PARENTING is undeniably a challenging experience and a learning curve for anyone.

But for parents and carers of children who have additional needs, navigating your way through their upbringing can be especially daunting...and isolating.

Thankfully, Stepping Stones Play and Learn Group has been there to support those parents and offer a safe and happy environment for their children since it began 30 years ago.

It was thanks to its founder Carol Nice Stepping Stones flourished from its base in Barrack Street, Colchester, where 28 children attend today.

Carol, now its committee chairwoman, admitted she never expected the nursery, a charity, to reach the milestone birthday, which is being officially celebrated this Saturday.

Carol started the group after talking to families who struggled to attend mainstream play groups because their children needed one-to-one support.

“It just took off so quickly, I had no idea there was such a need. I think the whole process has always been a learning curve and that has evolved as needs have evolved,” she added.

Carol had worked in child care since the age of 16, including caring for those with additional needs.

Initially, in 1991, when Carol asked if she could rent rooms at the Wilson Marriage Centre in Barrack Street, some doubted the provision would work.

Stepping Stones started off running for three mornings a week with about seven children of which two had additional needs.

It is this mix of children with needs and without, who have benefitted from the group for all this time.

Today Stepping Stones has 18 paid staff who run its nursery, tots’ group and after school care service.

Fortunately when the Government’s childcare voucher scheme was introduced some years ago, Stepping Stones could access more funding for the right equipment for children as there was more pressure for equal opportunities.

Carol said it was thanks to the staff over the years and their flexible approach to uniquely supporting children, who had contributed to its success. Many of the staff have children who attended the nursery.

“It becomes part of people’s lives and is so emotive,” she added.

It’s also rewarding for her to see children who are now aged in their twenties and thirties - with or without additional needs - and how they have flourished. Those without additional needs recall how they learned how to understand and accept their less-able peers.

A highlight for Carol was finally securing a permanent base for the nursery.

“Until then we had to walk across the coffee shop, we didn’t have our own loos, didn’t have a play area.

“We knew we could put everything in it, we put things on the walls, had a sensory room which the Colchester Catalyst charity got for us, an outside play area.

“All of that was done by raising money from the community.”

The charity still needs about £130,000 additional funding a year to run and Carol emphasised how important it was people still supported them, especially as annual running costs are close to £200,000.

Nursery co-ordinator Sue Townsend is now on the frontline of the nursery after Carol took a step back three years ago.

Sue explained the additional needs of the children there are complex and wide-ranging from behavioural to physical medical needs.

She was introduced to Stepping Stones a few months after the birth of her son, Owen, who has Down’s Syndrome and is now aged 22.

“I came along and met Carol who was absolutely amazing.

“The support was quite overwhelming.”

Stepping Stones helped her through different transitions and to get her son a statement for starting school to ensure he would be suitably supported.

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Over the years Sue became more involved at Stepping Stones, but echoed Carol’s pleas for funding.

“We have had families that have continued to support us for the 30 years, as well as Colchester Catalyst charity and Community 360,” she said.

“We would like to thank Colchester, the community for supporting us for so long and hope they continue to do so.”

For more information about Stepping Stones, including a weekly tots’ group it runs for children with additional needs. go to