Just For The Fun Of It
Words Tatyana Leonov
Kids tumbling over each other like puppies. Parents and grandparents nattering over cups of tea. Isn’t this what life with children was supposed to be like? Fun. Relaxed. Tidy! It’s all waiting for you (and your kids) at your local playgroup.
It’s 10am on a Tuesday in the little town of Faulconbridge, in the lower Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney. Babies in prams, teetering toddlers and galloping preschoolers are heading up the ramp of Faulconbridge Community Hall, with parents, grandparents and carers in tow. For the next couple of hours they’ll be playing, snacking and chatting to each other at Tuesday Tots.
“Playgroup isn’t just for kids,” insists Bronwyn Duffy, 35, “It’s for the mums. We have grandparents as well and we have two dads that work shiftwork and they come alternate weeks.”
Introduced to the group by a neighbour, Bronwyn (mum to Brooke, 6, and Megan, 4) has been a Tuesday Tots regular for six years, and its co-ordinator for almost two. “I went along and had a relaxing morning, talked to everyone and that’s where it started. I thought: ‘I do need playgroup! I do need to know people my age!’.”
Playgroups are held in community centres, halls, health clinics, parks, schools and homes across the country, every day of the working week. For the price of a gold coin donation (at most!), children and those who look after them can get together on a regular basis to play, interact and socialise.
The playgroup movement started in the 1960s and ’70s, spurred by the increasing awareness of the value of play in children’s development. By 1975, every Australian state and territory had set up a playgroup association and, today, Playgroup Australia represents more than 105,000 families and 145,000 children at 8,500 playgroup sessions.
Tuesday Tots at Faulconbridge has been around, in one form or another, since the early 1970s. Katherine Arndell, 33, and mum to 18-month-old Bowen, came to the group as a child and is back again as a mum. Her own mother, Jan Arndell, 65, helped establish Tuesday Tots.
“Around 38 years ago a small group of women got together and decided to rent the Faulconbridge Community Hall once a week,” says Jan. “We’d all bring along toys we owned or could rustle up, allowing our children to play in a social environment and allowing mothers to come together to share stories, concerns and general chitchat.
“From this very informal meeting, others slowly became involved and a more formal playgroup was soon established, leading to what it is today.”
Perhaps the key to the long-lived success of this group is organisation. At every session, there is a roster with who will be leading each of the activities, who will be organising morning tea, and who will be setting up and packing up. “It just works out a little bit fairer so the same people aren’t doing the same jobs,” says Bronwyn.
The Tuesday Tots share their toys with another group that meets on Wednesdays. They applied for a grant two years ago to get new tables and chairs for the kids and, with the help of the Blue Mountains City Council, were able to purchase a proper ergonomic and age-appropriate set.
At the start of their morning, the Tuesday Tots kids are racing down hills on trikes, playing in sand, or bowling plastic balls into plastic pins (or each other). By 10.30am, the kids are sitting at the table for morning tea (with their grown-ups close by).
“We cut up all the fruit and we encourage the kids to use the tongs to grow their motor skills,” Bronwyn explains. “We find that it’s healthier if they’re all eating fruit and not all bringing separate morning teas.”
After morning tea there is more free time. “Ensuring there is enough free time allows the children a time to play, socialise and interact with each other without the pressure of being rushed from one activity to another,” says Katherine.
Then at 11.15am it’s time for the one scheduled activity of the morning. On this occasion it’s music. The bulk of the crowd sing along to “I’m a Little Teapot” and “The Wheels on the Bus” while playing triangles, mini cymbals and tambourines. And some kids stay outside, which is okay, too.
“The demographics of the area have changed a lot,” says Bronwyn. “Right now we are in a peak where we have so many babies. And then they drop off again as they start school and then the next lot come in. We had about two, three years where there were only 10 families on the booksand now there are 29 families and approximately 35 children. Thankfully we’re not all here at once,” she laughs.
But regardless of how many might turn up, the fun of Tuesday Tots doesn’t stop. Naomi Rosso, 38, the group’s treasurer and mum of Myriam, 2, has seen toddlers trying to feed babies and kids push other kids in dolls’ prams.
The adults have fun, too. There are dinners and movie nights and an adults-only Christmas party at the end of the year.
“I figure that as we are all at playgroup at a similar time in our child’s life, we will all be moving through their schooling together. So it’s worth connecting and building solid friendships to allow a greater trusted support network from a good, community-based group for our children,” says Katherine.
Starting a playgroup
1 Getting started
Most playgroups begin informally and grow through word-of-mouth. If you want to attract new members, put up notices at local halls, shops and community centres. Register your group with Playgroup Australia and local families can find you online. Go to www.playgroupaustralia.com.au or call 1800 171 882 for details.
2 Choosing a venue
You can meet at one person’s home or rotate between members’ houses. If you’re looking for a public venue (like a hall) you’ll need somewhere that has both indoor and outdoor play spaces, kitchen facilities, storage space, toilets, car parking and access to public transport.
3 What to do
A typical playgroup will run for a couple of hours which leaves you time to sep up, play, have some snacks, share one organized activity and pack up.
You’ll need equipment for both adults and children. Most community centres will offer plates, cutlery and a kettle, but you may need to provide your own. When it comes to collecting toys, try second-hand stores and garage sales or approach local businesses for donations.
Share the workload and the responsibilities. Draw up some guidelines that cover how the group will deal with bad behaviour and what’s required for set-up, morning tea and pack-up.
Your playgroup must be covered by a comprehensive insurance policy from day one. Contact your state or territory Playgroup Association on 1800 171 882 for packages.
Most playgroups charge a small fee each week to cover costs.