How child's play can ease agonies

THE scary witch doll has a big nose and wicked eyes. Sometimes she's just a silly doll, sometimes, though, she's mum, gran or big sis. Perhaps even a teacher, or a classmate.

Occasionally she'll be thrown against the walls of the room in Balgreen Primary School, and pummelled by angry little fists.

Once, recalls Eileen Wilson, she was used for vigorous tae kwon do practice and given a right good thumping.

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Eileen has seen tortured souls slowly release their demons in that sunny room with its art sets, dolls and assorted plastic animals.

This is the room where Eileen, a part-time volunteer counsellor with Place2Be, parks her Honda 750cc motorbike outside, and listens and watches patiently for hours as aggressive and wayward children, others withdrawn, slowly reveal the secrets of their private torment. And it's the ones who are the quietest who sometimes nurse the deepest despair.

Place2Be runs rooms like this in ten of Edinburgh's primary schools, hoping to catch children early enough to prevent them evolving into teenage delinquents, self-harmers, high school bullies or worse.

Sadly, there is no shortage of work for the charity. When its Scottish development officer Catherine Henderson speaks to headteachers in schools without the service they typically agree they could name at least 15 children in their classrooms who would almost certainly benefit.

Some might be aggressive, on the way to becoming the next generation of statistics. The number of pupils assaulting staff in Scottish schools last year leapt from 92 to 102.

They might be among the soaring number of Scots children growing up in local authority care. Figures released last week showed the most children in care since 1983, nearly 15,300 youngsters.

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Some will be abused and neglected, with drug-addled, alcoholic parents or no parents at all.

Others in Eileen's room – and Place2Be's other city bases – might harbour grim secrets hidden deep under the surface.

It's then the witch doll often comes out to play.

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"We weren't sure at first how the children would react to the witch," says Eileen, "but to them she's been a whole host of things – including teachers.

"Children come and act out the way they relate to people in school, at home, in the playground. It's often weeks before we start to find out what is troubling them. It's interesting that a lot of the kids we see don't have a dad. "

Many come from broken homes – the reason there are two dolls' houses in the playroom, one for each parent's 'home'. One little boy spent ages cutting out squares of white paper and laying them on the carpet. Eventually it emerged that these were beds and his nomadic lifestyle of being shunted from one house to the next had left him confused and adriftwith insecurities which morphed into schoolyard violence.

Another introduced the witch doll to tae kwon do, with revealing results.

Eileen says: "He was filled with rage and anger. And as a counsellor you're often in the firing line, so he wanted to act out his feelings on me. Instead we used the witch doll.

"For this little boy, the witch represented every parental figure, every figure in school with a position of authority. He'd had a difficult background.

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"That child was both witnessing physical abuse at home and was the victim of it.

"For a young child, that is very traumatic. That child might go on to attack a member of his own class, he's so filled with rage.

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"Our therapeutic involvement can unleash that and then we can show them how to manage their own behaviour and their own situation."

It's about catching children before they fall, explains Catherine, who oversees the charity's work in Edinburgh, its only Scottish base.

"Research showed 14 per cent of Scottish teenagers were self harming under the age of 14 and another 14 per cent were considering it.

"Those are children who haven't dealt with issues that are concerning them – perhaps they never had the chance for this kind of early intervention which can identify what's wrong and help them handle it.

"The work we do can have an impact on the whole school," she adds. "We can find out what the issues are and then support teachers.

"Eventually there becomes a culture of 'emotional literacy' in school where children become more able to express themselves.

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"Teachers agree, we are reducing the numbers of children being excluded."

At Balgreen and Edinburgh's nine other Place2Be schools, children have arrived at the charity's bright playroom, aware they're not being sent to another teacher or a social worker or a relative, but a grown-up listening ear.

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Usually they are 'high tariff' youngsters, already identified as displaying some kind of unusually aggressive or wayward behaviour. It's volunteer Eileen's job to find out why. With immense patience she's watched confused children wrestle with big feelings they don't even know the names of. Instead they identify how they feel by pointing to a chart on the wall with dozens of cartoon faces in various state of emotion.

It's only very rarely a hand will stretch up and point to 'happy'.

"When you understand what these children's lives are like, you can see why they play up in the playground or in the classroom," adds Catherine.

"We all see children behaving badly and make a judgement but the truth is we don't really know what is going on in their lives.

"It's about seeing beyond that behaviour and doing something to help."

Place2Be is in ten city primary schools – Balgreen, Murrayburn, Longstone, Canal View, St Francis, St Catherine's, Niddrie Mill, Burdiehouse, Forthview and Craigroyston. For more information, go to


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PLAYGROUND tiffs, global warming, family finances and everything from dead pets to winning a prize – all are thrashed out at Place2Be's school lunchtime drop-in sessions, Place2Talk.

For while the playroom provides sanctuary and counselling for 'high tariff' children with major issues, other pupils at Edinburgh's ten participating schools can also use the service.

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"Around 60-70 per cent of a school population will come to us there," explains Frances Griffin, Edinburgh hub manager for Place2Be.

"Children can refer themselves to meet up and talk about anything they want with someone who will listen."

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