A Day Out At St Patrick’s Gordon

On the cusp of winter, snow fluttered down upon the school grounds in Gordon. Tall pines watched over the back oval, standing strong against the wind chill as they have done for around a hundred years. Chooks potter and peck happily over the wayside. The rooster cries out, as if to the children racing by, imploring them to slow down on the slippery slope. One child slips but in a moment is up again, skipping across the oval towards her friends.

The 41 children attending St Patrick’s Primary School in Gordon are gifted with great freedom, their school perched on undulating land with green pastures. It is home to a variety of trees and wildlife. A small red breasted robin lands on the back fence that leads to paddocks and then to hills. It looks left and right. A young girl watches it from the other side of the fence and smiles. There is lots to see and lots that feeds the imagination out here in Gordon, twenty minutes from Ballarat.

This is the kind of place where the principal comes to feed the goats on a Sunday, only to find a family already there, ensuring that they have had a feed and their enclosure is ready, safe from the cold blast.

The playgroup has been running here since the start of term one and each week the children are treated to something different. Meeting new people. Creating bonds and establishing friendships. Painting. Storytime. Exploring outside. Observing the older primary kids. Feeding the animals. Celebrating mother’s day or other such events.

On this particular morning, after much excitement of playing in the dusting of snow, the group gathers back in their large, multi-purpose room, full with toys and a little kitchenette.

“We’ve got many spaces here,” said Principal Bambi Afford.

“There’s an undercover sandpit, we have the goat enclosure that the kids just like to go and feed the goats and the chickens- and just a big space, so if the weather is a better, there’s lots of opportunities for learning.”

Bambi has been the Principal at St Patrick’s Gordon for three years and is fully embracing the role. At the start of the day she was classroom teaching, then came in to say hello to all the playgroupers and had the children enraptured during her storytime.

“For me, to open our building up to the community was, I thought it was a no brainer, the sensible thing to do as there was a need in the community.”

“We had lots of pockets of playgroups but they weren’t really getting anywhere and some of that reason was because it was too small, too cold, just not enough push for them to get going and they weren’t attended very well, whereas we have a great space here and the kids can be warm, we have a kitchen, we have an outdoor space for the summer- so plenty of room, plenty of spaces and opportunities for learning so I just thought why not start a playgroup.”

“It is a central gathering place for the community.”

Bambi has had the help and support of Playgroup Development Consultant Maree Ryan who works at Buningyong Playgroup, too. Maree has great warmth to her and like Bambi, is really invested in the families, and their stories.

“We have noticed too, it has only been going for a few weeks, but from the first week the parents are engaging a lot more with each other and are a lot more relaxed,” said Maree.

The two women have observed how genuine connections form, this having a ripple effect on the capacities of the parents, their wellbeing, their happiness, and that of their children.

“They start to develop friendships and the kids start to develop friendships,” said Bambi.

“I think that’s why that’s important, too. We have some mums that haven’t been here before and come and the other mothers have welcomed them in so quickly and beautifully that they now feel very comfortable and confident to come here. We have had a couple that are new to the area so playgroup has been a great way for them to meet people in the area and start some new friendships that way.”

“For their wellbeing, they get to come out, they get to meet people and perhaps have conversations about parenting, some of the struggles they might have, so it is an opportunity for them to connect.”

Maree has also done a series of Parents’ Early Education Partnership talks (PEEP) that have proved to be really useful and relatable.

“That has been a great way for parents to get some new learning and in a non-threatening environment,” said Bambi.

“They have been learning some new things but feel more confident asking because they have developed some of those relationships and they don’t feel concerned I guess about asking a question that they might think, I don’t really know about this but I’ll ask because I feel really comfortable with these people.”

For the families attending, they love the country life and being close, to each other, to family, to the community, to nature.

“The school is very friendly, too. They make it very welcoming,” said mother of three Sarah.

“There’s something about friends and family that makes a big difference that you have known have forever. When you friends start having kids, it is a different stage of your life.”

“You come back for family, I think. It is a very pretty spot, too.”

Gordon is home to a general store, a post office, a hall, a pub and two schools. For the families, this is all part of its appeal. Ballarat is 20 minutes down the road.

“We are lucky because we are so close to the city, it only takes us an hour to get down there. You feel like you’ve got the city on our doorstop anyway- we can go to a show or to the footy. We are in a good location. We don’t feel like we can’t go to the footy.”

Peg wonders how parents juggle the city life with kids.

“I don’t know how you can. Even just driving around…,” her thought trails off as she looks at her daughter playing at her feet.

“I couldn’t think of her going without a backyard. She spends the majority of her time outside. She is just in and out, comes and goes as she wants, jumps on the trampoline.”

“We are an hour from the beach or Melbourne- we are in a really good spot. It is so easy and accessible, train-wise as well.”

For these mother’s, they love that they can pop down to the playgroup and have a chat while their kids play.

“It’s close to home. I love how everything is close. It’s a great space,” said Sarah.

“We have the best of both worlds and can get out if we need to (laughs)”

Of course life down here comes with the complexities of all human life, for that none of us are immune, but things are simplified. There’s no traffic jams. There’s no race to the shopping centre. Time moves differently as there is more of it. Nature encircles the town and nestles down around the playgroup and the school. The goats await their next meal happily and the children come to known the familiar rhythms of the school day.

“I do think that early education is so important so for kids to start to interact together and learn some socialisation skills in this environment is a great thing for them,” observes Bambi.

“It is a good Segway into learning about school and what they need to do in a school environment- sharing, a bit of playing…”

There’s something about the fresh air out here. It is not for everyone, but for those who are drawn to life off to main highway, it feels like home. For those having a childhood out here, their lives will be enriched. They may not always remain but they will take a part of their childhood experiences with them, always.  

“I am a country girl at heart,” said Bambi.

“We have been in school communities so I know how they operate and I love them so I was very fortunate to come out here and take on this role.”

Article by Sinead Halliday