In Maureen's grotto, the fun is all routine

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The storeroom door opened by Maureen Harrison leads to a Santa's grotto any small child might imagine. Inside is a huge pile of cardboard bricks for building walls and a bag full of Humpty Dumpty dolls to go on them. There are Two Little Dicky Bird puppets. Wire sculptures for threading wooden beads across. Musical shape-fitting puzzles. A garage with electronic lifts and cars. Toys galore. And a sack full of knitted figures for Miss Polly Had a Dolly.

Previous articles

Disabled groups unite villages in fight for justice

Help for children who battle through hard times

Game whose goal is to restore passion and pride

Volunteers who help Catalina defy the odds

Land-mine victims saved by a sense of purpose

How telling horror stories helps parents to cope

Fighting cruelty and prejudice

How to donate

The storeroom door opened by Maureen Harrison leads to a Santa's grotto any small child might imagine. Inside is a huge pile of cardboard bricks for building walls and a bag full of Humpty Dumpty dolls to go on them. There are Two Little Dicky Bird puppets. Wire sculptures for threading wooden beads across. Musical shape-fitting puzzles. A garage with electronic lifts and cars. Toys galore. And a sack full of knitted figures for Miss Polly Had a Dolly.

I have not heard of Miss Polly. Ms Harrison cannot believe it. She immediately picks up a couple of dolls and begins to sing the appropriate nursery rhyme. Not just the first line, as most adults might. But the entire song. Both verses. She looks directly into my eyes and wiggles the dolls under my nose as she chants, performing without a trace of embarrassment. Years of professional playing with children has stripped her of even the faintest remnant of that.

She and her assistant Sheryl pack the car carefully. It would not do to leave anything behind. For the children at Ms Harrison's playscheme in Hull, among several in Britain run by Kids (one of the two charities being supported by Independent readers as part of our Christmas Appeal this year) all have some disability. About half have physical handicaps, some have learning difficulties and some have emotional problems caused by neglect or abuse.

"They are children who don't know any nursery rhymes," Ms Harrison says. "Can you believe that?" When she moves her peripatetic nursery she always has to take the same toys to each place she visited the week before. "With children on the autistic spectrum it is very important that the routine is exactly the same every time they arrive at the playgroup," she says.

That means the same toys, the same games, the same songs, and in the same order. "And," she adds, "the sitting mats, and the tables for messy play, have to be set out in exactly the same place each time." Messy play means paint and play-dough, shaving foam and fine sand and cornflour mixed with water. "It sets like icing, but it turns back to liquid and pours through their fingers when the children pick it up. For children with disabilities, tactile things are very important. Oh, and there's coloured spaghetti for There's A Worm At The Bottom Of The Garden." Today's destination is a little community centre in a poorer part of the East Riding minster town of Beverley.

No sooner are the mats are set out, in their usual places, than the group of shy under-fives begin hesitantly to appear. Coats off, and they are asked to choose which colour mat they want. The grown-up they have come with sits behind them. "Choices are important," Ms Harrison says. Children with disabilities often find the world is organised for them, and the ability to make decisions is rarely cultivated. "That's why they are allowed to choose their own Humpty and dolly."

Each child is greeted by name by Mr Squirrel, Ms Harrison's glove puppet, and then it's straight into a sequence of songs with actions: Shake the Sheet, Tommy Thumb, The Wheels on the Bus, Here Comes the Bouncing Ball, and This is the Way We Wash Our Hands – on an Afternoon in Beverley.

One four-year-old, Melissa, is mildly disruptive, alternating between joining in and trying to run around. "I'll take you home," threatens her embarrassed father. Later, Ms Harrison says: "Some kids, especially when they're new, trash the toys and kick things about. We ignore them, let them have their tantrums, and just carry on singing. After a few weeks they see that it's more fun to be in the group than outside it."

Melissa was born prematurely after her mother was in a car crash, her father says. Her movements are impaired and she has learning and behavioural difficulties.

Ms Harrison and Sheryl do not raise an eyebrow at "bad" behaviour. "That's why the children love coming here; because they're not made to feel different," says the grandmother of a girl with Rett's syndrome, which renders the four-year-old capable of absorbing information but incapable of communicating anything back. "It gives them support and sociability."

Ms Harrison says: "It's all coming together really well."

She tidies up after the visit of a present-distributing Santa, played by a Down's syndrome adult called Philip who works as a Kids volunteer and says with mock weariness: "Phew, that's my last yo-ho-ho for this year." No one is fooled. They know she will be back, fizzing with enthusiasm, in January with yet more coloured spaghetti for There's A Worm At The Bottom Of The Garden. Don't ask. She will only sing it for you.

How the money is spent

KIDS WORKS with disabled children and their parents. It offers early home-based learning programmes and developmental playgroups for children up to four years.

It gives older children the opportunity to participate in sports and leisure activities by running Saturday clubs, family camps, holiday play and weekend breaks.

It also supports parents physically with crèches, a befriending scheme and residential respite care.

Comments