Parents and carers across the country will know the challenges they face in trying to find an accessible playground. The Parent Carer Forum (BCF), Bedford, secured significant funding this year to redevelop the existing park and to make it more accessible for young people and adults with SEND. MFON caught up with the BCF Chair, Kerri Rennie, to find out more about this exciting development, which opened this month.
The noise around needing a new park started before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bedford Borough Parent Carer Forum has a large membership and a lot of people were telling us they had to leave Bedford to do simple everyday things, like go to the park. Parents and carers needed somewhere they could take a wheelchair or a walker, and to visit somewhere that felt welcoming. We knew there was a gap.
To help us find out exactly what the problems were for parents and carers, we spoke to people locally to find out some of the concerns from people living in the community. Some of the feedback included:
‘We would like to have a local park to be accessible and accessed by all our children – that would be fabulous. We have to travel to do this currently.’
‘We need more awareness in all our communal areas (parks, shops). People look at us like we don’t belong because my child screams and looks different to their own child. Education and awareness are needed everywhere.’
COVID-19 really brought it to the forefront. Just as restrictions were lifted, a parent phoned me and said how unwelcome she felt in this particular park. Her son has autism and she was being shouted at by other parents. It showed how important it is to have somewhere to go where everyone is welcome and a place that doesn’t feel sterile. This felt to me like something everyone else would expect in the local community.
Bringing ideas to life
To begin with, we had new signage printed on big daisies in several parks to raise awareness of people with SEND.
However, families wanted something on their doorstep that was inclusive where they could go after school and engage with other families. The feedback from members of the forum was that they wanted something accessible; they wanted their children to be able to use the trampoline, the pathways, the picnic areas; and they wanted it to be somewhere siblings could also visit so they could use the whole park as a family. I’m a parent of children with learning disabilities, so I really understood it.
The new park has a number of features: there’s a wheelchair-accessible trampoline and roundabout, a sensory garden with barefoot pathways, and places for people to sit. Our aim was to get people outside in a meaningful way, where it feels safe and pleasant.
Growing the awareness
There are a couple of other accessible parks around the country – one in London and one in the north of England. Luckily, the idea has caught on and some of the other local parks are getting involved, so I think that’s a great step forward. A big problem we hear about is bullying. I think if we can ensure children see other children who have disabilities from a young age, it will help to prevent bullying.
We have a few special schools in Kempston but, as these requirements become more known and talked about, I’m hoping more thought will be put into planning when people are considering parks and green spaces.
Because the equipment is bigger in the new park to make it accessible, I am aware it’s probably going to look slightly different. However, it’s been so well thought out and is enhanced with communication boards; I think it will be a great asset to Bedford. It’s so important that people are aware of the park. If it’s created by the community, then it will be looked after by the community and will be utilised.
The project is one of a few play area improvements as part of Bedford Borough Council’s £500,000 upgrade taking place this summer. Improvements have already been completed at Fairhill playground by Sainsbury’s and some are ongoing at Balliol Road. There are also plans for improvements at Jubilee Park.
Our inclusive and accessible outdoor play area in Russell Park will open this month (July 2022). We were granted £100,000 for it. It didn’t take long for the money to be eaten up – there was a lot to think about. There was the flooring, weatherproofing and access to consider. We did have some wheelchair-friendly swings but they were underlaid by grass so, for six months of the year, they were not always accessible.
To co-produce the park with everyone has been a real experience. The icing on the cake will be when it’s up and running. When it’s a sunny day and there are families playing in the park, it will show it to be a good asset.
If creating this park highlights the need for such facilities in other areas, then it shows the work we can do as a collective. We’ve got 1,300 members in Bedford Borough Council on the Parent Carer Forum from a wide, diverse community. I’m hoping the new park will help to improve parents’ and carers’ wellbeing.
Open to all
The park is not only for children who require accessibility. It will also benefit neurotypical children – they can nip to the park on their way home from school, for example.
The sensory garden will also be open to all, including adults. The park isn’t only for children and will be supporting around 6,000+ SEND families in Bedford.
It’s important to add that the park is for people of all ages – some older children might be seen as much older but, due to their cognitive ability, are in fact a lot younger. Some of the feedback we had was that people felt uncomfortable going into the park when you have a child who is 6ft but actually aged 12 in cognitive ability.
Because the park is so public, it will help to raise awareness of the sector. This project was born out of working out what we can do; it’s now grown and it’s become such a nice story. It’s a nice way of showing people how important something like this is. When you think of the impact this park will have – the health and wellbeing achieved by getting outside, the access, and it being open to all the family – it shows we’ve thought of everyone.
Advice for parents/carers
I would encourage everyone to use their Parent Carer Forum to raise local community concerns and have conversations with the local authority, etc. – and to keep having those conversations. Look for opportunities and ways to improve your community, and work together. I think the biggest thing for us is the working relationships between us – realising there are restraints and you have to work together. You can also raise it with your local council – all councils have a feedback element and you can suggest what you would like to see as a local resident.
It’s important, seeing your child play in the sandpit, knowing they can access or jump on a trampoline, or just having your whole family together so they can have a picnic in a nice area – that doesn’t cost anything and allows you to get out of the house and just be. Most families just want to enjoy what’s on their doorstep. We are constantly working to improve services in Bedford.
We are also currently doing a ‘help the healthy’ carer programme, which is run by Exeter University.
Those of us in the forum are constantly pushing to make sure changes are made and that the best outcomes are achieved for all. The sensory garden, the park and the #SummerOfSEND are all key and we also have an autumn schools project that we are piloting in Bedford. We have lots of opportunities to ensure we hear different voices from parents and carers in Bedford to feed into these projects as well.
What I would also say to other parents and carers is to keep talking. If it’s a concern to you, then speak out because you might not be the only one for whom it’s a frustration.
The park is now open! What’s been the reaction for parents/carers?
‘It is excellent news and very inclusive for all. Thank you!’
‘Genuinely so excited about this. I have two wheelchair users. The idea they can go to a park and play together is amazing – something I never imagined they would do. Thank you.’
‘So many local families will benefit in many ways! Let’s make memories.’
‘It’s been needed for years – about time too.’
Following on from the success of last year’s #SummerOfSEND, we are delighted it has returned this summer and it will include the Inclusive Island at Bedford River Festival.
We are constantly updating these pages with new and exciting events, so please do keep coming back to check out what’s new and also follow us on social media for the latest updates using the hashtag #SummerOfSEND. Along with the amazing children and young people, we have made a short video about this year’s #SummerOfSEND.
Kerri Rennie is Chair of the Bedford Parent Carer Forum. She is mum to Reece and Finlay. Reece has ADHD, moderate learning difficulties and severe dyslexia, which has meant he has received an Education, Health and Care Plan. Finlay has a diagnosis of dyslexia. Both of them have attended mainstream schools.
Kerri joined the Bedford Borough Parent Carer Forum as she wanted to inform and empower other parent carers of children with SEND, as well as to take the voice of the parent carers to the people who make decisions about our children’s lives.
In 2019, Kerri took over the role of Chair and hopes to keep challenging the system so that all of our children and young people achieve their goals and raise awareness of all needs to bring true inclusion.