Unhurried Time Together in Buningyong
In a little place called Buningyong on Ballarat’s outer fringe, generations come together. Shared experiences over the years, some joyful, some challenging, have solidified the connect.
The playgroup still catches up some twenty-odd years later. There are new faces; many of the original members now with grandchildren in tow.
“I love calm, unhurried play and the best sound for me is a child that can sing while they play.”
Out in the back garden, this is the exact soundtrack of the day. Maree Ryan’s grandson Hudson is pottering about, to the melody of his own tune.
“Hudson was role playing and singing in the sandpit, fully absorbed. That is how I used to love to parent- you create the environment and once their trust and sense of security is established, you adopt different roles. You are in the play some of the time, you are participating, and then a lot of the time they are in their own little zone but so content. Just beautiful,” smiles Maree.
For decades, Maree and her husband Marty Ryan have nurtured a sense of security and calm in their home and local district in Buningyong, on the outskirts of Ballarat. They form part of an intergenerational community, one that stems from the early days of playgroup.
“Initially, we had all come from somewhere else. We didn’t know anyone else and we just helped each other,” said Maree.
“None of us had much money. I have memories of going around to Dianne and Brian’s and the kids all just loved each other and hey have grown up together.”
Last year Maree’s daughter married and two of her bridesmaids were friends from playgroup.
“They are like sisters. They are like our nieces.”
Those early connections were partly out of necessity and proximity. It was also simple- they really loved to spend time together.
“We would share meals, visits to the park, weekends away. There were no frills, our primary focus was the children’s health and happiness. They were busy, messy, tiring and fun times!”
“Regardless of where you are, I think the need to feel connected, and find common links, is universal,” said Maree.
Some of these playgroup families have overlapped and stayed close over the years.
The effort to spend time together, that commitment, whether knowingly orchestrated or otherwise happenstance, has imprinted a sense of identity and belonging in the parents and their children, and now their grandchildren.
In 2001, when a lot of the parents turned 40, a new tradition was born. Around 10 or 12 families travelled to Cave Hill Creek together. It was a camp, people had weddings there occasionally.
There were facilities and equipment and it all looked out over a big lake where families would canoe. There was also a lot of space. A lot of fresh air. Time to slow. That “unhurried time” that Maree speaks of.
They all went to Cave Hill Creek for 12 years, enjoying table tennis, walks, canoeing, swimming, lots of food, and concerts.
“The kids have really fond memories of that and then everything reaches a point where it outlives itself. There are no regrets about finishing this tradition- it had served its purpose.”
Time moves on, but those connections have held strong.
After that, Maree’s husband Marty organised trips to Apollo Bay where the couples would stay in the big old convent that underwent a sizeable renovation, the old Mercy Nuns holiday house, well known to locals.
“It’s amazing. For the last four or five years the parents have gone down there for weekends, which has been beautiful.”
“Like any group who know each other well, it’s easy. Some are amazing cooks,” said Maree, in the amicable way that old friends do.
“There is no pressure, and generally, we all bring way too much food. Couples feel comfortable to do their own thing: sleep, read, talk, watch footy. The shared meals are a highlight.”
Extending off from that core group are series of smaller connections. The men swim sometimes in the mornings, or the Tuesday night tennis where they have dubbed themselves ‘The Vikings’. This seemingly incidental, relational camaraderie carries significance.
“Several of the men have welfare related roles and are mindful of the need for creating and maintaining connections between men,” said Maree.
Some of these men are now grandfathers. The shared connections prevail.
Maree’s grandson loves when she talks about when his dad was a little boy.
He is now playing in the same sandpit (“new sand!”) that neighbours and friends from the original playgroup gathered around. There would lots of water, sand, pipes, equipment and animals to play with.
“He loves to know that his Dad played there.”
The continuity through the generations is reassuring. Maree’s husband Marty came home early one day and retrieved a big cardboard box for his grandson. It became part of the narrative. It was the oven.
“Marty was dipping in and out of play with them and then I was inside having a bit of a tidy up and then I came out and had to look at their cakes and so on. We just flipped in and out of play with them.”
That presence gives the children confidence and freedom, all the while knowing they are safe. The sense of security has helped over the years as circumstances change and challenges rise up. It solidifies the connections.
“Thinking about our original friendships, which is a long time ago, I think when you are all going through similar things, we all lived through the accidents and the illnesses, the worries and all the joys of course, too. It’s not like it is all Little House on the Prairie or anything, but for me, and for the others, playgroup was a good thing to alleviate isolation and loneliness.”
“Everyone had their own story, about why they had moved here. It meant we all had left somewhere.”
For Maree and Marty is was during an interest rate spike in 1989-1990 that they decided to move to Buningyong.
Maree’s parents had bought land near Ballarat, so they visited the area. They loved old houses and found what they were after. It was not easy to make the move out of Melbourne and away from family and friends. Playgroup was a natural phenomenon that followed.
“We would meet every Friday and that lasted a few years. We had varied ages and numbers of children, and work commitments. Then there were more children that came along. The eldest of the children started going to school and some of us were up there doing reading and things like that and the younger siblings would come along.”
“It used to pretty casual and we all donated bits and pieces and then the church gave us a bit of money to get some materials and things.”
It petered out for a little while and then it was reinstated in people’s homes.
“By this stage we were all helping each other out and babysitting. Some of us had become really good friends and the kids would have sleepovers and all that sort of stuff. Like most families, we juggled work and family commitments.”
Flash forward to 2019 and that original playgroup has changed somewhat, but it still runs on Fridays, with a handful of the original members, and others attending.
It is flexible and inclusive, with a range of people dipping in and out, and tends to be every fortnight, rather than weekly. Depending on work, family, children/grandchildren. Everyone is welcome to attend.
“It is completely optional, and we normally have a little roster and sometimes we might go out on the Friday night instead of having it on the Friday morning.”
On this particular morning, after a busy week, Maree opts to stay home and catch up on a few things, arranging to meet up with original playgroup members Jenny and Dianne later on.
There is a calm to this adult playgroup.
Years before the playgroup was easy going, they had enough to keep the children occupied and they had lots of space: “so pretty simple sort of things,” remembers Maree.
“When I reflect on this, because I mind my grandchildren now too, we have really chill-sort of days.”
“Sometimes we will drive somewhere or go to a park, or have a walk, but I keep it pretty calm and I read the signs of what they would like and we just potter around inside and outside.”
“Our inside space is set up for lots of different play spaces, so we can spread out.”
Maree observes the weight of expectations on parents these days. There is so much information and apps to keep track of, so many organised classes to attend. Ballet, swimming, running: “the pressure is related to expectations, work, finances, juggling it all.”
“I think the expectations are a lot higher on everything- material things, experiences. Our parents would have said that about us probably, that our children had a lot more than we did when we were children, that generational sort of thing.”
Yet, what Maree is observing is part of a growing trend. Working schedules have progressed. Information comes thick and fast through phones. Technology links us all, but also directs our attention inwards.
“I think the access to so much information, I think it must be mind boggling.”
“A lot of the time when you are a parent, regardless of age or education or anything, you are so emotionally involved that you obviously want the best for your child- so a lot of the time you are worrying.”
“Despite having an early childhood background, and Marty being a teacher and very child oriented, we still spent a lot of time not sure about things and worrying and hoping we were doing it right and all of that.”
After looking after her grandsons, Maree often likes to text their Mother.
“I was telling her what beautiful conversations Hudson and I had and how we often talk about both extended families, including our family, and her family, to situate where he belongs.”
“He said to me, “Yah Yah”, because that’s what they call me, “We’re like two teams aren’t we” and I said, “Yeah, we really are and we all love each other” and he said, “Yep, I know that.”
“He was really calm and secure. I love telling his mum those little snippets of the boys feeling of self-identity and where they fit and that they feel loved”.
Her younger grandson Charlie is not quite ready for childcare yet so spends Friday’s alternating between his two grandmothers.
“I am so grateful that Charlie lets me into his little circle of trust and that we are part of his tribe.”
“I remember as a parent, feeling like the early years would continue forever, but as a Grandparent, I really know how they are such a short period.”
Maree explains that things happen along the way but those constants, those close friends, see you through.
“It is pretty much warts and all, it is not like we haven’t had any problems or worries. We have all had our ups and downs, but it is knowing that despite how crappy you might feel or look, or whatever is happening with work or health or family- there is someone you can sit down with and share and know they are not going to judge you or vice-versa and if you need to you can have a teary. I feel very lucky, really.”
Childhood is a most defining part of life. To know that you are loved carves out some nous that enables us to survive in the challenging world that lies ahead.
As time unfurls, life is not always kind or simple. It is a maze of layers, each with unique hurdles and challenges. Knowing that you are loved and supported, keeps us sturdy.
“It has really been good when I reflect back on it,” said Maree. No doubt, her children would agree.
Article by Sinead Halliday