It is a relaxed atmosphere on this autumn day in Melbourne. Sun drapes across the grassy embankment, drawing dappled shade beneath the tall trees. Children point and gesture, grasping at their parents’ hands, leading them down to a muggy bog. The children find this of great interest. They squish their feet in, they squelch, they grab leaves and paint upon the dry ground. They could be artist Gauguin or Picasso for the morning. Or they could simply be a young child revelling in the shapes and expression; the cause and effect. Sticks are at once oars beside their canoes, wands in their magical world and tools of explorers. Before they know it, playgroup is over for the week. So quickly time flies when these kids are outdoors, imagining, having fun.     

The Merri Creek Bush Playgroup gathers twice a week, three if there is enough interest. The locations range around the gumtree laden Northcote area. Merri Park is one of their favourite places to settle. It is on Wurundjeri land. What was once a non-descript dirt expanse is now a carefully crafted landmark. It does not appear landscaped and that is part of its charm. The playgroup meets in what appears to be an old camping area affectionately named the ‘The Magical Circle’ with logs and a handmade cubby nook. Rocks and logs have been strategically placed for play. Learning is occurring in every moment.

Zoe Metherell was one of the four founding members of the group. She been attending since her baby boy was 8 months old. She said that the bush playgroup has been one of the best things for her and her son.

“It is the human connection side, making friends, coming every week to see each other and playing outside. You feel good afterwards, you do not feel frazzled.”

Fellow playgrouper Sophie Audren echoes Zoe’s sentiment.

“I think it is easier to go talk to new people if you want to, but also just to do your own thing with your child on the days when you have had two hours sleep the night before and cannot string two words together.”

Sophie attributes this relaxed atmosphere to being outside in the sun, in the fresh air, in the wind and away from the noise of traffic. She said that it has a way to lift her mood and make her happy, which in turn makes it easier to go and talk to people.

There is something about being in the sunshine, in the fresh air, in the rain, on the grass, by the river- it is freeing. All of those preconceived worries seem smaller in comparison to the tall trees, the big clouds and the space. There is space to breathe, to spread out, and most importantly, to relax and play.

Sophie has noticed that bush playgroup has made her more relaxed as a Mum. She said that it makes her calm down and be in the moment.

“It got us out of the house and playing in nature every Friday, for over a year and a half. Even if we are very active and social, some days a stay-at-home mum ends up not talking to anyone apart from her barista and it is good to know that, come Friday, we get to catch up with our friends and, for the mums, to have adult conversations! It has greatly helped see me through some of the difficult phases of raising a toddler!”

Sophie said that the playgroup creates common ground, making every family feel supported and accepted. 

“Even if everyone comes from different horizons- different country of origin, different life, different parenting experience- we find that most families are sharing enough common values to create a nice and comfortable spirit for the group. These values being respect for the environment and a desire to share it with our children, as well as respect for people, a willingness to let our children play freely in nature, take risks and get dirty.”

The playgroup is based around unstructured play, yet this does not mean that the children are left entirely to their own devices. The parents are only a few steps behind, providing the kids with ideas. “Look at that funny shaped stick. What other funny shaped sticks can we find?” or “Let’s imagine we are animals living in this cubby!” For the most part, the children are happily absorbed in their own learning and imaginative play.

Zoe has watched on and notices that the unstructured play is something that people find most novel.

“It’s not telling them what to do and the parents say, "Oh, they just played" and I’m like, "Yeah!”.

“You can do more of what you want to do and now I notice there is more imaginative games and that kind of thing, especially if older kids come.”

Zoe also observes just how the physicality of outdoor play benefits the children who run about and take risks.

“Being able to jump off a rock and being able to run on uneven ground when you are younger, all those things I think are the foundational things, aren’t they?”

Zoe’s son has a habit of wandering off, not on purpose, but purely out of curiosity to go further, see more and try more. This regular activity and exertion from a young age has enabled his physical development to excel and as such, he is able to teach and help others who want to follow along and play with him. It will also hold him in good stead as he moves onto school and participates in sport.   

Zoe said that the playgroup caters to children of all different abilities.

"We have had some disabled children attend and they can join in just as much. That is the other thing that is really nice about bush playgroup focused on unstructured play, it is very inclusive.” 

Another bush playgroup regular is Alex Tivaer who has twin girls. They like to stay close by their mums side but they are still acquiring so many skills.

Alex liked the idea of a midwife who suggested that she lays her babies under the trees and allows them to watch the leaves.

“That was the first time that I really thought about outdoor space from when they were really young and they just loved it.”

Alex originally came to the bush playgroup thinking that it was mainly for her. She could come and have a chat and get some fresh air between her daughter’s naps, which were at first sporadic.

As Alex’s girls have got older she can see how the outdoor play increasingly benefits them as they develop.

"We are really big campers and bush walkers and love that kind of stuff so it was a nice little introduction to that sort of thing of getting dirty, having free play and using your imagination. Now the girls love it as much as I have!"

Many playgroups sprout up from pre-existing mother’s groups and Alex points out that the bush playgroup opens doors for Dads.

“I like the fact that there are often dads as well as mums. That’s really great and I think that there is more of that in this than other playgroups, just because of the nature of it I guess.”

“It is definitely an easier space for dads to step into, not that I think that other playgroups are not welcoming, I do not think that but I find that it lends itself to something that dads might take up, perhaps more so than other playgroups.”

On a personal note, Alex said that it is really important for her family to slow down and take their time, a commodity that can be hard to come by in a world that is now defined by its busyness. The bush playgroup helps her to do so. 

As the morning draws to a close, the playgroup gathers in the cubby house for storytime. The children and parents go home with a sense of contentment. That time, giving the children time and themselves time, to be and to think and to play, is precious. Each parent echoes this. To slow down. To chat. To observe. To connect and have fun.

 “I have created so many memories at Merri Creek Bush Playgroup. I know I will look back on this time with fond memories!”

Article by Sinead Halliday

P.S. Are you interested in joining the Merri Creek Bush Playgroup? They are looking for new members, especially on Fridays. Email merribushplay@gmail.com to find out more and get involved!