(This is the first of a series of articles in which I speak to key individuals working in the HeadStart pilot projects that are underway around Wolverhampton. The aim of the articles is to tell their stories of how HeadStart funding, and the hardwork and inspiration of teams of professionals, are starting to transform the lives of children and young people, and of their parents and carers. It would be great to receive your comments on the article, or ideas for other types of content on HeadStart.fm. Please use the comment form at the bottom of the article)
"Play is so powerful" asserts Mandy Smith. When I meet with her on a grey September morning, she says she is "a bit jaded" following a long trip to collect a relative from Manchester airport the previous day. If she is tired, it doesn't show. Mandy has a passionate belief in the power of shared play to bring children and their parents together, and communicates her belief enthusiastically, yet calmly, as we chat in the offices of Wolverhampton Voluntary Sector Council.
Improving Futures, for whom Mandy is a lead project manager, have been awarded pilot funding by Wolverhampton HeadStart to run a series of Creative Parents Support Groups. Two cohorts of parents have worked with staff and volunteers from Improving Futures through the late spring and summer. Mandy explains how the project has evolved. "At the start", she says, "the project was going to provide support groups for parents alone, giving them the chance to discuss and support one another through the challenges of parenthood. We quickly realised that this wasn't going to work, that it would be difficult for parents to attend without their children. We needed to be responsive to the needs of parents. So we changed it".
The support groups are now family-focussed, with parents bringing their children along to sessions. Mandy lays down the objectives for the project. "We try to give parents coping mechanisms", she says. "We try to improve the family environment. When we survey the children arriving at our sessions, we typically find that they have high levels of anxiety. We want to do something about that, before anxiety turns into a damaging long-term mental health issue for them".
Working with parents and their children together, Mandy and her team encourage parents or carers and their children to engage as equals when playing together. "Sometimes, parents watch us playing with their children, and see the delight on their children's face as we engage in an art activity or an imaginative game", she observes. "They say 'Why can't I have that kind of relationship with my child?'. We just say 'You can'. Parents have a difficult time juggling their different roles: nurturing, providing, and disciplining. Playing with our children is often lost. Parents can get locked into a pattern of confrontation with their children. We want parents to make time to play with their children and to talk. We believe in praising children for positive behaviours and offering them a safe, supportive environment".
Most sessions have been based in the Friends Meeting House in West Park, but a number of activities have been elsewhere; there have been trips to green spaces, adventure playgrounds, even a narrowboat journey. Mandy encourages parents to use the natural environment to boost the well-being of their children. I suggest to her that, as parents, we often view "days out" as being opportunities for children to play, and not as opportunities for us to play with our children. She agrees. "Besides", she says, "So many 'days out' are expensive. There are not enough low-cost or free opportunities in our communities". She is very clear, however, that much of the challenge can be met at home, and that imaginative play is not expensive. Mandy and her staff have worked alongside families in the sessions on role play activites, story-telling, and art and craft activities. "Parents are often frightened to engage with arts activities because they're insecure about their own abilities. We reassure them that it's not about the quality of the product, it's about the interactions with their children while playing".
Two more cohorts of families will engage with the Creative Parents support group through the autumn. Mandy would like similar activities to be available in every borough in city. "I believe in the healing properties of play", she says. "I've seen a small boy refusing to enter one of our sessions. I've seen him sit in the space between the outer and inner doors. We left the inner doors open and he watched the activities for a while. Then he came in. Soon he was asking ('demanding') his parents to come to every session".
Mandy finishes our conversation with one simple thought.
"We all need to find our inner child".