Play now, work later


Disclaimer: This article shares my personal experiences whilst a Playcentre parent at my local Playcentre. It may not necessarily reflect the views of all Playcentre parents or the procedures/guidelines of each centre.

Life just feels like it’s all work and no play! Sound familiar? Sometimes, it can take that special something or someone to help us snap out apathy and back into action!
As our children grow up, they can’t help but get caught up in our world…but do we get caught up in theirs? There is a place in New Zealand where pre-school children can be children, where play is valued. That place is Playcentre.

A brief history

Here’s a little about how Playcentre became part of our heritage. Playcentre was first established in NZ in the 1940’s, after the second world war. Funded by the Ministry of Education, Playcentre puts parents as first educators of their children. As with other early childhood centres, it’s underpinned by a framework known as ‘Te Whariki’, which reflects four key principles of Empowerment, Family and Community, Relationships and Holistic Development. The responsibilities of running each Playcentre are shared among the parents.

A foundation for learning, not a fashion show!

Why would a parent volunteer to put on their gumboots, freakish clothes plastered with dye and bits of dried goo, and labour over pummelling playdough, dig trenches, dodge hoses and glue feathers, when they could simply drop their children off at Kindy or day-care and go about their day in peace?

It’s because Playcentre parents view play as the foundation from which children learn about the world – and they want to be involved in their child’s learning. There are benefits for parents too. For a stay-at-home parent with a young child, the local Playcentre is often the pinnacle of their community…providing a support network, two weeks of cooked dinners for Mums with new-borns, the opportunity to share information, gain parenting skills and for some, to re-learn how to play with their children.

Barriers such as ‘creating too much mess’ are removed. Playcentre is a place where all of a family’s pre-school children can go at once, with play set-ups that cater for different age groups, from baby to school age.

Why is play important?

Play is learning through doing. Self-expression in its purest form. Play is said to develop lateral thinking, initiative, creativity, resourcefulness.

Rather than be dictated to, children develop their own understanding of the world they live in, or ‘working theories’ as they’re called at Playcentre.

Let me paint you a picture

Three-year-old Carter sits at the table, sprinkling flour on a mountain of playdough. As a Playcentre kid, Carter feels a sense of belonging and is confident to ask for help or resources. “I want the lid off”, he tells me, pointing to the shaker. “I wonder what would happen if you shake it harder”, I reply. “If I take the lid is off, it will all come out at once.” “That’s Ok, he asserts back, it’s a volcano.”

Two-year-old Selina just loves to run amuck, exploring the colours and textures. She squeezes the bottle with her might, shrieking with delight as the dye blasts over the concrete. Down, down it goes, travelling faster and faster down the path, seeping into cracks, collecting in small puddles, falling between the slats of the deck. Now for some yellow, now green, now blue. She stomps all over it, colours flying everywhere, streaming, blending together.

Selina sinks her hand into a bowl of mixture that she says feels dry and powdery on her fingertips. She picks it up and watches as the mixture turns into super soft goo, watching it fall in clumps from her fingers, stringy globules falling onto the table.

Today, we built a fire in the sandpit, giving each of the children a stick with a marshmallow to toast. From painting and dye, bathing in glitter, smashing blocks of ice with a hammer, dressing up, running barefoot and throwing paint at paper, Playcentre offers a rich sensory environment, the ability to ‘get stuck in’, with the added bonus of Mum or Dad being close by. It’s the mixed age play, creativity, high level of parent involvement and community spirit that sets Playcentre apart, providing the opportunity to build solid and lasting friendships throughout the family.

Children at the centre

Playcentre play is child-led play, so parents may need to gauge when to dive in and when to bow out, especially as children get older. One of the tips I learnt early on is not to interpret a child’s painting for them. So rather than say, “Wow, what a lovely big sun you’ve painted, it is more apt to say “I can see two colours, yellow and orange. Tell me about your painting!”

The role of parents as educators

Of course, it’s not all play for parents! Parents plan, set up and support the play, then evaluate it at the end of the session. Supporting the play can involve adding more resources, such as paints, dyes or other materials, encouraging turn-taking or simply asking questions that help the child to express and build on what they’re learning. Parents write learning stories about their own and other children, sharing the learning that is observed for the child and identifying ways to extend it.

Major decisions are made through group consensus: everyone must feel that they can live with a decision before it is passed. There can be biased parents, different values and conflicts. And let’s not forget the public perception! While some people applauded us for playing with our kids, a few have been known to view Playcentre Mums as slightly crazy, a bunch of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, forever breeding Mums!

There are non-negotiable Playcentre ‘rules’, such as respecting people and property, respecting each other’s play and no hurting people. Although literacy is incorporated, it’s not impressed upon, as the general view is that there’s plenty of time to learn by rote, to memorise, recite and study.

It’s said that children learn best when they’re engaged. By engaging in the play instinct, we can develop strong, independent, creative thinkers.

To quote the words of George Bernard Shaw: We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing. Perhaps you could try it again yourself sometime?

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