Guest blogger Lesley Rogers is chairing the charity Sense’s inquiry, The Case for Play into the lack of access to play opportunities for under-fives with multiple needs. Lesley is involved alongside co chair David Blunkett, the former education secretary, and Julie Jennings from RNIB as an expert advisor.
Play is an important part of childhood, it’s where children learn about the world around them, build relationships and friendships. But I know from experience with my eight-year-old Ruby that children with multiple needs often don’t get the same opportunities to play as other children.
Ruby was born with a rare condition called CHARGE syndrome and is consequently deafblind, she also has a heart condition and feeding problems.
We struggled from the very beginning to find appropriate play opportunities for Ruby. From finding accessible play groups to swimming pools and play parks. Every activity and opportunity for play has to be checked it’s accessible and appropriate beforehand, if it’s not, I have to ask for adaptations – and if those can’t be made, we can’t go and Ruby misses out.
But for children like Ruby, play is even more important. It was through play that we learnt to communicate with each other through basic sign language, through play Ruby is developing her muscle tone and through play she’s learning to connect with others around her.
We initially struggled to find appropriate play and activity groups. When Ruby was younger I wouldn’t take her to regular toddler groups, I felt vulnerable and isolated. I didn’t want to explain Ruby’s condition to other parents, and I wanted to go to places where I could meet people who would understand.
When Ruby was 18 months we were introduced to the deafblind charity Sense, it was a lifeline. We started going to the Sense play group, Sparkles, in Barnet. It used to take me 40 minutes to get there, but it was worth it. You didn’t need to explain to anybody what was wrong; if you came along with a feeding pump and a suction machine, it was accepted. I found everything I needed there, support from other parents and expert knowledge from staff.
Over the years I have spent so much time researching activities and play opportunities on the internet. I don’t want Ruby to miss out so I have thoroughly explored my borough but nowhere fully meets her needs. I’ve learnt that you have to be very proactive; I approach establishments, tell them about Ruby and ask if they are willing to make adjustments.
I hope that the inquiry will raise awareness of the challenges families like ours face every day. I hope that the government listens to the evidence and the recommendations that Sense presents and that appropriate changes are made following this. I hope that families get more support, particularly in the early years when parents could be feeling overwhelmed and confused. The earlier they receive help, the sooner they can provide the right support to their children.
With the right support, Ruby has the chance to enjoy play and leisure activities. She loves swimming. She goes once a week with school. It’s a great achievement that Ruby is able to attend the sessions. Ruby doesn’t like cold water so together with the school we contacted the leisure centre to see if they would be willing to open the jacuzzi and smaller warmer pool for us, we also needed an extra life guard and extra time in the changing rooms which they agreed to.
Ruby goes to the pool with her intervenor, her intervenor is basically her eyes and ears, she shows Ruby how to do things in a way that she understands. The intervenor will take toys into the pool, she’ll flick a ball to Ruby and Ruby will flick it back. Through swimming Ruby is strengthening her muscle tone, she’s also learning to socialise with her classmates which is great to see.
The most common barriers in terms of access to play settings for children with multiple needs is that there just aren’t enough places that are accommodating to children with multiple needs so accessibility is a big one.
There is a lack of information about play groups and activities that are suitable. For example we got introduced to Sense when Ruby was 18 months, it was a lifeline for us and I wish we knew about them earlier. Quite often you find out about things through word of mouth, this shouldn’t be the way. Parents need support as much as the children. It’s vital, particularly in the beginning.
Also I don’t often have confidence in the staff to leave Ruby with them. For example, I need to know that the staff can feed her and that they can sign. The reality is these places are few and far between, I have fully explored my borough and there is nowhere that fully meets her needs, this means I have to go with her all the time. Or use an intervenor.
What more can be done to boost such opportunities? Parents should have better access to information and advice on how to play with their child. Disabled children and their families should be involved in the design of play spaces and sessions to ensure they meet their needs.
There should be better training of staff and management at play groups etc. Often parents of children with complex needs have to come in and train staff how to care for their child’s medical needs. Every local authority should provide accessible play opportunities that meet a range of needs, in both specialist and mainstream settings.
All children and their families should have early access to support from specialist workers. Local authorities should make early intervention through play a funding priority.
A focus on play just isn’t seen as a big priority in the current financial climate. It’s turned into a kind of post code lottery for families, local authorities can now make their own choices about whether to prioritise play – some local authorities still have a local play strategy and continue to invest in play whilst others do not. This is despite the fact that funding early intervention and development is the best way to make a saving in the long term.
* Sense is calling for evidence from parents of children with multiple needs, specialists from the disability sector and practitioners. Visit the Sense website to get involved. For more information about the inquiry, email firstname.lastname@example.org