A story by Edinburgh Leisure
Activ8 is a weekly multi-sport session for children and young people aged 7-17 with physical and learning disabilities. The sessions, which run on Saturday mornings at Gracemount Leisure Centre in Edinburgh, give participants the chance to have fun getting active and give carers some respite.
What Activ8 did
During the funding period, Edinburgh Leisure’s sports and leisure facilities were closed from 24 December 20 – 26 April 21. When Gracemount Leisure Centre was open, due to the Scottish Government and SportScotland Covid-19 guidance, activities were phased in, we were operating at reduced capacity and not all areas of the centre could be used.
Covid-19 restrictions resulted in a scaled down version of Activ8 for 14 weeks in total – from 21 November 2020 for 5 weeks and from 1 May 2021 for 9 weeks. All families involved were families who had previously attended Activ8 prior to the first lockdown.
As we couldn’t access the swimming pool or meeting room, we ran two shorter sessions back-to-back in the sports hall each week. We delivered activities such as new age Curling, boccia, soft archery, trampolining and adapted ball sports such as basketball and football, to give children and young people with complex needs the opportunity to get active.
We bought new equipment to widen the range of activities that could be delivered in line with social distancing measures, such as a ramp for the new age kurling set to enable participants in wheelchairs to participate more easily, a mini golf set and extra balls to avoid sharing. As well as ensuring participants’ safety, the new equipment meant that they were kept engaged with a variety of fun activities.
Carers chose to do a range of activities while their children were at Activ8, including going for a walk, shopping and spending time with their other children. Many had been caring full time since the start of the pandemic with few or no opportunities for respite, so were grateful for the chance to enjoy some time off for the first time in months. Due to Scottish Government guidance, our café was closed, seating was removed to create more space for social distancing and adults were discouraged from interacting in groups indoors. Unfortunately, this meant we were unable to offer carers a place to relax with a free cup of coffee.
What Edinburgh Leisure has learned
Learning to deal with unexpected challenges:
Covid-19 resulted in the Activ8 team, Gracemount Leisure Centre and Edinburgh Leisure being faced with many unexpected challenges. These included the closure of venues and suspension of activities on two separate occasions, staff being placed on furlough, venues re-opening at reduced capacity with social distancing measures in place and working with a beneficiary group who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
With our initial project plans having to be set aside, we have learned to be more flexible, produce customer communications quickly in response to external factors, come up with creative ways of engaging children and young people, and create dynamic plans that can be adapted at short notice to suit different levels of restriction. While we hope that things will start to go back to normal, we are now better prepared to make last minutes changes should we need to.
The Length of Sessions:
Prior to lockdown, Activ8 ran 3-hour sessions on Saturday mornings. One week catered for primary school aged children while the next week catered for secondary school aged young people. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, we have been unable to use the swimming pool or the meeting room and have been limited to the sports hall. Activ8 changed to two shorter weekly sessions delivered back-to-back, with both age groups attending on the same day.
The key thing we have learned from these changes is that while families have welcomed the return of sessions and told us that a short break is better than no break at all, they would prefer to go back to the longer sessions every fortnight.
Carers told us that longer sessions would enable them to enjoy a proper break and spend more time on themselves. While there are lots of things they can do in one hour, there are other things like playing a round of golf or spending longer catching up with friends that they can no longer do.
One carer also told us that her child finds the school week very tiring, so getting up early for Activ8 every Saturday morning can sometimes be too much. Going back to sessions every fortnight would mean that her child could use a Saturday morning to recharge every second week and go into the weekend with more energy.
Families with disabled children need our help now more than ever:
Families with disabled children have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. As we move forwards, we recognise that they need our support now more than ever. We have learned that we need to focus our efforts on working more closely with our Active Communities Team, who have strategic overview of our physical activity projects, to ensure we are reaching the right families, improving the service we provide and connecting families we can’t support through Activ8 to other opportunities within our wider programme of activities.
How Edinburgh Leisure has benefitted from the funding
Covid-19 has placed a huge financial strain on Edinburgh Leisure. Due to the financial challenges we face, projects like Activ8 would be at risk of closure without external funding. Better Breaks funding has enabled us to continue an important service for families with disabled children who need our support more than ever. Covid-19 social distancing measures restricted the range of activities we could deliver. Funding enabled us to purchase new equipment to widen the range of activities that could be delivered in the sports hall in line with social distancing measures, such as a mini golf set, a ramp for new age kurling and additional balls to avoid sharing. As well as ensuring participants’ safety, the new equipment meant that they were kept engaged with a variety of new and fun activities. The activities we could have delivered would have been very limited had it not been for funding to buy new equipment.
16 disabled children and young people (80% of total) attending Activ8 sessions will have joined in with activities and shown enjoyment in their body language, laughter, facial expressions and what they have told us, which staff and parents/carers will have confirmed.
10 children and young people returned to Activ8 and all had fun participating in the activities on offer in the sports hall with other children and young people. They enjoyed the opportunity to try a range of activities but some that they enjoyed most were soft archery, mini golf and new age kurling. We know that many of the children and young people have previously enjoyed being active in the swimming pool and are keen to use it again. Due to SportScotland and Scottish Swimming Covid-19 guidance around activities delivered in swimming pools, we were unable to offer them the chance to be active in the swimming pool during the funding period. 10 of the children and young people who participated in Activ8 before lockdown hadn’t returned by the time sessions paused for the summer break. Although their carers told us they were keen to return, they didn’t feel ready to be in a group social setting yet.
13-year-old Rory has epilepsy and a learning disability that means his mental age is around 7-8 years old. His mum, Yvette, tells us that it has been difficult to find activities for Rory to enjoy outside of school so they were both delighted when they discovered Activ8 in 2019. Rory loves the social side of Activ8. While he finds it difficult to play with other people 1:1, he enjoys interacting with other young people who are in a similar position to him. It’s an opportunity for him to fit in and be part of a happy group. It has been hard for him to lose touch with all the children he used to play with at primary school and this stops him from feeling like everyone is around him is growing up and leaving him behind. Yvette tells us that he isn’t a naturally sporty child and he has never had a passion for one particular activity, so it’s brilliant that he’s able to try such a wide variety of activities at Activ8. It means that he never gets bored and is involved in activities that keep him active and healthy for the full morning.
Carers of 20 disabled children and young people will have had time to do things for themselves away from their caring role.
The carers of all 10 children and young people were able to take a short break to do something outside of their caring role. For some, lockdown meant they had few or no opportunities to do things outside of their caring role. They told us that when their child returned to Activ8, it was the first time they had been able to do things like going for a walk, running errands alone, spend quality time with other family members or simply enjoying some peace and quiet alone. Carers didn’t take up the offer of free gym access and, due to Covid-19 social distancing measures, we were unable to provide them with a space to relax with a free cup of tea or coffee in our café. Their respite period was shortened by the changes we had to make to Activ8 timetable. They told us that while a longer break every second week would enable them to do things like play a round of golf, a shorter break once a week was far better than no session at all after such challenging period for their families.
13-year-old Rory has epilepsy and a learning disability that means his mental age is around 7-8 years old. His mum, Yvette, tells us that her role as Rory’s carer has got harder as he has got older. Children he played with at primary school are growing up and moving on without him. It can be difficult knowing that other people’s children are progressing and she still has an 8-year-old at home. She has lost touch with other parents she was once friends with as they can’t take their children to the same activities anymore. Yvette tells us that she wouldn’t have the opportunity to take a break from her caring role at the weekend if it wasn’t for Activ8. Rory can’t be left on his own so when he’s at home she doesn’t get the chance to doing anything for herself. Knowing that while he’s at Activ8 he’s doing activities he enjoys in a safe environment is good for her own mental wellbeing as it means she doesn’t have to worry about him. Most of the time she uses her ‘me time’ to switch off and do something positive for herself, such as going to the gym or going for a walk. She also tells us that one of the things she has found hardest over the years has been hearing other parents talking about dropping off their children at football matches or sports camps. Being able to say that she now takes Rory to Activ8 on a Saturday makes her happy as she feels like she’s doing the same things as other parents.
Carers of 20 disabled children and young people will have 3.5 hours respite every second Saturday.
The changes we had to make to the Activ8 timetable meant that the carers of all 10 children and young people were able to take a 1 hour break every Saturday. Carers told us that when their children are at Activ8, it’s one of the only opportunities they have to completely switch off from their caring role and enjoy some ‘me time’. They told us that full time caring can be overwhelming and exhausting, so being able to take a short break helps them to re-charge and makes the role feel more sustainable in the long term. They don’t need to worry about leaving their children as they know that they are in safe hands and that they are enjoying themselves in a supportive and non-judgmental environment. While they told us that a shorter break was better than no break at all, carers are looking forward to when Activ8 returns to longer fortnightly sessions so that they have an opportunity to take a longer break from their caring role.
12-year-old Ryan has autism and a learning disability. His mum, Lisa, is a single parent and cares for both Ryan and his 7-year-old brother Ross who also has autism. Lisa tells us that as full-time carer of two young boys, it can often feel like she doesn’t have a life. Looking after them both is very full on and the lack of time to herself has had an impact on her own mental health. It has been difficult to find suitable activities for Ryan and Ross because most are oversubscribed and can’t take them on. This meant that before she found Activ8, her and Ryan had spent little time away from each other at weekends. Now that Ryan goes to Activ8, it gives her the opportunity to spend quality time with Ross on his own. Sometimes they do fun things like going to the park. Other times they just do things that are easier to do with one child rather than two children like going to the supermarket. Even though she still has one child to look after, she appreciates the break from having to look out for their constant competing needs. She has also noticed that the time away from each other is beneficial to their relationship. Seeing him so happy after he’s been to Activ8 gives her a real boost and often it helps them to get along better.
Additional project outcome
Disabled children and young people (age 20 and under) will be more confident: 16 disabled children and young people (80% of total) will feel more confident, as demonstrated by their willingness to take part in activities, and their body language, facial expressions and what they have told us.
17-year-old Isla has holoprosencephaly, autism and a visual impairment. Her mum, Andrea, tells us that Isla’s disabilities mean that she has problems with mobility, balance and coordination and requires 1-1 support most of the time. There are limited opportunities for young people with disabilities to be physically active in Edinburgh, especially once they hit their mid-teens, so it has been difficult to find suitable activities for Isla. As a result, she has spent very limited time away from her parents throughout her teens. Activ8 is one of the few activities that Isla has ever been able to go to without her mum and having that time away has had a very positive impact on her. Andrea has noticed that being able to meet and interact with other young people, try out new activities in a safe and supportive environment, and have a taste of independence has given her daughter a massive confidence boost.