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Where the learning bug is so infectious

Karen Shead on an activity scheme which includes children with disabilities.

"THE darkroom attracts the kids like moths to a flame," laughs Kenny Bean, a photographer working on summer play scheme projects in Stirling. "But that's not a very good comparison, is it?"

It is in fact true. The magical mystery of the room in Ochil Community Centre, Raploch, which was transformed into a professional-looking darkroom last week, with its dim red light and feeling of escapism, inspired the children to spend lots of time working on developing images they had taken themselves.

There were plenty of other activities on offer. Some liked to sit with play worker Ali MacPherson as he helped them use a laptop to digitally transform a photograph of their faces into a very odd-looking, bug-like creature - with bulging eyes, antennae and funny noses.

Others happily stuck shiny pieces of paper on to the papier-mache bugs they had been working on intermittently throughout the week.

It is this sense of autonomy and independent working that Stirling Council's children's services encourage in their summer play projects. But as well as encouraging independent learning, the play scheme - as with all the summer schools organised by Stirling - encourages integration between children who attend mainstream schools and those with disabilities.

The issue was highlighted this week in Nobody Ever Wants to Play With Me, a report published by the disability charity Capability Scotland, which is campaigning for more childcare places for such children in the holidays.

Stirling works with a voluntary organisation called Play Plus, which enables children and teenagers with disabilities to attend play, leisure and sport activities.

Sue Gutteridge, play services manager, says: "Stirling Council has made a commitment to give disabled children and young people the opportunities for play and leisure like every other child.

"In the preparation stage we reserve about a fifth of the places on every project for Play Plus children. We do try to encourage children to go to their local projects as well, so they can have contact with local children.

"Some children will need one to one support, so that is immediately one worker. Although some staff have specific responsibilities, we do encourage staff to work as a team."

Alison MacDonald, the Play Plus co-ordinator, says: "There are about 30 kids here and there is a mixture of kids with learning disabilities and mainstream kids. They support each other really well. The bigger kids are always willing to help the little ones, which is great to see." Children don't have to follow a rigid programme and if they get hooked on something, they are encouraged to concentrate on it.

And they certainly do get absorbed in what they are doing. As Kenny Bean puts it, there is a sense of "organised chaos". Children bustle around but all know what they are doing and at the end of each day hundreds of photographs of close-up images of bugs, eyeballs and fingerprints are hanging upto dry.

This four-day week of activity for children aged seven to 14 was called Photobug. It revolved around the theme of bugs and photography, which combined science and arts.

Sue Gutteridge says: "There were lots of different things going on, all keeping with the particular theme - face painting, clay modelling, making junk bugs. And all the children learned new things and were using different kinds of arts and crafts."

Kenny Bean, who works on the summer projects each year, says: "It is a good way of using science creatively. The kids are looking at the bugs and you can get them interested in what they are looking at on an educational level.

"There is an initial 'urgh' factor of looking at the bugs, but then when they see them close up and see all the detail, they find them fascinating.

By looking at these things in a creative way, they are learning and having fun."

He says it is also a good way of mixing traditional methods with modern technology. "By developing the photos they are using traditional art and methods and then they combine the old methods with the new technology to create images. It works really well."

Ali MacPherson echoes these thoughts. "The kids learn all about digital photography as well as the old methods and are learning a lot of new skills."

Ten-year-old Cherlynne Brown, who goes to St Mary's primary, spent a lot of her time in the darkroom. "Developing the photos is the best bit," she says. "You see things like your fingerprints and the bugs close up. I've learned a lot about bugs and I am more interested in them.

"Making the big bugs was good, too, and I would definitely do this again."

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