immersed in the creative process.

Tiltbrush VR
3D art created using Tiltbrush

“I thought, ‘This could be hugely beneficial for children my mum works with’,” Yoni says. “If a child suffers with ADHD or anxiety, the smallest noise or disturbance can upset them. In a virtual reality you can completely control a person’s experience, what they see, hear and do.”

The impact that VR art therapy has on the children Sabine and Yoni now work with is highly effective. “We have children who are debilitatingly shy, but after a few seconds you see them move and start to ask questions. They don’t feel self conscious. We also have children who are really hyperactive or have heightened emotions and they can end up falling asleep if we do relaxation programmes like our VR guided meditation,” says Sabine.

VR can also help build children’s self-esteem. “One kid is building a model desert,” says Yoni. “When he’s in the 3D world it comes up to his waist and he has made a river and trees and a cactus – he’s really taking his time to build a landscape and it’s a huge confidence boost for him.”

VR can even help people who have difficulty leaving the house or travelling due to anxiety or disabilities. “We offer them a 360-degree Google Earth Street View and the chance to either visit somewhere far away or go somewhere familiar,” Yoni says. “Children with autism can be afraid of new journeys, but you can do the VR version with them to show what it would be like and how to prepare for it. How would it be to go from the front door to the bus stop? And if we get on the bus, what would we go past? This helps them deal with leaving the house for the real journey.”

The future of VR in education is unclear, but both Yoni and Sabine would like to see it become widely used in classrooms, for all kinds of pupils. “I would love to introduce it to schools and offices,” says Yoni. “It’s incredible for team building and it’s fun to experience something as a group. Offices sometimes have a games room or meditation studio, and this is another tool you can offer for relaxation and escapism. I’m hoping to start running workshops or experiences for people. VR helps people with SEN, but it goes beyond that. It can be used for stress relief and escapism. On the flip side, we have games that are very active and energetic. We tailor each session to the person’s needs.”

The versatility of VR is immense. For people who are anxious and need less stimuli, it makes their world small and focused, allowing them to be fully present to create or simply relax. For others, it can widen their world with a wonderful escape. 

Further reading: SEN specialists answer your questions