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‘Seeing the small changes in the children is absolutely amazing!’

I’m the Team Leader at Hawthorn, a specialist playroom at Leeds Mencap which is for very young children with learning disabilities aged between 0-3 years. We usually care for nine children a day, but at the moment due to COVID restrictions, we are only able to see three children.

The children have a range of learning disabilities – this could be Down’s Syndrome, autism or in some cases, there might not be a diagnosis but the child may be showing delays. Many of them have additional health conditions too.

In the playroom, we work with each child doing their individual next steps so we can help them to sit up, walk, build up their confidence or support early language skills.

A typical day is quite varied, but at the start of each session, we always have a chat with the parents to catch up and to see what they have been doing at home, to learn if there are any issues with the children and overall how their week has been. We will then encourage the parents to take their child into the playroom, where we will work on developing different skills with the child.

This week, we have been putting baubles on the Christmas tree, adding stickers onto felt trees, painting, posting and playing with reindeer food – oats!

Everything we do is tailored to the child. With some of the children, we might start with getting them to look in the mirror and find themselves and watching movements. For typical developing children, you can take things for granted and steps are consolidated more quickly. For children with learning disabilities, learning new skills takes much longer and they need much more time to practice each step before they can move onto the next.

We might focus on developing confidence in the children or if they can walk already, we might focus on one small next step. Some of the children when they first learn to walk, walk with their arms up so we will spend time working with that child on walking with their arms down to help their balance.

It’s sometimes really minor things that we spend time working on, but by breaking down each step, the child can achieve their goal.

Many of the children have never been left with anyone before, so we deal with a lot of separation anxiety. For some parents, it might be the first time away from their child since they were born. When a child finally settles – it’s a massive achievement and the parent can have a bit of a break and know that their child is being looked after in a safe space.

Everything we do is geared towards getting the children ready for nursery and then school. The job is incredibly rewarding. I love seeing the changes in the children – whether it’s big or small. We celebrate every new skill learnt as for these children, the small steps are huge. Every week, we can see changes in the children and it’s amazing to see.

One boy was non-verbal when he started at the playroom, we were so happy when he said his first word ‘hiya’. Now he chats all day every day when he is with us.

It’s hugely satisfying knowing that at the end of the day, the children are gaining essential skills needed for school.

Here are some of the things that parents have told us about how the playroom has helped them:

“Thank you all for the incredible input you have made to my child’s wellbeing and development. Thank you also for the time given to me as Mum. Her time with you all has been hugely beneficial and we are very thankful for all that the charity has provided to us.”

“Thank you for all the hard work you put in to supporting my child. He really has come on leaps and bounds since been here and he really enjoys his time with the staff’’

“The care and support you have shown my child is indescribable. The understanding you have on my child’s needs and the passion you have to work with them is just amazing’’

Jess Reed

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