Image shown: Pop Up Picnic visits a family home in Kildare in 2017 with performer Niamh Lawlor and musician Thomas Johnston. Photo credit: Brian Cregan.

Image shown: Pop Up Picnic visits a family home in Kildare

Image shown: Pop Up Picnic workshop at Engaging the Senses symposium

Image shown: Pop Up Picnic workshop at Engaging the Senses symposium


with director Joanna Williams (centre). Photo credit: Paul Gallagher.


The primary audience is very young children (12-36 months) with complex needs and their families.


Life around very young children with complex needs can be consumed with the child’s intense physical needs and medical routines that must take priority. As a result, parent, child, sibling and family bonding can suffer, with little time for normal relationships to develop, and the important, relaxing benefits of fun and play often having to take a back seat.

Helium Arts developed Pop Up Picnic for families in the home with the following aims:

  • To create tailored performance experiences, responding to children’s individual needs, using music, sound, puppetry, movement and tactile environments
  • To support families in absorbing creative and play skills to be used in everyday life in the home, providing parents with new ways of bonding with their very young child using sound, light, music, movement, smell and touch
  • Through giving space and time for relationships to flourish, it was envisaged that toddlers’ social and emotional development would also benefit.

In 2018, Pop Up Picnic has been adapted for young audiences outside the home to reach more children with complex needs and their families.


A feast of play, relaxation, and surprise in the comfort of home…


The pilot phase took place in early 2016 with four families in Kildare in partnership with Specialist Liaison Nurses from the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation and Kildare County Council Arts Service within its Art, Health and Wellbeing programme. Children with PMLD (profound and multiple learning difficulties) may respond to certain stimuli more positively than others and the foundations of Pop Up Picnic are based on the senses as a means of engaging the child.

The creative team – children’s theatre director Joanna Williams, and two performers, musician Thomas Johnston and puppeteer Niamh Lawlor – took part in a number of mentoring sessions with Tim Webb of Oily Cart, who has worked for over 30 years developing theatre for this cohort, followed by a month of preparations to devise small interactive and immersive performance experiences for family homes.

Tim spoke about finding the moments for stillness and pauses, to allow time for the children to process what is happening and so as not to clutter the experience.’

– Director Joanna Williams, project blog

Home visits

Home visits remove any stress involved with transporting medical equipment, disrupting medical routines, and trying to be somewhere on time. They ensure that very young children access play opportunities and parents feel relaxed to enjoy and absorb new ways of ‘being’ with their very young child. The interactive performance was designed to involve siblings and the family as a whole, to create further opportunities for bonding in the family home. The performers visit each family three times so that the sensory experiences can be adapted according to the engagement of each child. By the third visit, the family can choose their own version of the show, selecting their favourite scenes.

It’s been fantastic to have an experience that’s brought into your home particularly for my daughter because she has greater needs. The experience of actually having it in her own house, her own sitting room, it’s like a little piece of magic that’s brought into our own house and it’s great the way both Niamh and Thomas have tailored a series of whole different experiences for her.’ – Participating mum

Devising sensory experiences

In the development phase, the creative team explored linking objects with different sensory experiences and combining this with music to build anticipation. For example in ‘Tickle Tickle Glockenspiel’ a feather slowly appears out of a little tube as Thomas plays his Glockenspiel, and it pops back out of sight if he stops. Eventually the feather comes all the way out and the music changes to allow it to dance around to each person present, then, as it goes to tickle a hand or a foot, Thomas reflects this with a fast tinkly tickle sound.

The team visited all four families with the experiences they had developed. Working with families in their own homes enabled a real sense of community to develop between families and performers. The creative team learns that one of the children likes many senses being stimulated simultaneously. Another child is tentative about interacting with each new object although the performers can see that from a distance she is really engaged and curious about it. During the Rain Song, everyone joins in singing rounds allowing her to take her time until she eventually comes over to the umbrella.

I was reminded again how the success of this project has been so much dependent on the sensitivity, adaptability and responsiveness of both performers in all the different family contexts.” – Director Joanna Williams

Informed by the children’s responses to the experiences during the home visits, the creative team then developed a pilot performance tailored for each child built around the theme of a picnic.

Let’s have a picnic party today…

To create the performance piece, the creative team explored a variety of sensory stimulants for a picnic story centring on oranges, honey, bread and tea. These acts include an orange massage, an opportunity to touch and smell the oranges, some friendly buzzy bees and a tea party with different teapots pouring out many sensory experiences.

Our piece with oranges had finally unlocked touch for us. We’d struggled with this previously, feeling that children were often reluctant to be touched by a stranger and also that the performers didn’t always feel comfortable with it either. The orange massage gave us two things – an opportunity to use ‘firm’ touch and a vehicle that felt more appropriate for the performers as they demonstrated the massage on each other and then gauged whether to offer the child a massage themselves or to encourage a parent or sibling to give it a go.’ – Director Joanna Williams, project blog

To bring the ideas to life, the team worked with prop maker Mia Van Evelingen and artist/maker Orla Kelly to create the picnic scene. Each picnic item needed to be multi-purpose, bringing a variety of sensory experiences (touch / smell / sound / light), and practical issues had to be considered such as the robustness of props and the ability to clean and disinfect them.

In 2016, the performance was tested with the families in Kildare followed by further development. Pop Up Picnic toured to the Kildare families in 2017 and, working in collaboration with nurses from Jack and Jill, to new families in Tipperary.

Public adaptation

The home-based nature of Pop Up Picnic has meant that only a small number of families have been able to take part to date. To open up the project to more families, Pop Up Picnic has been adapted for public settings in 2018, supported by Dublin City Council, Creative Ireland and RTÉ as part of Dublin City Council’s Cruinniú na nÓg. A new performer, Roseanne Lynch, joined the team and rehearsals began in May with the pilot adaptation taking place in partnership with the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) on 23 June in celebration of Dublin Cruinniú – a day of youthful creativity.

Helium Arts also developed two Pop Up Picnic inspired events for young children in hospital and care settings as part of Dublin Cruinniú. In partnership with the Central Remedial Clinic Pre-School, artist Orla Kelly and musician Jonathan Wilson engaged pre-schoolers, their siblings, and their parents in a multi-sensory picnic adventure. In partnership with Children in Hospital Ireland (CHI), multi-sensory, creative play experiences were brought to young children with additional needs at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin and Temple Street Children’s University Hospital. A team of CHI volunteers engaged in training sessions facilitated by Pop Up Picnic performer Niamh Lawlor and creative mentor Margot Jones. The team built upon their skills as play volunteers and learned new techniques in music, movement and one-on-one performance.

Artistic Outputs

Pop Up Picnic has been performed in the following settings to date:

  • Family homes in Kildare (2016 and 2017) and Tipperary (2017)
  • Jack and Jill Family Day at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (2017 and 2018)
  • Helium Arts’ Engaging the Senses symposium at Riverbank Arts Centre with families from Kildare and Tipperary (May 2018)
  • Dublin City Council’s Cruinniú na nÓg (June 2018)

Production credits
Director: Joanna Williams
Performers: Niamh Lawlor, Thomas Johnston, Roseanne Lynch
Prop designs and creation: Orla Kelly and Mia Van Evelingen
Puppet making: Púca Puppets

Evaluation Methodology

The project is evaluated on an ongoing basis via:

  • Feedback and reflective sessions with the creative team, healthcare partners and participating families
  • Private reflective blog detailing the development phase and pilot project by director Joanna Williams
  • Feedback questionnaires for families
  • Annual project reports by Helium Arts for partners and supporters

Evaluation Outcomes

Pop Up Picnic was the first theatre project of its kind in Ireland to be developed for young children with complex needs in their homes. A partnership approach with liaison nurses from Jack and Jill was crucial to embedding the project within the home.

Repeat visits with families were the most important component in developing a performance responsive to participating children.

The performers knew more about the children on second visits and so understood far better what aspects of the planned experience were likely to stimulate them, and of course the children were far more relaxed, less shy on meeting us all the second and third visits.’ – Director Joanna Williams, project blog

‘A little piece of magic in the home’: parent reflections

Parents commented that it was a chance for families to participate in a fun experience as a whole family, which one expressed as being a ‘rare’ experience when living with illness, and that the Pop Up Picnic provided ‘new ways to entertain’ their child and new ways for the child’s siblings to interact and play together.

One parent was delighted to see her son interacting with visitors / strangers in such a relaxed happy way as he often feels distressed when meeting new people. She relayed how important the home experience was as it was hard for them to go out places because her son doesn’t like crowds and noise.

Parents enjoyed learning how to use the different senses for stimulation and saw the performance as ‘a welcome break’ from medical routines. One parent was very surprised by the length of her daughter’s attention span, describing her reaction as ‘heart-lifting.’ Other parents were surprised at how easy the multi-sensory techniques were: ‘simple ideas to try at home’.

You have to tap into where the child is developmentally and she has come on in leaps and bounds. It has all brought her out of herself and her engagement and her eye contact and all of that has come on.’ – Participating mum

My daughter takes a bit longer to process things so it allowed, in focusing on different things  – giving them that extra bit of time and making it so special – it gave her a chance to process it and take it all on board. She definitely hugely benefited from that as well as enjoying it immensely, no more than myself.’ – Participating mum

As a parent, it gives you the chance to bond with your child in a different way outside of the medical stuff, getting that chance to just forget about all that stuff and focus on the moment and enjoying that and making it as special as it can be.’ – Participating mum

Reflection from a Jack & Jill Liaison Nurse

‘I was delighted to be involved in introducing two Tipperary families to the magic, simplicity and fun of Helium’s home-based projects. Both children and parents alike were captivated and entertained by the multi-sensory performance, which seemed to resonate with, and engage children with complex needs. I loved the pared-back performance using musical instruments, singing and puppetry, sprinkled with fun and laughter which have given families precious memories and diverted them from the daily grind of caring for a sick child in the home.’ – Mags Naughton, Liaison Nurse, Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation

The art of slowing down: artist reflections

Both Niamh and Thomas learned through working with the families how important it is to slow down and really feel the energy of the child, siblings, parents, and respond to that.

Niamh found that regular contact with the families was invaluable and it was very rewarding for her to see how much they also got out of the experience. The time spent devising and developing the Pop Up Picnic with Thomas and Joanna allowed for an excellent ensemble way of working.

Thomas also considered the extensive development and pilot process as vital to the project, enabling him to really interrogate his practice, to closely focus on the multi-sensory dimensions of his work and to reflect on the impact that the work was having on young children and their families.

We have become very good at improvising and responding on the floor to the young children and reading their needs and responding to them creatively which has been very inspiring and positively challenging for our work.’ – Performer Niamh Lawlor

Going forward

There is a huge appetite and need for this type of work in Ireland, as evidenced in our evaluation reporting to date. Helium Arts is aiming to bring Pop Up Picnic to more families in the home in counties across Ireland and to more public settings, working in close co-operation with healthcare partners, local authority arts offices and arts venues in the years ahead.

Documentation and Dissemination

Dissemination of the project has included:

  • Engaging the Senses (May 2018): A Helium Arts symposium in partnership with Kildare County Council Arts Service exploring multi-sensory, interactive arts for young children with complex needs informed by outcomes and learning from the Pop Up Picnic project. The symposium included a performance by the creative team with two participating families, a panel discussion on ‘Integrating sensory performing arts in health and community settings’ and a practical workshop by the creative team exploring how practitioners can engage multiple senses when developing early years work.
  • Early Childhood Ireland’s 2018 conference (April 2018): Joanna Williams, Helium’s early years theatre director, gave a presentation and demonstrated sensory play techniques.
  • Pop Up Picnic film: Featuring performances in three family homes in Kildare with reflections from participating families.
  • Pop Up Picnic booklet: Created with the kind permission of families in Kildare, this booklet showcases the project in the home and has been designed for interested families and organisations working with young children with profound disabilities.
  • Morning Ireland (June 2018): An in-depth feature on RTE Radio One’s breakfast news programme by Gill Stedman with Pop Up Picnic songs and audio interspersed with reflections by Eithne Hourihane, a participating parent, Mary-Joe Guilfoyle, Specialist Liaison Nurse with Jack and Jill, director Joanna Williams and performer Niamh Lawlor.

The project has been documented throughout via Helium’s blog page, photography and a film of the home visits in Kildare.


Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation; Kildare County Council Arts Service within its Art, Health and Wellbeing programme; Children in Hospital Ireland (2018); Irish Museum of Modern Art (2018); Central Remedial Clinic (2018).

Date of Publication

June 2018

Project dates

Pop Up Picnic is an ongoing project.

2016: Pilot phase with Kildare families.

2017: Pop Up Picnic tours to family homes in Kildare and Tipperary.

2018: Public adaption produced for  Dublin City Council’s Cruinniú na nÓg. 

Lead organisation

Helium Arts, the national children’s arts and health charity

Funded By

2018: The Arts Council, Kildare County Council,  Creative Ireland, Dublin City Council, RTE

2016/17:  The project was approved by Government with support from the Dormant Accounts Fund. Further supported by the Arts Council, the JP McManus Charitable Foundation, Allianz Ireland, The Ireland Funds, Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Civil Service Credit Union.

Pop Up Picnic in Tipperary was supported by the Arts Council and The Tony Ryan Fund.


Joanna Williams, Niamh Lawlor, Roseanne Lynch, Thomas Johnston


Music, Puppetry, Theatre

Healthcare context(s)

Children, Community Health

Nature of project

Collaborative/ participatory, Performance


Dublin City, Kildare, North Tipperary

Web link


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