Young people often hear they need more experience in the workforce. To gather experience, there needs to be opportunity to connect with the subject. There needs to be time. In any role, people need time to adjust, settle, learn and practice. At Box Hill Institute there is a haven where opportunities to learn and play are plentiful as children and students come together to develop, learn and bond at Playbox playgroup.

The playgroup is nestled up above the concrete jungle of Box Hill, where trams trundle by and people rush to class or to the nearby shops or hospital, heads full of thoughts. This playgroup held on the third story of an 80’s brick building provides repose from the hustle and bustle of the outside world that is inner suburbia.

Playbox is a new playgroup and Darren Varley played a leading role in getting it up and running.

"Darren has really shepherded this playgroup. The playgroup has been a decade in the making. It is a real labour of love, a long-held dream,” said Playgroup Engagement Manager, Justine Jones.

With over 20 years of experience working in the early years field, Darren persevered with his idea about interactive training, incorporating hands-on schooling, onsite. Prior to that, students were practicing with dummies.

“The students were given dolls to practice on, and they were asked to put a nappy on the doll and other such things- it was not real,” said Justine.

This imitative, make-believe environment prepared the students, yet it did not match the reality. The subtleties of human touch, facial expression, and interaction cannot be replicated. The nuances that the students observe and learn about in detail are invaluable when they move forward, and situations arise where authentic expertise is required.

The playgroup has been in a trial phase to see how it would work, particularly to establish the teacher and student outcomes. The faculty got the green light for this semester to see how it goes. So far, the positives are strong. Darren is buoyed by this.

“It is a really good learning tool for us and for the teachers too because they can use examples from the playgroup and refer back to them.”

“From a teaching perspective, it is great for the students to be assessed in the playgroup environment.”

Darren saw the potential early on for a playgroup.

“We have that point of different in the TAFE community, having those different resources. We have a few more strings to our bow I guess, given we are not an ordinarily run playgroup.”

“We are in a unique situation being a training organisation. The parents that use this service have access to a wealth of Early Childhood knowledge and resources. Our teaching staff have over 100 years of combined experience in the field. Parents have tapped into this with various questions around sleep and settling, routine, food choices and general developmental information. Add to that our students also play an active part in the playgroup sessions. Parents see our program as value added playgroup that perhaps others cannot,” said Darren.

Justine echoes Darren’s thinking as she observes how the Box Hill Institute enhances the playgroup with their resources and education.

“This playgroup gives families access to people who have the most up-to-date information and are ready to bring it into practice,” said Justine.

Two to three students are assigned to each playgroup session. Darren said that they have already seen the benefit of the social interaction. The students are enriched with the parental aspect of the equation, too.

“In the playgroup the students have a direct and ongoing link to the parents without too much restriction so that they can engage freely with them and build connections.”

Justine describes the relaxed atmosphere as parents chat happily while their children play freely.

“Some families come from backgrounds where free play is not valued as highly as formal learning. The importance of play is illustrated and valued in the playgroup space.”

Early childhood teachers and Diploma of Early Childhood Education and Care students have chosen to work in this field because they enjoy the early years. At Playbox playgroup they are encouraged to engage and to learn, as are the children, parents and carers- and most importantly, everyone is encouraged to enjoy themselves. From a mental health perspective, the playgroup throws a wonderful radiance across the community, regardless of age.

Darren also notes that this program helps students who are struggling to attain confidence in a supported environment. Once again, this applies to the children and parents, too. The space allows growth and with time, beautiful blooming.

Justine speaks of the trees outside the playgroup window up on the third story. Green as far as the eye can see. A tree house of sorts. There is no outdoor area, but the outdoor space is welcomed in. This training facility is not an unharnessed workplace, but it still allows everyone to experience all the senses as they peer out at the trees, imagine, dream, play and develop together, throughout the changing of the leaves.

Article by Sinead Halliday

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