Play and adventure centre for special needs children

Frustrated by a lack of play opportunities for disabled children, a group of parents in Essex has spent more than 10 years providing centres and after-school clubs themselves. Robert Bullard reports.

All parents like to take their children to a playground, and every child likes to play in one. But what do you do if your child has a disability or special needs? Most playgrounds are not accessible, and the mismatch between some children’s size/height and their mental age excludes them from activities that they would otherwise enjoy.

“The number of places that parents can take children are restricted,” says Georgina Rhymes, whose 11-year-old son has special needs. “Children have to have very complex needs to get any help from statutory services, and during the summer even special schools don’t run after school clubs, which means that some children might go several weeks without seeing another child.”

It was those frustrations that, 11 years ago, led a handful of parents from Braintree, Essex, to set up the Play and Adventure Resource Centre (PARC). Today it is a place where 200 children – half have autism, half have physical disabilities – can enjoy adapted swings and a climbing frame, a wide slide, wheelchair roundabout and a much-loved play ball.

“You want to lead a normal life when you go outside, but it is quite hard,” says Michael Knight, one of PARC’s co-founders, who has two autistic and epileptic sons. “PARC provides somewhere for parents to leave their children and take some time out to do things, knowing that their children are safe, being cared for and are stimulated.”

Specialist sessions

The organisation runs playgroups and after-school clubs for young people until the age of 25, including specialist sessions such as a disability football team and premature sick baby support group. Parents pay a contribution for using its facilities.

PARC’s work has been recognised locally, and this year it won a national GlaxoSmithKline award. But it hasn’t been easy, with accommodation a regular problem: PARC has had to move premises several times and in 2001 a bid to fund a purpose-built facility was turned down by the National Lottery, which was not convinced of the need for the group’s work.

But the parents did not give up, and a couple of years later a local hospital donated a building to them. “It wasn’t ideal,” says Rhymes, who is PARC’s fundraiser as well as a parent. “It needed re-roofing, painting and partitioning, and a disabled ramp and other standards had to be put in. We spent around £25,000 on getting it right.”

Despite the expense, the facility gave the organisation some stability. PARC took off when Braintree Council leased it some land on a country park – an ideal setting for the children – and a grant from the Children’s Fund enabled them to recruit a centre manager and a second full-time play leader.

Today, there is no shortage of demand for PARC’s services: for many sessions the requests for places are twice those available. In fact, the parents are about to secure their dream – during the past 18 months, they have raised £500,000 towards having their own purpose-built facility, securing along the way donations of more than £50,000 each from three local charities (the Fowler Smith Jones Trust, the Trust Fund of Rosemary Florence and the Baily Thomas Charitable Fund).

Sensory room

A hiccup with the building’s construction has delayed the opening until the autumn, but the parents remain enthusiastic. The new facility will have a sensory room, with a water-bed and fibre optic lights, and a room for therapists to work in. There will also be dedicated rooms for first aid and parents’ meetings – activities that now take place among other children. And outside there will be a sensory garden and other play areas.

“PARC has been invaluable – my son adores going to clubs, like other children,” says Victoria Grice, whose 10-year-old son Daniel has autism. She and her husband get no help from social services, so the three-hour respite session on Saturday morning provides them with a break for a few hours. The family also takes advantage of PARC’s sibling sessions, which the Grices’ three children can attend together.

“PARC is fantastic from a social point of view, for the children,” says Rhymes. “You can see their confidence and self-esteem grow as they build friendships and try things out on their own.” But even more important, she explains, is the impact it has had on parents. “If parents feel supported rather than isolated, and can network with other parents, it has a positive impact on their relationship with their children, who benefit as a result.”

For more information about PARC see

Or contact 01376 528999

Top tips

  • If you are determined you can make it happen.
  • Build relations with funders, to encourage repeat donations.
  • Use your local council for voluntary service (CVS), who can help with legal issues, finding volunteers, and so on.

This article is published in the 11 September edition of Community Care magazine under the headline PARC life


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