Fun at the centre of attention

After lunch is quiet time at East Dunbartonshire's playscheme for children with additional needs, as the kids gather around the screen for a fun film. But young Darren has no plans to sit with the others.

"I just wanted to see what was on," he says, as he pops his head around the door. "I'm a good runner. You want to see me running?"

Without waiting for an answer, the red-clad nine-year-old shoots off along the Merkland School corridor, then turns and comes running back, jumping in the air and giving a little shimmy at the end.

"That was a move," he says. "I do handstands too."

Darren has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and diabetes, a potentially hazardous combination that means he needs a close eye kept on him constantly. Fortunately, this is an integral part of the service for every child at the playscheme.

"That is one of the reasons for its success," says children's services development officer Katrina Magill. "It means there's no need for the attention-seeking behaviour you sometimes get with kids. They've got that attention already.

"The staff take their lead from the children and help them do whatever they want. It's meant to be fun for the kids. They are on holiday and here to have a good time, and we're here to help them."

But hard work is needed behind the scenes to create a relaxed appearance when dealing with primary-age children with additional needs ranging from autistic spectrum and global developmental delay to physical disabilities, diabetes and attention deficit disorder.

Page after page of profiles for each child, put together by parents and other agencies working with them, detail their needs, capabilities, personalities, triggers, medication, likes, dislikes and strategies for handling outbursts that may arise.

In addition, playscheme staff come together at the end of every afternoon to compile a detailed record of the day's events and the reactions of the children in their charge. "They write down what the child did, what they enjoyed doing, and why," says Ms Magill. "They say what they'd encourage the child to do the next day, if they were partnered with them."

Particularly for children on the autistic spectrum - which is usually at least half the scheme participants - there is a balance to be struck between the benefits of preserving partnerships that work and stretching a child's social experience.

"We put a lot of thought into it, and try to find several members of staff that a child can work well with."

Structure is important for children affected by autism, so little plans are drawn up for those who want them, showing where they will be and what they will be doing during the day. Times of events youngsters don't want to miss are pinned to their jumpers, where companions can't easily miss them.

John, 7, offers a piece of blue card for inspection. "I have to carry it with me so I know where I'm going."

Next on the list for today, he says, is Mr Potato Head. "I like that because you can make him up and put pieces on him. I also like PSP. It's nice here."

The PSP - PlayStation Portable - and the Wii are among the most popular activities, says Ms Magill. But the children also enjoy non-digital distractions. In the school hall there's football, pretend shops, lots of clothes to try on, musical instruments, painting, construction kits and mechanical games with balls, wheels and levers.

The playground has water trays, sand with glitter, climbing-frames, a rope-bridge, a see-saw, garden huts with seats, mobile bugs to sit and travel on, a small badminton court with big shuttlecocks, and a collection of shaped wooden bricks that two boys have been working on all morning to build a rocket-ship.

Fraser, 8, and Liam, also 8, have just met. But the three square metres of playground, now covered by their intricate construction, is testimony to how well they have been working together.

The East Dunbartonshire scheme is normally hosted during Easter, summer and October breaks by Twechar Primary and Campsie View School in Lenzie. The move to Merkland School in Kirkintilloch is recent but is working well, says Ms Magill.

At the moment, all the children whose parents apply for a place are accepted. But as numbers rise, each child gets fewer days on the scheme. The current intake of 15, for instance, are on their second of six consecutive days before a changeover. While it takes time to get to know the children, it can be easier for adults who come back year after year, says Ms Magill - since children often do this too.

"Staff have a variety of backgrounds - playworkers, nursery nurses, teachers, student teachers. They won't all have worked with children with additional needs. But we provide in-depth training."

A teacher at Castlehill Language and Communication Resource, Amanda Braid came initially to support one of her pupils. "But I keep coming back now, supporting more children. Our kids here have language as the main barrier to learning and often a range of other sensory and motor difficulties. That can make their behaviour challenging. A familiar face makes them less anxious," she says.

"Play is important. It's where they learn to negotiate, interact and solve problems. All here have difficulties with it. But it's so well organised that it works for them."

Play definitely has a serious side, says playworker Lorna Kirk. "It is fun here - for the kids and us. But we always look for new ways to help them interact with toys and other children. Most kids here find it hard to imagine - which is a skill we often take for granted. We encourage them to be creative without putting pressure on them. It is laid back but focused."

While this week's participants on the scheme are mostly male, the staff are predominantly female. One exception is 22-year-old Jamie Tallieu, a trainee quantity surveyor who has done voluntary work with young people since he was at school. "We get paid but I would do this for nothing. I was a bit anxious about working with children with additional needs. But we were trained by Katrina and it was fine.

"The kids tell you what they want, and you give them the best time you possibly can. I've done lots of jobs with children. This is the best so far."

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