Some people have a knack for making a space homely. The Kew Neighbourhood House playgroup and child care space has a familiarity and warmth to it. This has taken time. It has slowly grown alongside Denise Mitchell who has lovingly tended to its well-being for over a decade.

Concrete walls tower above a small house. The juxtaposition is a clear sign of progress. Apartment blocks now upsurge in unexpected places in the suburban sprawl. No longer are sky rise buildings an exclusive feature of inner city Melbourne as property developers seize financial opportunity elsewhere, and yet, the small community residing below this concrete giant is looking beyond its towering walls. Decades of collecting and creating have gone into the makings of the neighbourhood house below. The garden has patiently been attended to and the wooden chairs were handmade by the local Q Men’s Shed. A treasure trove of crockery, books, dress-ups, instruments, toys, cubby houses and art has lovingly found their place and purpose at Kew Neighbourhood house. Personal stories are tied to the possessions. In another life they may have been discarded, but here they are given a new life. There are so many things to discover and even as an adult standing in the wings, the imagination abounds. 

Much like a bowerbird collecting pretty things, Denise Mitchell is the architect behind this nest. Dainty and softly spoken, Denise is immediately non-threatening and gentle, making her a perfect candidate to work with young children, new parents, third-time parents, frazzled parents, grandparents and nannies, all of whom come here on a regular basis. Each week new and old families make their way into Denise’s sanctuary of which she has been the custodian for over a decade. She was swiftly swept away from her role as an industrial chemist after having children of her own. It was here at the Kew Neighbourhood Centre that she found great comfort and ease. She found her niche.  

“Swinburne resonated because it said all of the things I did at home with the sand, the water, the paint brushing on the wall was all good and fine to do so once I got that extra validation from doing my diploma I just grew more and it clarified things more- and the community, because I have known, not generations I am not that old, but I have known the older kids and younger ones and people who have a two year gap and then they come back and you remember them and they remember you and they have another different child- it is all that continuity.”

That continuity runs through the inside space, out to onto the paint canvases on the back deck and into the garden. Denise is asked if she is artistic. It is clear she is. She shakes her head explaining that she cannot paint- but the space she has created here is a work of art, and by looking around, it is sparking artistic creation every which way. Some children are absorbed in the worm farm, digging in the dirt huddled in the back corner under a canopy of green leaves while others play imaginative games in nooks full of a quaint bear statues and little nick-knacks. Budding artists, gardeners, designers, sport stars and happy-go-lucky cooks are practicing their craft here. It does not take long for a career shift to take place once the dress-up box is opened. The children are learning and trialling; finding their own way in the world.

“You can bring your own personality into it- what the parents think I am like, especially at the start, and what the children think I am like, are two entirely different things because you are just like their friends! I just really want that depth with them that is the really rewarding thing.”

Three little girls are playing a game in the nature corner by the back window: “This is the mummy elephant and this is the daddy and grandpa and his friends and here is the baby,” they commentate, not so much to each other but to themselves, totally engrossed in their ideas and imaginings.

Denise looks over at them and says, “I have collected those elephants over a long time. They are there to represent us, that we are all the same, but that we all look different and that is a good thing.”

“I come to work every day and love to see what is happening.”

So do the kids. There is nobody with their phone out. One tired Mother basks in the winter sunshine that drapes across the back lawn. She is calm knowing her child is safe here. Her daughter plays happily with the other children in the sand pit with trucks and spades while her mother rests. Another parent is having a tea party with her daughter. A Dad is on a grand adventure near the “pirate ship” and another group of Mums doodle on paper and chat idly as their children play at their feet and race about the garden, returning with stories and tales.

“I always make it free play because the room is so rich that there is always something for everyone, so the room itself does not change very much,” said Denise.

Denise remarks that people return years later and say that they place is still the same. That requires work: “To keep up the maintenance so that it still looks special and does not look wrecked.”

There is pride in appearance and that is respected. At the end of the session, parents and children help to pack things away in their rightful place.

A grandparent’s group runs here but they often stay on and join in with another playgroup. Denise thinks it silly to pigeonhole people, explaining that a mixture of families enhances the experience for everyone.         

“People come for different things and some people have not had an adult conversation for six weeks and they come and it’s good to connect with another adult- there is quite a kaleidoscope of things.”

“It is nice to have it mish-mash thing, like a society is really, and so just be welcoming to everyone.”

What works here is the provoking nature of the ‘things’- that and the time given to one another. A sign on the wall reads: “When we are too busy doing things for our children, we can forget how important it is to simply ‘be’ with them.”

Throughout the sessions over some weeks, Denise returns to the notion of quality time- not putting some washing on or cleaning up or running errands, but being present with your child.

“I always say, give them yourself when you are really with them, like that old chestnut, quality over quantity and it sort of is-  but it really is actually being there and when they are talking to you, you are actually listening to them, to really have that engagement.”

“And being in their world, not going out for breakfast, which is fine too, but doing something that they would rather do.”

As we look around at all the people playing and pottering happily, Denise shrugs and smiles.

“I have a passion I guess, that’s it.”

Article by Sinead Halliday