Spring flowers tumble unruly over the pavement. Children skip and race by, allowing the fragrance and the morning sunshine to wash over them. Two friendly faces wave over the fence. 100 metres down the road, a bustling streetscape hurries by, but a few doors down, there is a peaceful calm. Throughout the morning, little feet patter into Gumnuts playgroup. The time flies by as the children busily potter about, playing. Trees line the front fence, throwing dappled shade across the outdoor area. A quaint cubby house resides in the corner, inviting the children to play make believe and mimic their Mums and Dads, developing many skills as they do so.   

“Gumnuts has been set up to provide a natural indoor and outdoor space, which resonates so brightly with the Australian way of life,” said playgroup President Anna Volaris.

Anna considers her involvement at Gumnuts playgroup as somewhat serendipitous. After a long chat with her maternal health nurse and then committee member Alice, followed by a tour around the light filled space, Anna knew it was the place for her family.

“As evidenced by my son’s tears when it was time to leave – each and every time (bless him).”

The families gather at Gumnuts, exchanging stories and niceties as the children explore and chitter chatter amongst themselves.

“It’s just lovely to watch your children play as you sip your coffee and relax with the other mums after a long night.”

It is a simple get together, but the listening, learning and loving is manifold.

There is a naturalness to Gumnuts. As the title suggests, there is an Australian sentiment entwined in the philosophy and the environment plays a big role in the playgroups existence. The toys at Gumnuts are either made of natural wood or recycled materials. They have been kindly donated by member families, Jane and her team at the neighbouring Stonnington Toy Library, fundraising activities and government grants via the local member, Kelly O'Dwyer's, office. 

“This is important as it underpins our mission to provide as natural environment as possible for our member families as a foundation for curious, creative, independent play and experimental learning– from a shed full of fun ride on toys which improve balance and coordination, to a cubby house to encourage role play and imagination and from there we build on children’s social skills through collaboration, communication, sharing and empathy.”

Gumnuts also provides a generous selection of art supplies for the budding artists among the group. Art Play is hosted by committee member Fiona on a regular basis. On this particular morning it is messy play day. It is utterly refreshing to see the children revel in the mess without restraint. Anna happily chats on to other parents as her son presses his paint covered hands onto her jeans. It is no big deal. Anna is carefree. It all comes out in the wash. For now, it is complete merrymaking, in its most pure sense.

There is no fuss as the playgroup morning draws to a close. The members thoughtfully help to tidy the area together. There is no stress about the piles of toys or the paint on the concrete because it is not the sole responsibility of one person. Here at playgroup, there is a shared empathy and understanding. There is shared knowledge of the hard work and toil that goes on in the home with small children, but at playgroup it is a different atmosphere. Parents are encouraged to leave their worries about the washing and to-do lists at the door. The children have a wonderful ability to pull the parents into the present in this setting. Everyone is allowed to let go a little bit and to simply enjoy their time together during these few precious hours in the working week.

The playgroup is allocated the lovely space by the council within the Winter Street Community Centre. Anna observes that her members often acknowledge this and in turn show their gratitude by maintaining the premises and cleaning up after their use in such a thoughtful manner for the next member.

“Gumnuts playgroup is a thoughtful and empathetic community that functions well and I have no doubt this spirit is reinforced by little eyes and ears observing this.”

The parents and carers are leading by example, teaching the children and rewarding their gestures of kindness.

“My sense is that there is a kinship and sense of community that is shared amongst parents and carers that is observed and then emulated by our children through their play and the way they interact with each other. This is the best barometer for gauging whether we as mums are doing a great job – that we are raising kind and considerate children that will then grow up to be kind and decent people who treat each other respectfully.”

Many grandparents are beginning to join playgroup and Anna is a huge advocate. It is not a new concept; many countries dotted around the world raise a child in the village type idiom but in Australia it has not always been the way. Increasingly, grandparents are looking after their grandchildren. Anna said that she loves to see the grandparents participating in the playgroup, often when the Mums and Dads are at work. Interestingly, English is the second language for many grandparents in Melbourne. Anna takes great care to ensure that all families feel welcome. She felt spurned on to establish diverse cultural groups. Playgroup allows this sense of community to grow.

“Playgroup is an important community convener for all families and extended families in the modern world, in particular for grandparents. In Greece, they have a saying that grandchildren are your children twice over, which reinforces the abundance of love that grandparents feel for their child’s child. It also illuminates the fact that grandparents have much more to offer families and the community by being a major provider of childcare for working parents.”

“I can almost feel their sense of pride as they watch their children talking in English to other children and then coach them in their native language. I quickly learned that ‘meme’ is little sister in Chinese as they implore their grandchild to let meme have a turn of the rocking horse, as my enthusiastic one year old daughter makes a bee line for the toy. This is just one example (but my favourite) in what I have experienced with how playgroup helps and cares for families in the modern world.”

In addition, Anna outstretches her reach, welcoming people into the little Gumnuts village. Providing a source of information for families new to the area and/or Australia Anna is working with a number of cultural groups, such as Chinese, Indian, Greek and Spanish to date, to establish weekly cultural group sessions in order to convene family members who have recently arrived to Australia from the same country and wish to meet other families from their cultural group.

Anna is hoping to establish annual Chinese New Year celebrations, Indian Diwali or South American Carnival, for example, where all of the children can learn about the meaning of the cultural event, dress up and participate in these cultural festivities.

“Playgroup has played an important role for my family, post-mother’s group and pre-school years, in keeping us connected with other local families in our community who are experiencing a similar life stage to us. Playgroup is a wonderful convener for parents and carers who can get to know each other, obtain or offer support to each other as our children play together in a safe, community environment.”

The children happily depart, the outside world welcoming their stories as they go. The land beyond the front gate is full of wonder and fun. As they turn their faces up to their parents and grandparents, the happiness is shared, in all of its delicacy, boldness and beauty.

 “I am so honoured to be a part of this rich community spirit of parents, carers and volunteers,” said Anna.

Article by Sinead Halliday

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