Playing at parenting: Plunket’s role in our schools

February 2012


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Plunket does more than provide check-ups for two-year-olds and playgroups for new mums. JUDE BARBACK looks at what Plunket is achieving through its Education in Schools programme.

For the past 22 years, New Zealand secondary school students have been able to take early childhood unit standards. Incidentally, I discovered this doing my other ‘job’: being mum to our two small fry. It is not uncommon for parents, often desperate for adult conversation, to pick up friends in the playground and this was how I met Emma Taylor, a fellow mum and also a Plunket educator for the Bay of Plenty. It wasn’t long before Taylor had roped me and the kids into attending a series of early childhood lessons she and her colleagues were running at Tauranga Girls’ High School. “The students will basically have questions to ask you about parenting and will observe and interact with the kids while they play,” said Taylor. Fifteen free babysitters for a morning and a chance to talk about myself – I didn’t need much persuading.

I was also intrigued. What was the purpose of offering these modules? Were they a precursor for those who wanted to go on to complete early childhood education modules at tertiary level? Or was it simply seen as an easy course option for students? Or a chance for clucky teenagers to play with babies? It turns out the answer is ‘all of the above’.

Plunket’s journey into providing education for schools stems back to the 1970s; responding to considerable societal change at the time, Plunket began providing specific parenting education to meet the changing needs of families. However, it wasn’t until 1991 that Plunket registered as a private training establishment and started delivering the Education in Schools programme. The programme began with their widely known Tots & Toddlers course, which was released into schools in 1990 and now is delivered to more than 250 participating New Zealand secondary schools, many of which have made the course compulsory.

In addition to Tots & Toddlers (unit 10021), there are now a wide range of Plunket-provided unit standards available to schools including Exploring play (10017), Understanding needs (10022), Care and understanding (10023), Promoting good health (10024), Ages and stages (10026) and The reliable caregiver (6670).

The emphasis of these units is on the practical application of the skills and knowledge required to provide for young children’s basic needs. Plunket has long believed in the importance of delivering parenting education to ‘latent’ parents in a way that replaces the romantic notions of parenthood with a more realistic understanding of the responsibilities and challenges being a parent entails.

Plunket’s National Parenting Advisor, Sue Grant, is a strong advocate for Plunket’s Education in Schools programme. “We are committed to providing quality parenting education for communities throughout New Zealand. Plunket’s unique point of difference is its volunteer parent base. This resource provides the opportunity for first-hand interaction for students and knowledge through life experience; the experience of playing with, bathing, feeding, dressing and caring for a real child, in the classroom!”

The units are delivered in schools by trained Plunket educators, or the classroom teacher, and draw upon the experiences of volunteer parents and their children from the local community. The parenting styles and practices of the different cultural and ethnic groups in the school are included in course delivery. Interestingly, while the programme is offered throughout New Zealand schools, some areas embrace it more than others. I have seen first-hand how involved Bay of Plenty schools are with the programme and, according to Taylor, Christchurch provides a solid base of current users with some of their schools using all the units to create a course of study over a year.

To describe myself and my children as volunteers is misleadingly noble, as I found our first session hugely interesting, very entertaining and an educational experience for me. The session began with students asked to guess the children’s ages. My Emily, who was somewhat slow in the hair-growth and walking stakes, received guesses of around nine and ten months (she was 13 months at the time) while another tot the same age – running with pig tails – was guessed to be 18 months. My son Dan promptly told everyone he was ‘two and a half’ before anyone could venture a guess. We moved on to question time. The students had prepared all manner of questions ranging in subject from birth (answers met with horrified looks) to discipline, feeding and play. As I overheard one of the other mothers giving rather different answers to mine, I wondered how the students were able to take away anything concrete.

But this, after all, is the nature of children and childcare and it slowly dawned on me what a great idea this subject was for those who would one day be parents as well as those interested in pursuing a career as a caregiver or possibly in early childhood education. What a good introduction to how different children can be, how different their backgrounds, abilities and needs.

Some students I questioned were upfront about taking an easy course, with one student even declaring that she didn’t think she wanted children herself let alone to look after others. She was in the minority, however, with most having far more knowledge of young children than I had at that age and a very good way with the kids.

Students certainly confirmed their understanding in their feedback of the units. One Year 12 student from Mount Maunganui College said they learned that there are many different types of attachment and there are different techniques in dealing with each type. Another from Hamilton’s Fraser High School said they learned that infants don’t have the mind capacity to understand that there is a world outside what they see and feel.

Taylor says she enjoys seeing the students’ surprise when they learn something new and when they bring their own experiences to the class.

Like groupies on a Plunket road show, my kids and I attended similar sessions taught by Taylor, all around the Bay of Plenty. Each experience was roughly the same. Classes were predominantly female, although interestingly the few males in attendance appeared to display more interest and knowledge in the subject of early childhood education than the girls.

Moreover I was impressed by the insight all students gained on the basic parenting principles. The main aim of the units does seem intent on teaching parenting skills, and I found myself wishing there was more of a drive for early childhood education; I kept thinking what a great preliminary these units would be to ECE courses at a tertiary level. Yet most of the students I spoke to were vague on their career possibilities upon leaving school.

It was only with the benefit of hindsight that I reflected that the operative word there is ‘possibilities’. In taking the Plunket-provided units, along with all the others available to them throughout their education, students are broadening the range of options available to them. Some may indeed go on to pursue a career in early childhood education; some may go on to be excellent parents – either way, the Plunket Education in Schools programme is fulfilling an important role in both the educational and societal senses.