All Children have a Right to Play
We all know that children have a right to play. It is how they learn about the world. It is a way for children to learn about their environment and how they socialise within it. A child’s confidence develops through play. But what happens when you are a child with a severe disability, and you do not have the skills to instigate or participate in imaginative play, a key element of most playgrounds? What happens when you attend school fulltime and the playground is a blank grey concrete canvas with limited shade to protect you from the lunchtime sun? How do you engage with play? This was a constant debate among staff and therapists at a special school in the East End of London and why in December 2006 the head teacher at Stephen Hawking Special School decided to break away from the traditional playground appearance and request the assistance of Grant Lambie and his colleagues from Freeplay to develop a playground that would be accessible for all. Since then the playground has been transformed from a blank canvas where the majority of children stood as close to the school building as possible seeking shelter, to an oasis of play and curiosity.
The initial junior playground was spacious but did not target the developmental and sensory need of the children attending the school. At break-time instead of the children participating in meaningful activities, they were often observed rocking back and forth or participating in sensory seeking behaviour. Referrals to the occupational therapy team were high requesting the therapist to ‘fix’ this behaviour. Instead of initially focussing on fixing the child’s behaviour the occupational therapist looked at how the environment impacted on the children’s behaviour. In order to encourage outside play the playground needed to be inviting and to be designed around the needs of the children. It needed to be designed at a level that was appropriate to the children’s developmental needs rather than their chronological age. After several meetings between the school, therapist and the playground designer to facilitate this, the project started to move from an idea to reality. Throughout the initial stages of the project the key design was accessible for all. The type of playground equipment installed had to be not only therapeutic from a sensory integration perspective but also fun.
One key therapeutic medium often used to develop sensory integration with children is the use of a swing. This was one of the first areas to be developed within the playground. Wooden poles were erected with swing attachments allowed not only standard swings, but also stretcher style swings, and swings for children who are wheelchair users to encourage sensory play. This was shortly followed by bamboo trees and raised boxes with sensory plants linking this area to a wooden house where children play with numerous sensory-based activities indoors if the weather is bad. A hoist has also been installed within the indoor area to allow the children to come out of their wheelchairs and sit in the sand area or ball pool if desired.
Within a few weeks of this initial installation the children and the adults present spent more time wanting to engage with the new activities, rather than ‘hanging around’ the perimeter of the playground. Fewer teaching assistants want to talk to their colleagues during the children’s time away from the classroom. Instead the teaching assistants started to explore the new playground equipment and facilitate play. Since then the facilities within the playground have grown and now include: a level access trampoline, a roundabout and a see-saw to allow wheelchair access, mirrors, water play area, In other words an area away from the classroom environment has been developed that is not only inviting but stimulating.
The transformation has also happened in the early years playground and few could now imagine how children spent their playtime in the old grey playground. Within a level access school environment stairs have been incorporated within the playground to encourage the child to explore and develop the pre-requisite skills previously undertaken within a therapeutic session. Today most therapy sessions have moved from the traditional therapy areas to using the outside space. And whilst we as occupational therapists are still involved with the children’s development within the school environment we are no longer seen as the ‘fixers’ but as the ‘advisors for integrated play’. Today within the playground the children play first and have a disability second. The playground has grown into a three dimensional sensory environment that is not only therapeutic and accessible, but most of all a fun place to be.