Disabled children’s playground in north London

An inner city playground for children with disabilities has won praise for encouraging inclusivity, writes Anabel Unity Sale

Noam Hollander stands swaying on a large, wooden swing, feeling queasy. It is not surprising considering the bed swing – so called because it looks like a bed – is meant for children in wheelchairs.

The swing is part of the Hayward Adventure Playground’s equipment for disabled children in London. Hollander, the playground’s play co-ordinator, helped build it to give young wheelchair users the chance to experience the sensation of swinging.

In September, Hayward was highlighted by the Every Disabled Child Matters  campaign as a positive example of how to engage disabled children in play. The campaign – comprising Contact A Family, the Council for Disabled Children, Mencap and the Special Educational Forum – lobbies for equal rights for disabled children. It published a report pointing out that disabled children routinely miss out on doing what most children take for granted: playing outside and having fun with friends away from their parents. It found the main barrier disabled children faced was the negative attitudes held by others.

The praise Hayward has received has made Hollander, his manager Stephen Roach and the playground’s sessional workers happy because they know how much their clients value it. “Young people from the inner city, especially disabled young people, have limited opportunities to play outside,” says Hollander. “Here they can interact with sand and water and immerse themselves in play.”

Smiling children

Back in his office, Hollander shows me a video on the EDCM website about Hayward. Scenes of smiling children, of mixed abilities and from differing backgrounds, fill the screen. The playground is on two acres of land behind north London’s Caledonian Road. Near the bed swing is a big wooden ship, perfect for climbing on, and a brightly painted bandstand filled with plastic wheelie toys to encourage children’s mobility.

Hayward is run by the children’s charity Kids. The organisation, which merged in 2003 with Kidsactive, previously the Handicapped Adventure Play Association, operates six adventure playgrounds in London for children with disabilities and behavioural issues and their siblings. Hayward is open Tuesday to Sunday for children aged five to 15, and there is a weekly youth club for 15- to 19-year-olds.

Hollander has worked for the organisation for eight years and appreciates its ethos. “One of the most important things here is that it is child-led,” he says. “They don’t have to do X or Y but can play how they want.”

He says play encourages children to be more independent and creative while helping them develop relationships with their peers and staff. “Considering the issue of violence among young people, it is important how they learn to relate to their peers. Here they have the opportunity to develop strategies to deal with conflict,” he adds.

Imaginative environment

Hayward is part-funded by Islington and Camden councils. Camden transports children to Hayward’s summer playscheme and Saturday sessions. Islington refers children and young people who need the support of a one-to-one sessional worker to its daily after-school club, Saturday sessions and playscheme.

Doreen Anderson, Islington’s joint centre manager for community base support services, is responsible for the contract with Hayward. She says the physical environment is used imaginatively to engage the young people. Feedback from children and parents or carers is “consistently positive”.

One important aspect of the scheme is that children can play freely. Anderson says that Hayward offers a unique opportunity for taking risks through play, which can be difficult for severely disabled children. “Their care tends to be managed and supervised more than non-disabled children so the opportunity to hang out with friends and have fun is much harder for them,” Anderson says.

But Hayward is only the start. Hollander believes more spaces need to be created and funded for children with disabilities and behavioural issues to flourish. “These young people’s needs are greater than most mainstream facilities can manage,” he says.

● More on Hayward :

Every Disabled Child Matters report

● Community Care is running an “Aiming High For Disabled Children” conference on 18 November in London. More at https://www.communitycare.co.uk/StaticPages/Conferences.htm

Top tips on play

● Ensure play activities are child-led and you are open-minded about what children want.

● Take a can-do attitude towards agencies you have contact with.

● Ensure you have open communication with colleagues and understand any constraints they face.

This article is published in the 23 October magazine under the heading Adventurous spirits get in the swing

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