Features / Gympanzees

Plan to open UK’s first fully-inclusive leisure centre in Bristol

By ellie pipe, Thursday Aug 16, 2018

As the machine starts, Max’s face lights up in a big grin, his hands grabbing eagerly for the jingly toy in front of him.

This is the closest the wheelchair-bound three-year-old gets to independent walking as, supported by the specially-designed equipment, he is held in a standing position while his legs are propelled back and forth.

Watching her son smiling happily, Jessica White admits that the Gympanzees pop-up has made a huge difference to both of their lives this summer.

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“We bought a membership so we can come as much as we want,” she says.

“It just means that we are not stuck in the house, because we can’t just go to something like a soft play.”

The specialist equipment gives Max the chance to move in ways we would otherwise be unable to.

The pop-up sessions being held at Emersons Green Primary School throughout the summer holidays are a pilot project for the ultimate goal of creating a fully inclusive leisure centre to offer disabled children the same opportunities to play and enjoy activities as their peers.

The machine that Max is using is hugely beneficial for the health of wheelchair-bound children, but it comes with a price tag of around £11,000.

“There is no funding available,” continues Jessica. “And when you have a disabled child, you have enough on your plate. If we had something like this to go to, I could get some time back just to be a mum instead of a therapist. It’s even just having toys he can play with and other children who are the same so he is not stared at.”

She adds that even just having suitable toilet facilities for the three-year-old is a blessing – something that is greatly lacking across the city, meaning that usually they can only go out for short periods of time.

Gympanzees is the brain child of Stephanie Wheen, a physiotherapist who recognised that disabled children – who benefit hugely from physical activity – are so often excluded from being able to use mainstream play areas and leisure centres.

“Everything here is to get them exercising through play,” she says gesturing around the room, set up with an array of soft blocks, a kart ramp, swinging slings and more.

“The point is to give them a facility to use rather than having to pay a therapist. The plan eventually is to open a leisure centre which will be accessible for everyone, both with and without disabilities.

“One of the key things for parents is that siblings can play together, because often they have to attend separate sessions.”

Lexie using the specialist gym equipment, with Mike Hanney of Gympanzees, mum Jo Snow and siblings, Lexi and Felix, on hand to support.

Rosie says the treadmill is her favourite piece of equipment in the gym.

The pop-up also boasts a sensory room, a music room, a gym, soft play, trampoline and indoor playground.

In the gym, Sophie Corbett’s daughter Rosie is walking her way along the treadmill – her favourite piece of equipment at the centre.

“This is our fifth time here this summer,” says Sophie. “She’s nine so she wants to be independent – taking her mum everywhere is not an option for her.

“When she comes here, she is doing things that she has never done before, and she is able to do them by herself.

“We are usually limited as to where we can go. I try to take her to the park, but I cannot really manage on my own – she’s now too big for me to lift her on the swings – so have to make sure someone can come with us or meet us there.”

Ruby, Leo and Jack in the music room at Gympanzees.

Over in the music room, six-year-old Leo is banging away on a drum, along with his parents Jack Coulson and Ruby Hughes.

“It’s like a community and it gives us a chance to connect with other parents who know what it’s like to raise a child with special needs,” says Jack.

“It’s not just a place for Leo to learn and play, it’s also a place for us to learn.”

The couple travelled from the other side of Bath to attend Gympanzees, but they say, “you travel any distance for your child”.

The summer pop-up has been a resounding success and will hopefully make the dream of building a fully-accessible leisure centre closer to becoming a reality.

For more information and to book a pop-up session, visit: www.gympanzees.org/popup-activity-centre.

Gympanzees enables siblings to play together. Photo by Helen Sampson.

Main image by Helen Sampson.


Read more: ‘It’s a totally different path when your child has a disability’

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