Saying it with flowers

Harvey McGavin

Parents often shower gifts on Nancy Barrett when her summer playscheme ends. Harvey McGavin finds out why.

Nancy Barrett takes her summ-er holiday in Septem-ber. And after the organised chaos of running a four-week play-scheme for more than 100 youngsters in inner-city Salford, she's not the only one who's glad of the break.

"At the end I often get flowers or chocolates from the parents. They say 'I don't know how you put up with them for four weeks'. For parents who are working, it's a really valuable thing to have the children looked after. "

Although she has her fair share of duties as a substitute parent ("stopping them squabbling, finding things and taking them to the toilet") there's a lot more to the job than childminding.

"I think the children get a lot out of it. But I don't think the children in Ordsall are any different from those anywhere else. They all have a need to play and be creative. What they don't have here is access to the facilities or the income that make it possible to go to the cinema or ice-skating."

The Ordsall estate, where she has worked for the past six years, is a hotch-potch of Victorian terraces, Sixties low-rise flats and tower blocks. It was originally built for workers on the neighbouring Salford Docks. The Docks died in the 1960s and lay dormant for 20 years, before shiny new offices, toy-town houses and a multi-screen cinema were built and Salford Docks became Salford Quays.

Ordsall never really recovered; it didn't benefit much from the Eighties' boom on its doorstep and still suffers from high unemployment. There are three primary schools on the estate but little in the way of out-of-school facilities.

As the only full-time community arts worker in the area, Nancy is responsible for setting up and co-ordinating drama, arts and craft projects for all ages. "The summer is a chance for us to concentrate on working with the children and bringing groups together. For instance, the children help the older women in the history and drama group by making props for their productions."

However, finding suitable staff to help out on the playscheme is a perennial problem. "I usually employ two part-time helpers and some local volunteers, who are mainly mothers of the children. But it's becoming increasingly hard to get play workers because, apart from the summer schemes, there are very few places with on-going play provision so play work isn't an attractive job prospect.

"The playscheme gives us a chance to get the children doing something over a longer period of time that will end up with an event or procession. They get less and less opportunity to do that in schools because of pressure through the curriculum. If the playscheme wasn't here they would probably be hanging around doing nothing."

Nancy tries to provide activities chil-dren normally wouldn't do. Previous play- schemes have included video and photography workshops, jewellery-making and disc-jockeying, outings to the swimming baths and visits from local sporting celebrities. Last year the playscheme was held on board a ship in the docks.

"The children built an undersea environment on the ship, with monsters and sharks, tunnels and mazes. When it was finished, they used it as a play area. This year we are running workshops to make costumes for the children's day procession."

Their responses are a constant source of job satisfaction. "When you see them the rest of the year they say 'When's the next playscheme?', or 'When can we go canoeing again?' Having worked here for some time it's nice that the children remember. When I see the older ones they'll talk about the time we built a raft or made a May Queen. They definitely keep memories of their summer playschemes.

"The best part is when you do something with the children that they have never done before. If they try something and they make a success of it, then they get excited. Then it's really nice to have lots of happy kids and so much energy around you."

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