Andrea Clarke is the extraordinarily tenacious founder of Playskill – a local charity set up to help pre-school children with disabilities. With her gregarious warmth, and her talent and vision for drawing together the right kind of multi-disciplinary professional support, Andrea has created a stimulating and friendly environment that really makes a difference. Kathy Walton finds out more...
The atmosphere hits me as soon as I walk in. Children are giggling and their mums are laughing. There’s a group of toddlers singing in a circle on the floor and two babies trying to catch bubbles from a machine. With colourful posters on the walls and comfy chairs to sit on, this is a real haven, a home from home.
I am spending the morning with Playskill, a charity for pre-school children with disabilities, based in Watford and Leverstock Green, near Hemel Hempstead – and within minutes, I am blown away by what the children are doing.
Four year old Emily* attends the Playskill clinic in Leverstock Green with her mum, Sue, and receives occupational therapy to develop her fine motor skills (such as pencil grip and holding cutlery), as well as physiotherapy and speech therapy.
When Emily first arrived, she could neither walk nor talk. Since then, she has learned Makaton (a simple but effective and flexible sign language) and has been taught to walk – a major milestone, as Sue recalls. “She was four years and three months and took her first few steps at Playskill. We caught it on camera and everyone cried.”
When I meet Emily, she is being shown picture cards by a speech therapist, who asks her to describe what she sees. Eating ice cream, kicking a ball and stroking a dog would hardly tax most four year olds, but for Emily to describe them is a major achievement. She beams broadly when the therapist praises her – and so does her proud mum.
Sam, also four, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. He comes to Playskill with his nanny, Claire – and like Emily, receives occupational therapy, speech therapy and physiotherapy for all four limbs.
“His odds at birth were very poor, so he had massive milestones to reach when we started [at Playskill], but he has reached every one,” explains Claire. “Everything he has achieved here is a miracle.”
Sam is a real chatterbox, well known by everyone at Playksill for ‘charming’ all the women. During my morning there, he and Alice, a three year old with diplegia (a type of cerebral palsy) are finger painting. When their key worker compliments them on their work, both grin from ear to ear.
For Sue, Claire and Alice’s mum, Sadie, Playskill is a godsend, not just for the treatment their children receive, but for the way it makes parents and carers part of the team.
And team is the key word. Sue recalls how she used to have to take Emily to Tring, St Albans and Hemel for each separate therapy and that she had five different speech therapists in three years. Now she receives all three therapies from Playskill, and because all the professionals are under the same roof, they work together to tailor the best support for each child.
The experience has been equally positive for Sam, as Claire explains: “This is the only place where you get to see the same therapists every week, so they really get to know the children,” she says. “Most of the children here would be far more delayed than they are because there’s no consistency elsewhere.”
The children aren’t the only ones to benefit from Playskill; Emily’s mum, Sue, admits she would be “absolutely lost” without it. She gets to meet other parents in the same boat and says she really benefits from the training evenings that Playskill organises, which cover issues such as toilet training, dressing and sleep patterns.
Alice’s New Zealand-born mother Sadie says that, with no relatives to help her, Playskill has become her second family. “Alice makes friends here. Because she gets consistency, she builds up trust and she does more for the therapists that she would ever do for me,” she says.
Alice’s problems began when she was deprived of oxygen at birth. After getting a full assessment at Playskill at the age of a year, Alice has been receiving a whole range of therapies, in the form of cutting, threading and plasticine modelling: something Playskill calls ‘therapy by stealth.’
“I don’t have time for all this at home, but here Alice and I are both encouraged because she reaches her targets and I am able to tell her pre-school what she is working on, so that they make sure she keeps up,” says Sadie.
For her part, Sadie gets support from other mums; only at Playskill, she points out are are children with special needs seen as ‘normal.’ “I get to ask questions about schooling or little tricks that others find useful, that I wouldn’t dare ask otherwise. I glean information from others and I don’t feel alone, because parents of children with additional needs can feel very isolated. And I don’t worry about having a clean house here!”
The more I learn about this remarkable charity and its work, the more impressed I am. Playskill was founded in 2006 by Andrea Clarke, a former pupil at St Clement Danes School, Chorleywood, who now lives in Watford with her husband and two sons.
A paediatric physiotherapist by training, Andrea, now 43, realised that many of her patients had learning and neurological difficulties as well as physical disabilities and that therapy was patchy, with children often having to wait several months between treatments.
Convinced that children’s outcomes could be improved by early intervention and by bringing all the disciplines together (physio, speech, occupational and educational therapy), she started Playskill in order to provide an integrated approach that would teach pre-school children basic skills through structured play. Above all, she wanted to create a pleasant setting that was fun for children and welcoming for parents.
“Playskill grew out of a passion to change young lives forever by early intervention, both for the children with disability or delay and their families,” she says.
Playskill, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, currently sees eight children per session, free of charge, at four weekly sessions in North Watford and Leverstock Green. Approximately two thirds of the children have conditions such as cerebral palsy or Downs syndrome, while some children have – as yet – no diagnosis at all, which leaves many parents at a loss, and with nowhere else to turn to for advice and support.
Thanks to Lottery funding, the charity is safe for the next five years, during which time Andrea hopes to open two new centres. It is the only such resource of its kind in the country, and has won several major awards. Most importantly, it has helped hundreds of children and their parents.
A week after my visit to Leverstock Green, I visit Playskill’s Watford clinic, which I find equally uplifting. Several children are enjoying ‘messy play’ and a three year old girl is being helped to walk on a specially designed ladder frame, encouraged by a physiotherapist. Today she reaches a hundred steps – pretty good when you consider that it has taken her two terms to achieve this target, five steps at a time.
But my attention is caught by Christina, a year old baby girl, who is lying almost motionless in her mother’s arms, apparently oblivious to her surrounding. Or so I think. A therapist is talking to her and gesticulating gently, while she films Christina’s reactions on her tablet, for reviewing later. While I fail to see any response at all, the therapist detects slight eye movements, which she explains are just enough for her to begin devising a programme that will enhance Christina’s communication skills.
During the coffee break (which all parents take at Playskill because it helps the children overcome their separation anxiety) I get chatting to Christina’s mum, Jana, who is from Lithuania.
Jana explains that Christina caught a virus soon after birth, which left her with severe brain impairment, epilepsy, frequent seizures and spasticity in her limbs. Given just eight months to live, Christina was referred to Playskill at three months old – since then Jana has seen tremendous improvement.
“I was so happy to get early help here,” she says. “Christina’s spasticity tone has got better and she is more aware. I’m really surprised by what she has achieved.”
She takes a deep breath and adds: “And I’m not alone because I have made friends here.”