A montage of moments

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‘Fear of missing out will propel a kid to do what's necessary, so later when all our snorkels went missing, he just used his arms more, found a rhythm, and kept up. By the time we were leaving the beach with nothing in the dive crate but oranges and sunscreen, our son already knew how to swim.’

This is Australian author Tim Winton noting a big part of the learning process, what kids do so well. Children want to join in, and their fear often dulls as the possibilities sprout, sending them surging forth to be part of it. It’s play entwining with practice, it’s accidental and purposeful, it’s incidental and it’s meaningful. These all-important ingredients have fallen together inland, in the outlies of an old gold mining township in Victoria. Well hidden among the houses residing on the edges of Ballarat is Sebastopol Primary School. In this little school lots of little kids are learning big things as part of the Playgroups in Schools initiative.

Within the carpark it is quiet but for a few birds chirping overhead. Cicadas drone in the trees. The sky is almost an entire expanse of blue aside from a few plumes of distant clouds. Within the school entrance it is quiet, still. Where is everyone. Through the glass doors a child whizzes by, followed by another. As they open the door noise tumbles out and sunlight pours across their feet. Colour and movement spring to life. The kids lead the way up the stairs and the noise continues to rise. A montage of moments scatters across the room. Parents and children play on the floor, a young girl cartwheels, a baby on a hip, a group of siblings and friends inspect the gifts under a Christmas tree, Dad’s sit in a corner, chatting and chuckling.     

The surroundings do not indicate the warmth within. A thriving little community bursts through the walls at Sebastopol Primary School.

Maureen Hatcher is one of the facilitators. She chats to a regular Gwen. Gwen’s a grandmother and has been attending for years with her grandchildren.

“We’re really lucky here, we’ve got a great principal who really values the early years hence the Christmas tree out there and the student council put all of these toys under there and said families can help themselves,” said Maureen.

“They have surplus food from their breakfast club program and they donate it to the playgroup families to take home. The playgroups in school model here is exactly how it should work.”

 The mix of ages and demographics seems to work well as a cross section of children and adults converse and play.

“It is getting people out of isolation.”

“It is really important for these parents and young ones to have people to talk to and we say it all the time with playgroup, but if you’ve got kids there, you’ve already got a conversation starter. It’s not difficult. You walk into a party and it’s all adults it can be really difficult by yourself, but if you’ve got your kids there, straight away it’s how old are they, what’s their name, you’ve already got the starts of a friendship. From the school’s point of view I think it’s important because they are reaching out to other people in their community. Often, they only see the families when the child is school ready, so they are getting in early in a community sense.”

Through the school, the playgroups are involved: in school fetes, musical performances, book week. The little ones are wide eyed and bushy tailed, their interest piqued.

“It doesn’t even matter if they don’t end up coming to this school, it is the fact that they have been in a school environment, they’ve got comfortable with that- all schools are different and have their differences but the fact that they are going to the playgroup in a school, they already have an idea about what a school is like and it’s safe and it’s fun and there’s a playground, there’s things to do and great bands come and visit and all of that sort of thing. Next week we’ve got the school choir coming to sing to the playgroup,” said Maureen.

The children here are picking up on many subtleties. Especially as they move from baby to toddler. They swiftly transition from sound forming to word forming and read emotional cues. They are watching and trying things out. They have someone to look up to. Maureen remarks that every week is a little bit different as it continues to evolve.

Last year the playgroup really struggled. The space wasn’t right, and the interest wasn’t yet formed. This year has been revolutionary as the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were placed in the right spot.

“It is quite natural, it is just what we do here now. We are a part of the school community. I love it. I think it’s great. I am quite passionate about playgroup in schools. There are so many benefits.”

Often playgroup is considered a side activity, not a part of a child’s formal learning journey but Playgroups in Schools acknowledges that it indeed is. It bridges the gap and readies children for all that is to come. It is also a vital connect for parents, as Maureen has discovered.

“I think it’s important that people know that there are pathways in communities. Some people feel too overwhelmed coming into a busy, active area where people already know one another, it could be really overwhelming for some people.”

Maureen has come to think that playgroup is vital for the parents, for their connect, their self-care, their well-being- as the children learn and grow as they go.

“I have totally switched my thinking. I think 90% of playgroup is for the adults.”

 “I don’t think people are aware, they know the term playgroup, but they don’t know what we do.”

“People still don’t know that there’s different types of playgroups they don’t understand how easy it can be. I think they feel like it might be a bit more formal like long day care and with fee complications so that’s where we have to really promote playgroup.”

In regional and rural areas especially, the lack of connect can be burdensome. Playgroup aims to reconnect and re-establish community bonds, all while nurturing a child’s development.

“We’re really keen to visit the back blocks. There’s people in parts of Victoria who are so isolated, they’ve moved there because there’s cheap housing, they haven’t got transport- we want to get in the van and do a road trip and visit all of those playgroups saying here we are, we’re coming and do the Pop-Up playgroups. That would be our dream!”

Tim Winton learnt to swim alongside his Mum. The ever reliable. Decades later he was the one she relied upon:

‘Connected. As if this simple pleasure carried more power and more meaning than even I gave it credit for. It was a reminder that creaturely delight is our first and final expression of reverence for life.’

It is a full circle thing and at playgroup, there is a lot of cross over. The reliability of parent and child, child and parent, the connect. Realisation may come later however the connect is meaningful now and will remain so in many years to come.

“It’s not as an added extra we are just considered part of the school, that’s just how it is” said Maureen with a shrug and a smile.

Article by Sinead Halliday

References:

Winton, T, 2018, The swimming chair, viewed 16 December 2018, https://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/tim-winton-the-swimming-chair-20181212-p50lo8.html

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