Learning to Play
A sea of daisies churns beneath Isla, Naomi and Mira sailing their ship at Mt Albert Playcentre. Every weekday, the doors of nearly 500 Playcentres open for similar adventures. For 70 years this volunteer-based movement has pushed the boundaries of learning in New Zealand, with philosophies of child-led play and a belief that parents are the child’s first and best educators.
The flat light of the morning presses down on the Hauraki Plains. Cows and canals signal that we’re close to Ngatea, where our morning’s work awaits: we’re here to get messy at the local Playcentre. I’m accompanied by a toddler, which has its pros and cons. Her tender age ensures objectivity, making her a good research assistant, but she displays little talent for long car trips. When the Ngatea Playcentre gate clangs shut, we are both relieved: she patters over to the swings with dolly tucked under one arm, while I catch the tail end of morning tea and get to know the mums and grandmothers attending the session.
For the uninitiated, Playcentre is an early childhood programme run by parents, not teachers; they cater for babies through to six-year-olds. The movement is a New Zealand invention, having operated for more than 70 years on the premise that, like many activities reserved for professionals in other countries, we’d rather do it ourselves here—in this case, DIY pre-school education.
The formula is to take a building, some basic play equipment and a gathering of energetic parents, gently mixing with a group of children. There are a few philosophical pillars that hold the whole thing together. Parent education is seen as vitally linked to the wellbeing of the child, so parents take part in an early childhood training programme. Other key tenets of the movement are an emphasis on self-direction and the value of sensory play, which I’ve come to understand can include (but is by no means limited to) getting paint in your hair, dancing in a downpour and squishing gumboots in cow pats.
The group at Ngatea Playcentre is small, reflecting the trend for today’s parents to choose drop-off childcare rather than a centre such as this that requires them to stay and help. Cheryl Harris is the centre’s longest-standing member and says she has “lived her life for Playcentre”—she’s seen four children and a dozen grandchildren through the Ngatea and nearby Kaihere-Patetonga centres. She explains that the roll was a lot larger in the past, when “we were all home on the farm and everyone used to come along”.
Despite a smaller uptake, the women I speak to throughout the morning are enthusiastic about the time they spend here. “It’s great to be able to play with the kids but still get to talk to other adults,” says Christine Beagley. “I tried kindy but you weren’t so welcome to stay, or get involved.” Selena Myers spends two days a week looking after her grandson and appreciates “spending one-on-one time with him here”, in what is such a varied play environment.
There’s certainly a lot more going on at the Ngatea Playcentre than the swings that prove so satisfactory to my own small accomplice. There’s a polar theme; hints of ice and snow are dotted around the centre. A large round trough is filled with green water, boats, sea creatures and blocks of ice—when we arrive, the children have just finished smashing them with hammers. Two mums sit with a group of kids at a low outdoor table, encouraging the children to take handfuls of the warm, gloopy white paint and smooth it around the finger-painting boards in what looks like a soothing and tactile experience. Children flit to and from activities, picking up dolls here and hammers there; there is sand play, stories and singing.
Three-and-a-half-year-old Reuben Dodunski has painted his arms white and crawls up and down on the deck, roaring like a polar bear. No one worries about cleaning him off.
“It’s all right, I like the emphasis on messy play here,” his mum says. “He was a dinosaur for nearly a year so everyone’s used to it.”
There’s an easy sense of friendship among the women at the session, although they’re a mix of long-term locals and new families. For Shelley Strawbridge, there have been social benefits for her whole family. “It’s not only for you; your children wouldn’t have such solid interactions without it. We were new to Ngatea when we joined but my older kids have made lifelong friends—they’ve moved off to school with them and we’ve stayed good friends with the families.”
At Ngatea and other Playcentres I spent time at, it was clear that support and friendship were selling points for mums. Children’s author Jennifer Beck told me about her first few weeks as a Playcentre mum in the 1980s: “Initially, all I wanted to do was sit at the edge of the sandpit with a cup of coffee and talk to another adult,” she remembers, adding that, 30 years later, she still meets regularly with two of the mums who became good friends.
Although women make up the majority of the adult roll in Playcentres, dads and grandads are also regular visitors, helping sessions and lending muscle power at working bees. Family events are planned into the calendar; Matariki, fish and chip nights, discos and dads’ days build a sense of the centre as a second home.
When it works well, the volunteer model can stimulate personal relationships that are proving increasingly rare in modern society, and especially important for recent immigrants. Malaysian-born Gayathri Vasanth says that Playcentre is helping her to find her feet as a New Zealander.
“Working in an office with Kiwis, we didn’t share our lives in the same way. At Playcentre, I’m learning so much because we talk about life—what we’re cooking for dinner and that kind of thing. I pick up cultural nuances all the time.”
Of course, bonhomie is not a given. Volunteering together can be intense, and every parent brings his or her own ideas and personality to the community, ensuring that each centre has a distinct culture at any given time. It doesn’t take much scratching around among the movement’s many enthusiasts to unearth parents who found the expectations of time and energy were too much. This often sits alongside a tendency for the Playcentre philosophy to be used, in unhealthier contexts, to divide rather than support—there are stories of overly zealous parents alienating newcomers with supercilious comments about what is and isn’t “The Playcentre Way”, or using the movement’s ideal of consensus decision-making to obstruct rather than enrich.
Evelyn Cornes, who attends Mangere Bridge Playcentre with her son, observes that there’s a perception that Playcentre is a lot of work, but this is partly a result of social expectation. “I’ve decided Playcentre is user-works, not user-pays,” she says. “If you don’t understand that there’s a fair amount of work involved, you’re going to be disappointed by the whole set-up; you have to understand that you put in as much as you get out of it.”
At its best, the volunteer context of Playcentre helps to create cycles of positive parenting within communities. Aynsley Cisaria sole-parents her three children and emphasises the benefits of being around experienced parents, recalling how, as a new mum, she “became the shadow” of a mother at her centre who she felt “really had it together”. Gayathri Vasanth, too, has become more adventurous as a parent. “In our culture we don’t let children play with water in case it makes them sick, but it’s seen as a positive way to learn here. I never thought I would put my child in a jacket and let them play in the rain or let them play with water in a trough. When I talk to my friends in Malaysia, they can’t believe what I let my kids do. I think they’re a lot better off this way.”
Although almost all parents begin their time in the Playcentre system as novice educators—first assessments for new members are rudimentary tasks such as making playdough and setting out paints—many explained to me that they value the chance to witness their child’s “work” at Playcentre more than they value time to themselves, or what might be the perceived educational benefits of a professionally run early childhood centre.
“Essentially, in choosing not to work I’ve chosen to be with my child,” Cornes explains. “Playcentre offers me a way to be with him as well as to let him enjoy the benefits of a centre like this. I think it’s a holistic experience, being somewhere he can play as well as spending time with other parents. All the parents come from a slightly different educational or vocational background. That’s valuable; a greater sample of people contributing to who he is can only be a good thing.”
For all its later, loftier aspirations, the Playcentre movement began as a means of practical support for stressed-out suburban mums. It was a grassroots effort, the brainchild of three Wellington women who, through their work with Karori Plunket, decided more must be done for the mothers struggling in isolation around them. Many of these women were raising children alone while their husbands served overseas in World War II. Life was grim—war rationing and the anxiety of the war itself added to the deprivations of the Depression. In Mum’s the Word: The Untold Story of Motherhood in New Zealand, Sue Kedgley observes how the daily acts of feeding and clothing children were vastly magnified by the coppers that needed boiling for wash days, the lack of refrigeration and the prohibitive price of petrol. She notes that some mothers found themselves raising children who were the progeny of marriages made hastily at the dawn of war, and that there was little in the way of satisfying communication with absent husbands.
With the aim of providing “leisure for mothers and opportunities for the social development of the pre-school child”, the first Playcentre opened its doors in the Karori community hall in 1941. Mothers took turns to supervise their own and others’ children. The Karori Nursery Play Centre, as it was initially called, was successful, and within months, a sister centre had opened in Kelburn. Others soon followed: the Playcentre model travelled wherever there were willing volunteers and meeting places. Within a decade, Playcentres were commonplace, being of particular importance in small communities where the government could not justify the cost of a kindergarten.
Apart from being easier to open and cheaper to run than kindergartens, Playcentres allowed mothers to stay with their children at a time when there was concern about the importance of an uninterrupted maternal relationship.
Playcentres also offered a different style of pre-school education to the kindergartens of the time, having risen from the fertile educational ground of the 1930s—a period of great interest in new ideas about teaching and learning. Debate reached a peak here in 1937, when representatives of a British organisation called the New Education Fellowship toured the country, spreading its ideas about the cultivation of peace through education.
Prime Minister Peter Fraser closed schools for a week to allow teachers to attend the lectures. Importantly, the inclusion of pre-school specialist Susan Isaacs among the lecturers lent credibility to ideas about early childhood education at a time when many thought learning began at five. The fellowship’s ideas were eagerly received: partly because of such a wide swathe of the education fraternity hearing the same material, accepted theories of learning began to shift away from the dominant, teacher-centred model of ‘one-size-fits-all’ education.
The founders of Playcentre were ready to pick up the new ideas and run with them. They drew on the research of Swiss-born psychologist Jean Piaget, whose work had been central to the 1937 lectures, focusing on the theories that a child’s play was his or her work, that young learners must be allowed to interact with sensory materials, and that free play was crucial to healthy development. In the context of the 1930s, these were liberal and exciting ideas. By way of contrast, the New Zealand Kindergarten Association records a 1928 routine typical of those observed by our kindergartens and schools up until the 1950s. Each hour of the morning followed a tight structure: 9:00-9:15, Cloakroom changing; 9:15-9:30, Greetings; 9:30-9:45 Drill; 9:45-10:00, Rest and Story Dramatisation. Just 15 minutes of this schedule was devoted to the free play advocated by Piaget. Children’s movements were tightly controlled, allowing little room for choice or the variances of individuals. Play with sensory materials such as water troughs, sand and paint was highly restricted. High ratios of children per supervising adult made ‘messy play’ too difficult, and in any case, the prevailing culture was suspicious of activities that might make children sick or untidy.
The women behind the Playcentre movement were in a unique position to do something different.
Free of the red tape associated with teachers’ salaries, they did away with timetables, using their parent volunteers to set up a variety of stations to support free play. Children could immerse themselves in activities and move around as they wished.
In keeping with Piaget’s philosophies, Playcentres also made a point of encouraging the ‘messy play’ that other centres were so cautious about.
In shaping itself so differently, Playcentre became something of a quiet, practical incarnation of feminine strength. Centres were established to support women but, crucially, decisions at every level were also made by women. There was no pandering to the regulations set by men in distant corridors of power; rather it was mothers, with thousands of hours of first-hand experience of children and unparalleled interest in their wellbeing, who called the shots.
In 1951, the Playcentre movement saw another unmet need among its members and began to offer education about child development. In today’s world, which feeds anxious parents with information about allergies and tips for tackling tantrums, the importance of this education is hard to comprehend.
Beverley Morris explained exactly why it mattered when I spoke with her on the phone, not without a sense of intimidation on my part—Morris is something of a guru among New Zealand educators. Her life story involves acts of maternal heroism such as starting the Newtown Playcentre in Wellington when she was pregnant with her third child—and at 88, she quotes pedagogical theory with disarming insight.
“In those days,” she explained, “the idea was that the man went out and got money for the family while the woman stayed home and minded the children. But you can be very lonely looking after children at home. We found that when women got together and set up a play group, you could share problems. Very soon, we realised that we needed a way to teach the parents more about what was happening in front of them in the play group. We had access to material and we were able to pass those ideas on to mothers.”
The education programme grew: “I had done my masters’ degree in education and had never heard anybody talk about an actual child in that time. I was a primary school teacher and had four children by then so I had a bit more idea about what things were really like,” says Morris.
A correspondence course called Understanding Children was set up to equip women to nurture their youngsters, but there were benefits for the women themselves. “A lot of the women we worked with had left school at 15. When they did our courses they got a taste for education and some of them went on to university. These were intelligent people but they hadn’t really been given a chance.”
The provision of education for ordinary New Zealand women left a mixed legacy, empowering them but creating conflict within marriages that had previously run along a more traditional gender-based division of labour.
“In the 1950s and 60s, the women attending our evening workshops spoke of having to ask permission of their husbands to take the car and stay out until 9 or 10 at night,” Morris remembers. “When women started to become educated, it sometimes put pressure on the marriage because she was moving ahead in her life. Roles were very clear-cut then—the vast majority of men didn’t contribute to the household chores. Sadly, the education of women led to several divorces among the people I worked with.”
Although today’s women have enjoyed many more opportunities than their 1950s counterparts, Playcentre’s education programme continues to mean a great deal to its members. In the spirit of Beverley Morris’s emphasis on practicality, it is grounded in real life, but exposes members to child-development theory and the hidden complexities of play. Parents often gain insights into the puzzling traits of children, building empathy and gleaning ideas on how to support them.
“I take my children’s play so much more seriously now,” Howick mum Elise da Silva told me. “I used to think it was just pouring water into a bucket—now I’m respectful because I know it’s the foundation of their maths and science knowledge.”
The development of emergent leaders is important to Playcentre, which relies on a succession of parents catching its vision and coming up through the ranks. Along with the education programme, the work involved in helping to run centres often forms the basis of a new skill-set. Kay McLeod started Playcentre in the 1970s when her husband’s job required them to move to Putaruru and then Auckland. Like many women, she went along to get to know people but ended up on a journey of personal growth; in Kay’s case overseeing equipment for the Auckland Playcentre Association and, later, working on innovative approaches to playground design across the region.
“I really needed what Playcentre gave me,” she remembers. “I met amazing people who were at the forefront of education and we came to see just what could be achieved when we stood together. People haven’t always been that interested in early childhood education and we made sure it was kept in the public consciousness.”
I was introduced to Playcentre’s parent education programme when I attended one of the Tamaki Playcentre Association’s training sessions late last year. The Tuesday evening workshop was mysteriously titled “Creativity” and the blurb advised us to wear “messy play clothes”, engendering some apprehension as I tried to imagine how a group of bleary-eyed suburban parents might be asked to get creative and messy. Thankfully, there was no hand-holding or untoward splattering of paint, although I did get my hands into clay for the first time in several decades and produced a painting that appeared to be proof that for most people, artistic development goes on permanent hold at about the age of eight.
The workshop alternated between interactive discussions about creativity and ideas about how to support it in children, as well as practical experiences of the kind a child might have at an early childhood centre. We rotated around four art tables. The first three were set up with beautiful materials and we were left to our own devices to work with them—a relaxing and pleasant experience. The fourth table was presided over by one of the workshop facilitators, who hovered and made irritating comments about “the lion” I was drawing (it was clearly a horse) as well as suggesting how we could improve our work. The chalk was scratchy, the crayons stubby and the felt tips dried-up ghosts. Even the paper was too glossy to draw on satisfactorily.
De-briefing afterwards, we learned that we’d been set up to experience firsthand just how inhibiting it is to try to be creative in a heavily mediated environment. The lesson couldn’t have been made more memorable. I went home with an appreciation of how much we expect from children and how much their experiences can be altered by an adult with an understanding of their needs.
I’ve subsequently tried to play alongside my daughter, seeing things as she might. Recently, I mimicked her as she poured water through a funnel. Gradually I began to see, if not what she sees, then new things that challenged my flat adult perceptions of the world.
It was a compelling equation—pouring, swelling and draining, followed by a shining emptiness. Colours flashed. Shapes winked and disappeared. There was a musical, mathematical beauty to it.
For those seconds, nothing else mattered: I lived in the free place in which children potter alongside one another, occupied by the primitive, wordless learning that’s more than science and more than poetry, yet at the heart of both, something like Einstein’s observation that “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious; it is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science”.
Of course, I sustained this level of absorption for only a fraction of the time that the average pre-schooler would—it was exhausting experiencing the world so deeply—before moving on to do or say something mundane and restore the clouded lens through which I peer most weekday mornings.
Although Playcentre’s impact is most vividly felt in the testimonies of New Zealand women, the movement has made some significant contributions to our wider society. Dame Catherine Tizard, who went through Avondale Playcentre with her four children, wrote in 1998 that “most of today’s early childhood providers have been influenced by Playcentre’s pioneering practices and philosophies—whether they know it or not”.
When New Zealand launched its internationally renowned early childhood curriculum, its authors acknowledged six intellectual mentors—four of whom were founders of Playcentre. At the other end of the education spectrum, Playcentre influenced the interactive style of adult education we are so comfortable with today.
Beverley Morris explained that when she lectured in adult education at Victoria University, she taught her students the methods that were de rigueur at Playcentre workshops from the start. “Up until then, people talked at you,” she explains. “In Playcentre, we learned that it was better to bring things up through discussions and in small groups.”
Te Kohanga Reo and Parents Centres New Zealand Incorporated are among the grassroots innovations that trace their beginnings to Playcentre. Kohanga Reo unfolded with relative ease because of Playcentre’s pioneering work among Maori communities. In many cases, communities were already rich with the knowledge and resources required to run an early childhood centre because of Playcentre’s presence. In the case of Parents Centres, a high proportion of the parents on the founding committee were Playcentre-trained, bringing their knowledge about workshop facilitation and volunteer organisations into the movement.
The Playcentre story is still unfolding. For the past decade, Japan has been looking into whether the programme might help to solve a parenting crisis. Japanese-born Kana Parr-Whalley is married to a New Zealander and attended Birkenhead Playcentre with her children. She now acts as the liaison for a team of Japanese academics as they trial Playcentre in Japan. The interest in pre-school education is linked to concern about the country’s declining birthrate.
“Fifteen to twenty years ago, there was a big push towards higher education and a lot of people in my generation chased jobs in the big cities,” Parr-Whalley says. “Leaving our parents behind in smaller centres meant we often had to use paid childcare. People started to limit families or remained childless because of how expensive it was to raise a child.
“When New Zealand children grow up, the parents are often there to do things, such as take their children to the beach on the weekend or to soccer training. In Japan, since the war, governments have said that both parents must work and that schools could do the child-rearing. The legacy was that when people like me grew up, we didn’t know what to do with our children, how to be with them. Parents find it very hard to cope; they just don’t know what to do.”
But it’s a slow process establishing the trial Playcentres in Japan: “It’s taking a long time to form a group of parents that are confident to run a Playcentre,” Parr-Whalley says. “I see New Zealand parents with a natural feel for how to do things and they easily march in and get things going. It takes time to change minds as well as to open people’s hearts.”
Challenges exist for Playcentre in New Zealand, too. Like many community organisations relying on volunteers, the movement struggles to function with fewer resources and less parental involvement than was possible when the simple playgroup was established in Karori in 1941. But just as it did 70 years ago, the solution is likely to influence the structure of society as much as it revolutionises early childhood education.