Petts Wood Playgroup for Children with Special Needs is in a room in a local church building in Petts Wood. If you don’t have a child or sibling with special needs, you probably don’t know it’s there or even that it exists.

Its first day of opening was ‘September 28th 1968’, said Larry Simpson, who manages the playgroup.

Larry has worked there for a very long time, saying, ‘I was a volunteer for 3 months and then the Playgroup Leader 3 mornings each week since April 1976 and another lady was the Leader on Wednesday and Fridays. Then full time from 1984.’

I asked Larry what her job involved: Because of Ofsted terminology, I am now called the Manager. I have overall responsibility for the running of the group. I have to create and ensure the policies and procedures are current. I take the original referral for a child, arrange a visit, organise start days and which days and then any increase in sessions, I have to write reports and attend any meetings around the child. I initiate any assessments towards getting the child the appropriate school or support in school. So this means holding a transition meeting and transferring all information to the next education provision. I also have the staff of volunteers to support and ensure training is current and appropriate. All the staff have to be cleared by police records (DBS or betting and barring)…’

Larry clearly loves what she does: ‘I am still learning so much from the children. I enjoy their company. I enjoy meeting all the staff, they are very special people and I hope I may be making a little difference for the families and in a good way.’

The playgroup is a lifeline for families and helps guide parents/guardians through the various challenges of special needs, as well as providing a fun and safe learning environment for the children.

PWPG provides care and education for children under five years with additional needs. The aim is to give the families some respite knowing their child is in a safe and stimulating environment. It is to give the child every opportunity and support to reach their potential and have fun while feeling safe and happy.’

Larry has seen and implemented her fair share of changes during her time at the playgroup. She said, ‘We started in a prefab which was like a caravan without wheels…We are now in a proper room with proper heating and proper lights etc.’

The space has grown and a grant has meant they have been able ‘to convert a walk in cupboard into a sensory room and to build an extension to provide a soft play room and small group work room’. 

The inside isn’t the only thing to have changed: ‘The outside play area and garden was a shed surrounded by brambles but we now have a pleasant safe play area with suitable permanent equipment. I convinced a friend he would like to build an area for therapy practice which is fun so we have a ‘train’ to play on and a mud kitchen. We created a sensory area under a tree.’

Larry also says, ‘I introduced our ‘uniform’ after the playgroup became a Registered Charity back in the 1980’s and our brick logo was designed.’

A nice personal touch: ‘All the staff were Mrs. This and Mrs. That which is very formal and I got rid of That and This so we are known by our Christian names.’

I asked Larry about the number of children who have been through the playgroup over the years: ‘I have tried to make a ‘Roll of Honour’ so all the children since my time have been logged and I have searched for records of previous children. It is over 3,000!’. This is an amazing number for a small playgroup.

Larry still keeps in touch with families whose children have been in the playgroup’s care.

‘Many of the Mums came back as helpers so that is a lovely way of keeping in touch. With our parent face book the contact has continued and this has enabled new parents to have parent to parent support which cannot be undermined. I still get emails and photos which is lovely.’

Does Larry think people’s views around disability are better now than they used to be?

‘On the whole I think the awareness has improved as there is more openness. There have been many changes over the years around access etc. Sadly, there is still more to do, but yes, better than they used to be.’ And I agree with her. Education, patience and kindness can go a very long way.