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Age is no barrier to belonging

Nurturing the wellbeing of the community is
multi-dimensional at Cabena Playgroup

At Cabena Playgroup in the City of Monash, this idea of community, the overarching concept that supports the human condition, is alive and well.                                              

“It is a real family feel,” said Playgroup Facilitator Barbi Kenny. 

“To stand back and reflect, it is just a joy to be working in playgroups.”

Cabena playgroup is unique, its sheer growth staggering. Over a 12-month period, 960 new families enrolled. At one point, Cabena was getting up to 70 families a day. 

“Our boss is a bit of a visionary, Jennifer, and she said well let’s trial some stuff,” said Nicole Dalgleish, Team Leader Playgroup Support.  

The council opened a second playgroup in Glen Waverley, but the most crucial part of this playgroup is the time. Both playgroups are open three times a week from 10am-3pm. They are also open on some nights and on Saturdays.

This flexibility works wonders.

“It is a place where, purely, your main focus is that child and carers are supported and obviously building friendships and confidence in their role,” said Nicole.

There is no pressure to do a certain task at a certain time.

“It really is parent and child driven in how they utilise the space.”

The facilitators know that everyone’s day unravels differently. Sometimes families are running late. A child may be sick. Mum may be working. Dad may be working. Grandpa’s day is a Thursday but on Saturday both Grandpa and Dad can come along.

“The luxury of having this space- they can gain the equipment, the resources- that it is there for them but just to be able to sit and play with your child. We think that gets lost in the messages about parenting and spending time with your child,” said Barbi.

Barbi observed one mother relaxing, playing with her children on the floor. The mother said that she had never just sat at home and played Lego with her child: “This is the environment where I can do that.”

Cabena playgroup removes distractions and to-do lists and draws people into the present.

“At home, people feel like they have to be in that routine of the cooking or the cleaning or getting things organised but in discussing playgroup with parents while they’re here they say, ‘I don’t even remember sitting down and playing at home with my child’”, said Barbi.

“Giving them the opportunity for that learning is really important as well. Also giving parents the confidence to be able to sit and play with their child as well.”

Part of that is to do with no mobile phones used while here.

“That awareness- we use to get parents saying that they did not even realise that they were on their phone,” said Nicole.

“Now they are much more aware of what they are doing while they are with their child.”

There is a large male presence at this playgroup, which is not often the case.

“We get a number of dads through. We might even have Mum at home with a new bub and they say to their partner take the little one to playgroup or else he [dad] is at home doing and mum may understand what dad will benefit from being at playgroup,” said Nicole.

“This model works for dads. We open here once a month in the evening, 5 o’clock to seven o clock and on a Saturday once a month. We had a session during the week. We had eight families, five dads, one grandfather. So, of the eight families, six were male.”

“By providing playgroup out of traditional hours, we have been able to bring working dads and mums and other people through as well.”

“Saturdays are the same,” said Barbi.

“We sometimes get 10, 12, 15 people at this alternate hour groups and the majority are the dads that wouldn’t normally be able to come to playgroup during the week but having that extra group- they just love it- they walk in and say, ‘So this is what you are talking about!’”

“They just love it and the child is pulling their hand wanting to show every aspect of playgroup. They really get a lot out of it.”

Belinda Davies is a Playgroup Development Consultant. She said that it was a great group and loved the idea of the drop in, flexible hours.

“Some days missing out on playgroup because getting there on time is difficult for families with young children. Having flexible times spanning over the day on three days is an excellent idea.”

“As a community the more people engage together, the greater they have of a sense of belonging. That sense of belonging brings connectedness, support and care for one another. This is great for our community and excellent modelling for children with an overall a positive impact on people’s wellbeing.”

That community resolve cannot be overlooked at the playgroup. There are stories of grandparents who were not engaged, taking on more of a supervision role. The group naturally invites them to join in. So much so that they are immersed in the play dough or shaving foam play. The child gets bored and moves on, but they stay on. The space opens itself up to these interactions.

One mother came along to playgroup not knowing anyone and had no family in the country. She was very isolated but has since made four Greek friends at playgroup. They now meet in cafes, at the park or at one another’s homes, as well as playgroup.

“The connections she has here now, she calls Cabena her family because that is her connection,” said Barbi.

Barbie has set up allied health visits. Every week Monash Link or maternal child health nurses, dieticians, speech therapists, occupational therapist, psychologists are available. 

“They come and it is just an informal availability for families.”

This starts conversations and alleviates worries.

“We know sometimes waiting lists are long, it is an opportunity for families to have a conversation and engage and take away some of the anxiety while they are in that waiting phase and getting to some sort of support network,” said Nicole.

Creating the community atmosphere and creating relationships is a matter of thoughtfulness here. There is always a volunteer at the door, greeting families as they arrive.

“That initial meeting is important in how people feel long term.”

Cabena has 14 volunteers.

“The volunteers are extraordinarily important to us.”

“Without the volunteers we couldn’t do it, plus this allows staff to be is on the floor.”

As it turns out, the playgroup is also important to the volunteers. One retired man came in to do data collection. He sat in the office, working on the computer. From time to time he looked up through the glass window, watching the families and children. The children saw him and engaged. One day he found himself chatting with a grandfather attending the group. Before long he was out of the office and had joined in. He volunteered to water the lawns during the hot summer holidays. He had, unexpectedly, found something he was not seeking out. He was part of the playgroup community.

Many people have a wholesome familiarity with this place. It is as much a part of peoples lives as it is a part of the community. Without the people and the conversations, it is merely a building, a shell, but with familiar faces, it is a place that feels comfortable and comforting. It is a flourishing community that welcomes all.

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Article by Sinead Halliday