These parents are doing it

March 2011


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MAUREEN WOODHAMS outlines a world-leading organisation built on the core value of parents laying a lasting foundation for their children’s learning.


Perhaps the single, strongest factor in educational success is parental involvement. Many cultures, especially in Asia, see this as fundamental to ensuring the success of the child that will impact on the whole family.

For various reasons, this strong parental link to children’s learning throughout their school years has long appeared to be less than important to New Zealand parents, and educators. Too many parents have abdicated the role to preschool and schools.

The Ministry of Education is promoting resources to parents, including the popular Supporting Your Child’s Learning series. There is a strong move to increase the awareness of the crucial role parents play throughout their children’s years at school.

Yet still, in the plethora of expensive preschool options, we seem to overlook, or take for granted, one of the world’s best examples for laying this foundation. Playcentres grew organically, started by parents during the Second World War largely from necessity, and the founders knew they had to train themselves to run the centres, developing a lasting culture of parental involvement. The

New Zealand Playcentre Federation became a national organisation in 1948. – Editor

The core concept of Playcentre is expressed in its whakatauākÄ«: “whānau tupu ngātahi – families growing together”. 

With schools and early childhood services showing increasing awareness of the importance of parent involvement in children’s education, Playcentre is the perennial example of an education institution founded on the principle of parents being fully involved with all aspects of their children’s education.

Recent government cuts to some ECE funding bands have not affected Playcentre because of its traditional high reliance on parent involvement in the running of sessions. Playcentres are run as parent cooperatives where the teaching and management are mainly done by groups of volunteer parents. This means that instead of paying teacher salaries, parents give their time. In return they receive the personal satisfaction that comes from planning and delivering learning experiences for their children, and skills which help them support their child’s education throughout later schooling. The training is free and recognised by NZQA.

Each centre carefully plans its weekly roster so that new parents work alongside more experienced parents and those with Playcentre Education Diploma certificates. The sessions have the dual purpose of providing learning for children and both formal and informal opportunities for the group of rostered parents to reflect on the learning they observe, and their own learning as parents.

Typically a rostered ‘duty team’ remains together throughout a term. Playcentres operate with adult: child ratios of one to five, or often higher, so adults can regularly sit together and talk informally about the learning children are experiencing as it happens, and how to extend it both at the centre and later at home. When parents attend training events for the Playcentre Education Diploma, which is offered free to all centre parents, the insights they gain are also discussed informally with other duty team members, embedding the theory in practical examples.

One of the key features of the Playcentre structure is the democratic decision making mechanisms of each centre. Centres follow the national ECE curriculum Te Whāriki, and the broad aims of Playcentre philosophy. Within this, groups of parents can make many decisions about their centre and programme around responsiveness to the interests, needs and goals of their own community of families.

The main decision making method within Playcentre is consensus. While this can be time consuming, consensus decision making encourages participation and engagement by all members, and decisions reached tend to have strong buy-in from members. An example of this decision making is the journey towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices which some centres are following, led by the interest of their group of parents.

One area that Playcentre contributes particularly strongly to is in the area of male role models for children. While men make up one per cent of the workforce in teacher-led services, in Playcentre the rate of fathers’ regular involvement at sessions is four times this. They may begin by helping at working bees and get hooked on how valuable it is to spend time with their young children, or through sharing caring roles for their children.

Chris Parkin joined Belmont Playcentre after he and his wife did a ‘job swap’ when their daughter was seven months old. “The idea of Keryn having other children to play with, and me being able to keep learning about child development and meet other parents, was very attractive.” Chris says that Belmont Playcentre has about eight dads who attend consistently.

The Playcentre model of families learning together is welcoming to all ethnicities and socio-economic groups. Some families have said they are happy to find a centre where they are encouraged to stay with their child. And in difficult financial times Playcentre is a place where families can bring their child to be involved in the community for little or no cost. The Playcentre often comes to feel like the heart of the community for member families. One Māori woman, reflecting on a recent bereavement in a centre family, noted that the Playcentre was acting as a ‘Pākehā marae’ for that family. The centre was the natural place where the bereaved mother turned to to find support, and centre families rallied round to give that family practical and emotional support.

In the past decade nine Playcentres have opened in Japan: seven in the Tokyo region, one in the Shizuoka Prefecture south of Tokyo, and one in Eniwa city. This development was in response to reports of isolation and stress for mothers resulting in a steeply declining birth rate. Japanese academics researched international models of parent support and were attracted to the Playcentre model of a mother cooperative as a way of providing encouragement and support for mothers. Recent research on the experience of mothers in two Japanese Playcentres, by Junko Satoh, indicated that the opportunity to be actively involved in the Playcentre was valued by mothers and increased their enjoyment of parenting. They also appreciated making friendships with other mothers in their communities, and learning to understand the learning their own, and other, children acquired while they were playing.