Key steps that will improve play services for disabled children

A charity has devised a blueprint for improved access to good quality play provision for disabled children under five through more national funding, investing in childcare providers' facilities, making play a statutory service and enforcing equalities law.

Young disabled children are facing major barriers to accessing play in early years settings, a three-month inquiry by the charity Sense has found.

Chaired by Labour peer David Blunkett, the inquiry found there is a lack of priority given by government to disabled play and insufficient funding allocated at a local level.

This prompted the charity to make recommendations for government, local authorities and childcare providers on how to improve play services for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Below, play experts give their views on how six of its key recommendations for government can be delivered, while a council and childcare setting outline what good practice looks like at a local level (see boxes).

Create a national policy of funding children with SEND in early education, which includes investment in making providers premises accessible and improving staff training

Nicola Butler, chair of Play England, agrees that a national pot of money to fund premises is needed. She says play settings are running on a “shoestring” and local authorities are best placed to administer the funding.

She explains that often only a small amount of money is needed to make minor modifications that have big improvements.

Campaigner and former Play England director Adrian Voce says the skills needed for early years, childcare and out of school provision are generally undervalued.

“Funding for training and minimum qualifications for childcare and playwork staff are vital for the whole sector; and a skilled workforce is essential to the progression of inclusive practice,” he says.

Butler adds: “The government should provide funding for playwork training at all levels from training for parents and volunteers through to degree level.”

Promote the need for strategic local approaches on play, with regional play strategies devised and submitted to the Department for Education based on local need

Kate Fitch, head of public policy at Sense, says the idea for this recommendation came from Wales, where local authorities take part in a ‘place efficiency assessment’ and demonstrate they are meeting the needs of the local population through play.
However, Voce says local, rather than regional, play strategies are as important, with every area needing to plan strategically for play because it is “a ubiquitous, universal need in children”.

“The barriers and constraints that children face are equally complex, even more so for disabled children,” he says.

“Overcoming these barriers will require a co-ordinated, cross-cutting approach so that housing, streets, parks and public spaces – and the management and policing of them – each take greater account of children’s need to play and to have age-appropriate independent mobility.”

Include responsibility for play in the portfolio of the childcare minister to highlight its links to early education

Butler says play needs ministerial leadership because it is vital to children’s health, wellbeing and quality of life. She also argues that currently all children, including those with disabilities, are not getting the opportunities to play that they need, which is having a negative impact.

Voce agrees that policy for play should be part of a ministerial portfolio, but argues it should “be there for its own sake” rather than to highlight the importance of early education.

He says: “It needs ministerial leadership because it is an issue that cuts across many different policy areas and therefore needs strategic co-ordination at a national level.”

Developmental home visiting play services should become a statutory service for disabled children under two

Fitch explains it is important for families to have services like portage (see box) because it teachers them how to play with their children and access play in other places.

Butler says developmental play services for disabled children aged two and under should be made statutory because otherwise disabled children will lose out on valuable experiences.

“Services like short breaks and respite care are also vital for disabled children and their families throughout their lives and these are currently being reduced for many disabled children and their families,” she says.

Play should be a key strand of government policy on parenting and an explicit part of government-funded parenting classes

Voce explains that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has already called on governments to raise awareness among parents of the value of play.

He says disabled children need to enjoy free play as much as their peers, but may face greater barriers such as parents wanting to protect their children from “the rough and tumble” that is part of every child’s play behaviour.

“Supporting them to manage some risks for themselves can go a long way to enhancing their children’s enjoyment of life and to building their independence, confidence and resilience,” he says.

“The fundamentals of playwork, delivered by playwork trainers, could provide invaluable, empowering insights to many parents, and these could be very easily integrated within wider parenting programmes.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission should investigate the exclusion of children with multiple needs from play settings, provide clarity on the current legal requirements and support the enforcement of the Equality Act 2010

Sense found that about half of children have been turned away from play settings because of their disabilities.

Fitch says: “In some cases that can be contravening the Equality Act and we are asking that local authorities should be prepared to take action against settings which are intentionally excluding children in order to send a message to providers – they are legally obliged to do that”.

Surrey pre-school helps disabled and able-bodied children play together

The Sense report puts forward a number of recommendations for play settings, including the need for providers to develop inclusion policies, offer staff specialist disability training, and use play as a therapeutic intervention.

One setting recognised for its good practice in this area is Challengers, a Surrey-based charity that has been operating since 1979.

Challengers aims to enhance the lives of disabled children and young people by providing play and leisure opportunities for them and their able-bodied peers.

The charity has an inclusive pre-school for children aged from two to five in Farnham, Surrey, which gets both disabled and non-disabled children to play, socialise and learn together.

The charity knows that disabled children are routinely excluded and do not have the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers, says Laura Sercombe, chief executive of Challengers.

“Parents tell us this every day and we hear such terrible stories about how children as young as three are turned away by providers who feel unable to include them,” she says.

“Our mission is to provide truly inclusive fun and safe places where all disabled children can spend time with their friends.”

Sercombe says the most important measure the charity takes is to “fiercely” protect its non-exclusion policy and ensure that staff have achieved the training needed to safely include every child.

They base everything they do on normalising the play and leisure experience, she adds. “This means we do things that all young children would do,” says Sercombe.

In addition, Challengers’ inclusion policy helps improve children’s understanding of disability.

Sercombe says: “We actively include non-disabled children in our pre-school and play schemes – children are non-judgmental and leave us thinking differently about the world.”

The charity is set to launch a second inclusive pre-school in Guildford in April, which will offer places to disabled and able-bodied children.

Challengers was a finalist for The Play Award in The Children & Young People Now Awards 2015.

Kent Council offers home visiting play service

The Sense inquiry highlights the need for local authorities to take a greater lead on improving access to play services for pre-school disabled children.

Kent County Council has done this by developing an educational home visiting service, known as portage, to children aged five and under who have complex needs or two areas of developmental delay.

Kent Council’s portage services lead Tracy Harvey, says there are seven play groups across the county that are open to all children.

“These groups include sensory play, messy play, tabletop and floor-based activities,” she explains. “Some of them are based in children’s centres, and some in our specialist multi-agency service hubs.”

The service maps where children with needs are and targets resources accordingly. In addition, it aims to increase awareness and understanding.

“Kent Parent Carer Forum have lots of special educational needs and disabilities events around Kent and I always make sure we are represented there,” says Harvey.

“There are children that live through the system and these events give us a chance to talk to parents and signpost them.”

Harvey also launched a campaign last year to promote the portage service, which involved sending out posters to healthcare professionals.

She says district co-ordinators also investigate concerns raised about play settings that may not be inclusive.

“If we have a setting that we consider to be discriminatory or not inclusive we would discuss that [with a district co-ordinator] and that would alert a visit to that nursery from someone in the early years team,” she adds.  
Harvey says that children with communication difficulties are often referred late. To address this, targeted intervention sessions with two members of portage staff have been started.

“We run four groups in Kent and they run three times a year so we can mop up those children that are referred to us late,” she explains.

The service also runs longer play events for young disabled children and their families in the summer holidays.

“If the siblings are under five they can come to any of our summer fun days which have things like bouncy castles and pony rides,” she says.

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