A time for toys in a place of safety

11th August 1995 at 01:00
There was nothing in the way of beastliness on show, but Baden-Powell would still have disapproved.

The idea itself, a summer scheme for disadvantaged children, was just his sort of thing, and the Cardiff school they were using even bears his name.

But this was a gentler regime than the cold showers, long walks and longer shorts of early Scouting. Painting, drawing and a great deal of tolerance were the order of the day.

The school is in Splott, an area of down-at-heel council housing on the fringe of Cardiff's Tiger Bay dockland. And the children are gypsies and travellers from the city's two official sites - a volatile compound of bossy girls and boisterous boys, with and without shirts, that would have seen the Enemy of Bodily Urges straight back to Brownsea Island.

By the end of the week, said the six staff, these children would be calmly taking advantage of the assembled cartload of toys and equipment, mostly things not found in the tightly-organised space of their trailers at home.

This is the second year that the Gypsy Sites Group, led by their children's rights officer John Trew, have given up three weeks in August to offer four hours a day of constructive play, ferrying the children to and from the sites in an old blue minibus marked Boys' Brigade.

If nothing else, he says, the scheme is much needed because it is safe and supervised. A recent study by Save the Children estimated that 85 per cent of children aged between five and 15 have nowhere safe to go in the summer months.

For gypsies, who are isolated from the normal residential infrastructure, this is even more the case. A predictable mix of political and planning demands has put their sites on the edge of town. And the parents are understandably worried their children will take their bicycles out to dice with the traffic, or worse.

One of the two sites, Rover Way, is bounded by a sewage plant, a steel smelter and a major road so busy that all the children get free transport to school.

This week's group was from the other site, Shirenewton, one of the largest in Europe which, although thoroughly modern, lacks so much as a pavement to connect it with any other part of Cardiff. The children are surrounded by fields, but these are privately owned and out of bounds.

Without the organised scheme, says Jolene, the oldest at 14, she would be moping. "We've got a lovely site, but there's nothing to do.

"They promised us a park and stuff, and a playground. But we haven't got them. There's a youth club, but that's just a snooker table."

The site authorities certainly appreciate Mr Trew's efforts. After only two days they were commenting how much easier life can be without marauding gangs of youngsters. With 64 places on offer over the three weeks, the scheme caters for roughly half the gypsy children in Cardiff. Not, says John Trew, that their behaviour is so very different from any other group of city kids on the streets.

But their needs are slightly different. Pens and paper are a source of great interest, often a rarity in trailers, particularly where the parents don't read. In fact, the point of consistent interest on the first day was the simple badge-making machine, stamping the children's coloured writing and drawings into pin-on motifs.

"Whenever I go on site," says Mr Trew, "they come up to me and ask 'Have you got any pens, have you got any paper, John?'. I'm constantly asked that. Painting and drawing is something they really do like, but they don't get a chance to do it that often."

Later in the week they learned to produce marbling effects, to work with pipe cleaners, make money boxes, and were scheduled to shoot a video, go boating and have a go at swimming in the pool opposite. Surprisingly few are confident in the water and their parents are keen that they learn, particularly since the recent drowning of a gypsy man in North Wales.

"I'd like them to experience as many different forms of play as possible, " says Mr Trew. "For them to have a go at doing lots of things they wouldn't normally have a chance at. Imaginative and creative things. We'd also like them to work more in groups and more co-operatively."

The community wants its children to read and write at primary school - tools which could save them the embarrassment of not knowing a compliments slip from a tax demand. But secondary school is regarded with suspicion and few of the children attend.

Most families prefer the boys to be working with their fathers and the girls to be at home - which can start from an early age. Ten-year-old Charlie's father works with PVC weatherproofing in the building trade, work which takes the family round the country from their base in Banbury.

"We stay there in the winter, then we move round in the summer," says Charlie. "We buy new PVC and put it up on the apex of houses. I go to work with my dad sometimes but it's boring. I have to climb up and down ladders all the time."

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