Play's the thing

21st September 2012 at 01:00
A pioneering family service in Angus is helping vulnerable parents and very young children to transform their lives through play

It's a wet Wednesday afternoon in Arbroath and two small boys have the run of a big, bright and airy dance studio.

The blond two-year-old is investigating colourful piles of toys and his older brother is pretending to be a shark, patrolling the room looking for lunch.

Their mum is joining in and no doubt thinking how well they'll sleep tonight. This is Just Play, a pioneering project in Angus helping vulnerable families with very young children to play together.

It's a unique early intervention scheme in Scotland - working with children from the baby stage, supporting families where there has been involvement with crime for generations, often alongside problems with drugs, alcohol and domestic abuse.

This three-year multi agency pilot scheme started last summer and is led jointly by Angus Council and Tayside Police, funded with pound;350,000 from the Scottish government's CashBack for Communities programme, which uses the proceeds of crime to fund diversionary activities for young people.

Until now, that has meant diverting disengaged teenagers from offending and anti-social behaviour, but Just Play works with children as soon as they're born and sometimes earlier.

"To some people out there, this sounds dead bizarre because it's like, `Does that not just come naturally?'" says Eileen Jackson, early years and childcare officer with Angus Council, and one of the team who helped devise Just Play. "But in actual fact, no it doesn't."

Play practitioners John Cairney and Jill Waldie are based in a dance studio in Arbroath and work one-to-one with more than a dozen local parents and children from birth to three years old.

One or two mums are being helped to prepare for family life even before babies are born. Other mums and dads are being encouraged to play and interact with their babies and toddlers, to help them learn to communicate and develop new skills.

"It's just about respecting their children and including their children and the importance of children," says Jill. "Because quite often I think babies or children are just there in a pram or sat in some seat in the house and not included in a lot of things.

"This is to get them interacting more with their child, which will help their communication and attachment and all of those things. They'll get to know their child and have a better relationship with them as they grow up together."

Just Play was developed in response to a growing number of reports of pre- school children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. It's the first initiative of its kind trying to end the cycle of generational crime by starting at the cradle.

"It is the first project in Scotland where CashBack has given funds to help very young children, because we are saying this is about prevention and early intervention. Let's not wait until they are 15, let's start when they are a few months old and see if we can make a difference there," says Susan Duff, senior education manager at Angus Council.

"What used to be challenges for school in managing children's behaviour is now a challenge in pre-school centres," she says, "so three and four- year-olds with very poor language and communication skills.

"We think there's a link - the children being unable to express themselves and explain when they're upset or to communicate well. Then sometimes they demonstrate their feelings through their behaviour."

Working with Tayside Police, the authority's early years group began investigating ways of meeting these children's needs.

"In a nursery setting, where sometimes in some of our Arbroath schools it's up to 40 children in one environment for a couple of hours, it's very challenging to be able to support children who are distressed and who are in much more need of nurturing and attachment than just simply being invited to the nursery to play," Mrs Duff says.

The early years group decided early intervention should be with the very youngest children and that police could help identify families who would benefit.

"What we're having to do in our service is shift services from three down to pre-birth to three, if we're really looking to make a difference," she says.

Rather than run parenting classes, their project works through play, alongside parents and children. "We were attracted to the whole notion of learning through play because our philosophy for pre-school education is about play," she says.

"So instead of telling these parents - who are some of the hardest-to- reach parents in the community - `here's how you could be a good parent', we thought we would prefer to work with them, in helping them learn how playing with their children, talking to their children, being physically active with their children, would help the child's development and help them operate as a family in the community and have more confidence."

Central to this venture is the close-knit partnership of education, police, health and social work professionals working together on Just Play within the existing framework of Getting It Right For Every Child.

Mandatory training has been provided on Girfec for 600 multi- agency staff in Angus, focusing on assessing, recording and planning for children's needs. Using this shared language and terminology means professionals can collaborate effectively, according to Andrew Beckett, whose social work team also identifies families for this project.

"Just Play is integrated with Girfec, so anyone from those agencies can come in here and recognise work that's being undertaken and go away and use that in their role as lead professional if they're required to produce an assessment or a report or record the progress of a family," says Mr Beckett, children and families team manager for Arbroath, Carnoustie and Monifieth.

Another key player is Fergus Storrier, a community safety sergeant with Tayside Police who helped create this project. He and fellow officers know the families involved in crime - they chat to them when they meet them on the high street and have an idea who is most likely to benefit from this scheme.

He is pleased and surprised that families are already recommending the project to others, who are approaching police and expressing interest only months after the launch. He has never encountered this before.

With a wealth of experience working with young offenders in diversionary projects, Sergeant Storrier has seen offending reduce dramatically as teenagers grow in confidence and get to grips with team sport and games.

"They have gone through life with parents who were also offenders and then the grandparents were offenders and the grandparents before that were offenders," he says. "It's like a life cycle, and basically what happened was that they came to a point in their lives where they grew up from quite a young age not knowing how to play."

He has seen teenagers start activities as if they were five-year-olds: "They were so used to becoming involved in something that they disengaged with very quickly. What we were asking them to do was play sport and they loved to play sport, but they didn't know how to play it in a group setting, because they couldn't engage with other people."

He has observed the same unfamiliarity working on projects with young mums: "There would be toys in the corner and the young mums would come in and play with the toys more than the babies, because they'd never played, they'd never done it."

Back in shark-infested waters, five-year-old Bailey is showing natural aptitude as a fast mover on the dance floor. His mum Davina has been worried about him, but feels happier now he's involved at Just Play, supported by Jill and John.

"In the nursery with 40 children he would struggle to mix with them and he was hitting, kicking and biting. Not constantly, but it was enough for them to raise the alarm with me," she says.

She usually comes here once a week for a few hours and in the summer holidays three times a week. "The kids enjoy it and it's spending quality time - me with them and playing and more interacting with them. It's coming away out of the house, because sometimes I struggle to get out, fighting my own demons," she says.

Davina says that her boys seem happier and she benefits too. "It's probably having more patience with them, interacting with them and taking time out to listen to them."

This is a deliberately flexible project; responsive to the needs of families involved, while encouraging them to spend time outside and use local amenities. When the weather's fine they head for the beach or the park with a ball or take a family to the local pool - a new and daunting excursion for some parents who have never been taken to the baths as children.

Sometimes the play practitioner visits the family home to play or explore play areas in their local neighbourhood. Or they can hang out here in the dance studio reception, which is transformed into a cosy sitting area with sofas and toys for parents to play with their infants and chat with John and Jill.

Using a venue like this is significant - it's homely, private and informal, up a quiet street unattached to anything official - where families can relax with space for children to run around.

Then every evening, like a story in one of the books on the floor, the dance studio is magically returned to the dancers and every trace of daytime Toyland disappears.

Football coach who chose to develop his playful side

Working at Just Play has meant a change of direction for 27- year-old John Cairney, who spent 11 years as a children's sports coach.

He's a welcome asset, coming from a coaching background into a traditionally female-dominated environment to work alongside Jill Waldie. She trained as a nursery nurse before working as a family support worker in social work.

John was a soccer coach in the States and coached children's sports back home after college. He's a keen Rangers fan, so there's been no lack of conversation with visiting dads here in recent months.

"I think it does help to have another man," he says. "When the dads come in, they do relax a bit more."

It's just six months since they began working with families and the scheme is being monitored and evaluated with input from educational psychologists.

"I think it's going really well," says John. "I've seen progression with the families from the start - just confidence and behaviour patterns with the children."

He's even spotted some soccer talent among these toddlers and is hoping to derive personal benefit from what's he's learning about babycare. "It's amazing - I think I'll be the perfect dad when it comes along," he laughs.

Photo credit: Simon Price

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