Development, Inspiration, Projects
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The influence of Playcentre

Kiwis are widely renown for their own brand of ingenuity and self sufficiency on account of the historical remoteness and limited resources available to this predominantly farming land. “Kiwi ingenuity” can be summed up by the legendary status of the no. 8 gauge fencing wire and a bit of 2×4 wood (“World famous in New Zealand”)! But you could add the remarkable story of the Playcentre Federation to this list, and the Early Years success story started by mothers in World War II.

The early days

Kelburn Playcentre

Children at Kelburn Playcentre. Ref: 114/150/04-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.

Playcentre was founded in 1941 by a group of mothers – Joan Wood, Inge Smithells and Beatrice Beeby – who were trying to overcome the problems that they, as young mothers, were experiencing with preschool children; their need of support, company and education whilst their husbands were fighting overseas in the 2nd World War.

They decided to set up a playcentre with a trained preschool supervisor who would be supported by a roster of mothers to allow the other mothers to leave their children and have time to do the chores they could not do with young children.

And this is the ingenious part of Playcentre’s success – it was through the mothers involvement that they grew interested in child development, the importance of play in the early years, and aware of the vital role community played for these young mothers and families.

Playcentre started out as two afternoons a week in a Wellington suburb with a supervisor and two helping mothers, sessions of 12 kids and a ‘membership’ of 56. Due to it’s immediate success three months later the “New Zealand Playcentres Association” was boldly formed.

“Kiwi ingenuity” at its best – they took a simple and universal need and sorted out a solution with the ingredients available to them.

Playcentre today

Now there are 489 Playcentres firmly rooted in the New Zealand culture and education system (and 10 in Japan) run by groups of parents providing early years education and support to young families.

Its purpose now is three fold.

  • The running of Early Childhood Education Centres providing early years education (0-6yrs) in a safe and secure learning environment with the emphasis on child initiated play and the importance of families as the first and most important educators of their children.
  • Providing Adult Education to Parents that emphasises self-help and personal development. The education covers areas such as child development, play and learning, parenting skills, planning and delivering early childhood education programmes, group and facilitation skills and management skills.
  • Educational Publications. Playcentre provides publications and resources primarily to enable Playcentre members to enhance their parenting skills and train towards gaining their early childhood care and education qualifications. In addition such resources are available for other individuals or organisations, particularly those involved in the field of early childhood education.

In practise

A typical session will take place in the local Playcentre – in my case this was a gorgeous grey and white painted wooden Victorian villa in Hataitai, a suburb in Wellington given over to child’s play. Here the sessions are committed to the children learning through child initiated play in mixed age sessions. The Playcentre philosophy views children as people who learn best through autonomous free choice play. The children are in charge of their play and it is important they experience personal power and a sense of autonomy. It was always creative and exciting to watch the children evolve and develop play themes.

The belief is that the long term consequence of this philosophy will be that children grow up to become adults who make their own decisions, direct their own lives and maintain positive relationships with others. Parents are involved in the careful scaffolding of the play and are trained to observe when to support the child and when to stand back and let the child fly.

I can still feel the rush of excitement and possibility I felt when I entered the villa. Set in a garden filled with typical kiwi flora; tree ferns, cabbage trees and flax with drift wood and stone sculptures scattered amongst the foliage. The space is devoted to kids and their play, with spacious sandpits (min 3m x3m), large shade clothes, a play ground area and excellent water play areas.

Playcentre highlights key learning areas in child play and the villa was devoted to these areas.
We had a library where the books, puzzles and quiet play area was, (here also was a little bedroom with a cot for naps).

In the main area was space for painting which was taken very seriously and easels with good quality pigments on large sheets of good quality paper allowing for full physical involvement were always provided. Paintings were often mounted on coloured paper and neatly named and dated in the corners. Collage, with use of real scissors, clay with real clay and modelling tools, hand made salt play dough, and a whole area for finger painting and other creative variations including my favourite – junk construction!

There was an area for soft play with large soft play obstacles, music and movement with proper percussion instruments and ukuleles, a kitchen and eating area and here, in this more domestic space, was also the role play, dressing up and cooking section.

On the porch was a covered play area for woodwork – with proper tools (you can’t learn anything hammering a nail with a plastic hammer…) and a child’s height work bench, a substantial and flexible water play area and as I have already mentioned the sumptuous sandpits, the ride on area and the shed filled with props for playing.

It was a wonderful atmosphere to be in, a community nurturing and playing together. So simple.

For further information please visit the Playcentre Federation.

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