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Playtime without pressure

Sarah Jewell travels to Buckinghamshire to sample an exciting new recreational centre for children with special needs

Independence, freedom and choice for children with disabilities are the aspirational objectives of the Thomley Hall Centre. This new recreational and educational facility, set in converted farm buildings surrounded by rolling green fields, aims to give children with special needs and their families and teachers a safe but exciting place to visit. Children are encouraged to choose for themselves what they want to do out of the wide range of activities, from exploring of a huge field, to riding chunky tricycles or playing the piano.

The centre welcomes school visits and for the small group of six to seven-year-olds from Bardwell School in Bicester, it was an exciting day out. The children have a range of learning difficulties including autism and cerebral palsy. In the music room they headed straight for the piano, drums, xylophone, guitars and percussion instruments and banged away happily with a look of mesmerised delight on their faces. The cacophony was too much for a couple of the children who just sat and stared curiously at the others. No one was asked to do anything; this was their time for self-expression.

For Margaret Sahin, their teacher, this is what is so good about the centre. "The children can choose what they want to do. They find free play quite difficult, and here at the centre they are encouraged to learn how to play and to make their own decisions, and that is a big thing for our children."

One of the best play areas is the five-acre field that is surrounded by a high fence. There are bucket swings for wheelchair users, a bed swing, a roundabout and a climbing area, and there are plans for a fully equipped adventure playground and treetop walkways. It is a huge, open space where the children can run around freely and their carers can relax knowing they cannot get lost.

As Jodi Marshall, the centre manager, says: "Having a secure, enclosed play area is particularly important for the children that come here because many of them are autistic and can't communicate very well, and we are providing an environment where they can just play and be themselves."

Inside the centre there is a series of specially designed rooms which includes the sensory room, the toy room, the open play area and the craft room, where the children do activities such as making collages, junk modelling and T-shirt painting. There is also a picnic area - there is no cooked food on site, as many of the children are on special diets.

The room that the Bardwell children enjoyed the most was the sensory room, which has light and dark areas, fibre optic lights, pretty fluorescent fairy lights, big bean bags and a mirrored interactive corner with a long clear water bubble tube that lights up and changes colour. The children loved changing the colours by either rolling a large padded dice cube or pressing a chunky switch box. There are also ultraviolet gloves and wigs and balls to play with that glowed a luminous green in the dark. There is soothing, gentle background music and the whole atmosphere in the room is warm and loving and induces a feeling of relaxation and intimacy.

Jodi sees this opportunity to have time to themselves as one of the main benefits of the centre. "Having this space has a huge effect on the children's behaviour. They can relax and there is no pressure." This also allows the carers to see the children in a different light, which is very constructive. The children are not judged in any way, as perhaps they might be on trips to more open public places, and within this calm and caring environment the centre really is achieving its aim of giving the children freedom, choice and independence.

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