Nestled among the greenery in the Dandenong Ranges is a charming little playgroup where Indigenous traditions are treasured and shared. A connection with nature is a vital part of the livelihood of the community who gather here. 

A quaint little cottage has made a home for itself amongst the gumtrees at Lake Park Reserve in Belgrave. Emerald fern leaves sit atop furry soft trunks, huddled in the dappled shade. The native plant life prospers alongside. You can hear the birds cheeping above in a variety of birdsong and only a short wander down the banks of Monbulk Creek is where platypus have been known to play. It is a rather idyllic place for a playgroup, one that is steeped in history, having been here since 1981.Playgroup co-leader Emma said that creating a space for connections is a vital part of the health and wellbeing of parents and children.

“And where better to do this than out in a beautiful garden, surrounded by the glorious environment of where we live.”

Out in the garden, Emma said that the children are offered the opportunity to explore learning, not just with toys, but with curiosity, imagination and natural resources.

The main objective of the playgroup is to celebrate diversity, embracing people from different walks of life. There is an endeavour to engage the children in Indigenous culture, especially those who may have not experienced before.  

“Week seek to empower the children to explore the world around them and deeply understand the richness of cultural diversity. We promote a holistic world view and a preservation of ancient traditions and values.”

Belgrave playgroup have busily been tending to their garden. Their garden project aims to actively promote a strong relationship with nature. The playgroup wants to continue a dialogue about reconciliation, building the children's role as citizens of the global community. 

“Australian history started in the Dreamtime. It is important for us to remember that oral traditions of passing on stories of our time as a community is one of the most valuable things we can do. In acknowledging the power and presence of Indigenous history and culture we hope that being part of our Playgroup creates positive stories for all parents and children.”

It is clear to see just how strong a link this playgroup has with the outside world. The cottage that houses the playgroup rests within the old Belgrave Caravan Parkland. In times gone by, stretching back as early as 1946, the reservoir was a popular swimming spot where locals would come to cool off on hot summer days. A group of local families restored the old care takers cottage in the early 80’s as a place for people to meet and share their parenting journey.

For 35 years, the playgroup has been run by devoted volunteers. Emma said that the volunteers have continued to preserve the playgroup and put their mark upon this play space for local families to enjoy.

There is much evidence attributing the great benefits of outdoor play for children and adults alike. Emma observes the natural expression and spirit of play. She believes it is a resource that continues to hold great value throughout life.

“Direct contact with nature play (garden space), transforming the physical environment (dry-river bed) and finding new ways to explore the environment, alongside mulit-sensory activities all contribute to providing experiences significant to children's development.” 

There is something innately youthful that springs out of us when we spend time exploring the great outdoors. We loosen our grip. We observe how big the trees are and how small we are. We gain perspective. There is a great sense of freedom and as Emma detects, a confidence. Inhibitions are let go to fly in the wind.

“Connecting with our environment is heart and soul of being human. Seeing the sky, hearing the birds, listening and connecting with your natural surrounds has proven benefits for wellbeing, particularly mental health. Nature play inspires imaginations; a stick becomes a boat carrying ants to a magical rock island. Science experiments are conducted as a rock drops faster than a leaf. Gross motor skills are developed as children hop from tree stumps to large rocks.” 

The actions Emma speaks of do not appear complex, but they contain complexities. The subtleties within the small ecosystems that live under our feet and above our heads all contribute to the workings of the world. If one small system is interrupted, the consequences are large due to a sophisticated linkage between us all.

The Belgrave playgroup has provided ample native plants to smell and touch, rosemary and mint bushes too. Woolly bushes surround the area with different native grasses. Local artists have made sound sculptures and mosaic rainbow serpents wind through the outdoor garden. There is a lot to stimulate the senses.

“We have be inspired by reusing and recycling older toys such as xylophones into wind chimes. And even have an echidna made from sticks and bark. We have no doubt over the years we will add even more to inspire the senses.”

The sensory garden that now grows and settles in the grounds was built by a team of volunteers. Children are encouraged to contribute by painting a rock to add to the riverbed. Emma hopes that this exercise builds respect and acknowledges the efforts of the parents who have made this play space that they regularly use.

“Ongoing this is a playspace that will foster the community spirit and the importance of playgroup for local families.”

Emma concedes that technology does a wonderful job at supporting families, parents and women in the early years of parenting, yet it cannot be the whole.

“There is no replacement for connecting face to face, allowing children to develop social skills and interactions in a supportive environment. Friendships begin through cups of tea and sharing picnics, whilst children explore and discover themselves, each other and the world around them.”

Playgroup allows a break in routine and triggers a new avenue of thought.

“Playgroup offers the opportunity to get out into a different space and environment, a space you can let the children make a mess and have the support on the clean up after! Children can enjoy new toys and activities, make friends and connect with an environment outside of their own home.” 

Article by Sinead Halliday

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