Frances Farrer visits the Log Cabin, where social interaction develops through play
The Log Cabin in the borough of Ealing, west London, was set up to provide adventure play for children with special needs between the ages of four and 15. Some mainstream children use it as well, but most of the 450-plus children who attend are statemented. Gill Catterall, who chairs the executive committee of the Log Cabin, says that her autistic son, now 19, played there from the age of five and "he still wants to now, but he's too old!" Gill Catterall believes that for her son the Log Cabin's best feature was security. "He felt safe," she says. "It brought him out of himself. He wouldn't go to other strange places. Many children with special needs can be isolated, but here, Douglas was able to mix with others outside the school environment and mix in a group. He's full of confidence now."
Many of the children at the playground are autistic in various degrees. Communication is a main concern and the children have to be carefully observed to be understood. "We read their facial expression, body movement - there is little intentional communication," says SLD teacher Cathal Owen. The children also have to be watched for hazardous behaviour since they have no concept of danger.
About 180 children a week are bussed in and bussed out again, to use the play hut, outdoor equipment and craft room. Cathal Owen brings a day group of six from Mandeville School in Northolt. "These children have social and communicative difficulties," he says. "The playground is a safe place for them to explore and it offers them a contrasting locality. It also gives some respite to families; these children are very demanding. Here, children can gain some independence at whatever level is possible. This is real-life experience that is not always provided within a family and there are outdoor possibilities not available in many other places."
Fifteen schools participate in the after-school club, including those of non-SLD siblings and some from outside the borough. "Some of the after-school club children come from mainstream schools whose parents just like the set-up," says administrator Jytte Boost. "I don't know if they actually think about integration, but we do. Later in life, people are not always used to people with special needs. It's a good thing to meet them as children."
The after-school session starts with children in small groups eating a home-cooked meal with apparent enthusiasm. Two seven-year-olds comment on the club. "You can do what you like," they say. "You can go on the slide or in the soft room.We like the soft room. You have to go when the noisy children are not there." Play worker Markus Gregor explains that soft playroom user groups are mutually exclusive.
The session might include painting in the Log Cabin or in the Portakabin art room which they share with a special school. It might include playing outside, rolling tyres, biking, or climbing on the wooden play structure. This has the usual mix of platforms, ladders, netting and slide, but with wheelchair access, and is soon to be replaced with a newer design.
Whatever option is taken, the value of the experience is on many levels. Social interaction is arguably the worst of an autistic child's many difficulties and social interaction in informal play is something they are not likely to get anywhere else. "At the playground, the PSE element is the most vital part of what we do," says Jytte Boost.
The next adventure for the Log Cabin is the completion of a multi-sensory, computer operated, multi-media environment, to be controlled largely by the children. Light and sound changes will work from switches, or by severely disabled children simply passing their hands through a light beam. Ocean noises, coloured light and coloured smoke are among the promised wonders. Eventually, teachers will be able to design their own programs and set up, for example, a jungle environment complete with lion's roar.
Project co-ordinator Markus Gregor says: "The adventure room makes use of advanced computer-controlled stage equipment. The children can interact in various ways that will help them to develop physically, socially, intellectually, emotionally and creatively." It will be a soft-play place, stimulating, exciting, and yet - important with SLD children - unthreatening.
The Log Cabin has four full-time workers, many temporary staff and volunteers. Several are skilled in the signing language Makaton and some are multi-lingual. It is in a constant state of development but, whatever is provided, the value for the children mostly resides in liberation. "Most of them love the freedom they get through being able to express themselves," says Gill Catterall.
Cathal Owen agrees. "For the more needy children," he says, "just to come out and experience the elements is good. Sun, wind and rain - and they are not always only in their chairs. Sometimes it's nice to get cold, wet, feel the wind in your hair. Coming here might be the only such experience in a week."
The Log Cabin Adventure Playground for Children with Special Needs, 259 Northfield Avenue, London W5 4UA. Tel: 0208 840 3400. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org