Children at play: Playgroups

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Marina Spurgin, Council’s Early Learning Officer, looks into play, playgroups and the role parent associations might play.

Children at play – Playgroups

The role of play in healthy brain development and wellbeing is a dominant theme in early education practice and research. Through play, children develop their creativity, imagination, and physical, cognitive and emotional strength. They can safely explore new skills and roles, face challenges and learn about working with others. Play is so centrally important that The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of a Child, states that ‘play’ is the right of all children.

For parents who play with and observe their children at play, the bonding and learning opportunities are broad and far-reaching. Yet modern families are under pressure and playtime often gets squeezed for a variety of reasons. Technology can intervene and research shows that screen-time is no substitute for the immersive, direct experience of children’s play. 

Play is good for adults too. It relieves stress and improves brain function. It brings joy and is vital for problem solving, creativity and relationships. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, compares play to oxygen, ‘…it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.’ 

Julia Cookson, Coordinator of the Scots College Early Years Centre outlines five reasons why play is important in the early years for children to:

  • Develop secure attachments: relationships are the key to children feeling safe, secure and supported, which impacts their learning, happiness and self-esteem. Parents are a child’s first teacher and much of that teaching happens through play.
  • Healthy brain development: play has intellectual and cognitive benefits. It is believed that play can in fact shape the structural development of the brain.
  • Develop learning skills: through play children practise exploring, identifying, negotiating, risk-taking and imagining.
  • Develop speech and language: during play children are watching, listening, exploring and imitating. Even when playing silently, children are learning important information and vocabulary.
  • Regulate their behaviour: as children play they are learn to concentrate on a task, take turns and how to share. These will help them regulate their behaviour and emotions. 

Play also leads to a love of learning. When children play and learn new things they discover that learning can be fun and go on to view learning as something enjoyable, rather than a chore.

Parents sharing knowledge with educators

As children’s development progresses most rapidly from birth to five years, so too appropriate and preferred play activities also change, sometimes sooner than expected. The valuable knowledge and feedback from early childhood educators is useful during these years. Educators interpret and facilitate the complex role of children’s play, assessing when to intervene and when to observe. Applying the combined knowledge of parents and teachers, they aim to ensure each child is recognised, acknowledged and valued through their learning settings.

While educators play a different role to parents they are each a valuable resource providing insight into the development of their children. Teachers expect to interact with parents and carers to provide support and share information. Acknowledging the essential nature of this relationship and being open to two-way communication is important to ensure the exchange takes place for the benefit of children.


Prior to preschool or kindergarten, play experiences are vital. Playgroups provide resources, spaces and support for play activities for groups of children and their parents and carers.

Playgroups have been part of the Australian community for more than 45 years. Playgroup Australia is a not-for-profit organisation established in 1984. Members ensure young children along with their parents or caregivers can access quality playgroups nationwide.

ACT Playgroups offers different programs for children (and carers) ranging from drop-in playgroup where families get together in local parks every week; to first-time baby groups, language and cultural immersion groups; nature play and physical play groups; carer-type groups (like dads, grandparents or au pairs) among others. In addition, they run a number of facilitated groups for families with additional needs. Parents can search for an existing playgroup on the ACT Playgroups website (

Early Intervention Playgroups are run by highly qualified staff in partnership with Tuggeranong and Gungahlin Child and Family Centre, Therapy ACT and Giralang AIU. These playgroups are designed to support the journey of families with young children with additional needs. They’re for children up to five years old and are free, fun, interactive, evidence based and accessible to all. All family members including siblings and other carers are encouraged to attend.

Early intervention playgroups not only provide important play-based skills development and socialisation opportunities for young children with additional needs, but also offer peer and parenting support for the adults attending. The playgroups run for two hours most mornings in various locations around Canberra.

Within some ACT public schools, parents host school-based playgroups to meet a need in their area. Others run them periodically to facilitate transitions to preschool or kindy by introducing new children to peers before they start. ACT Playgroups is an excellent resource if your school’s parent association is considering starting a new playgroup. The team provide support with practical advice and resources, tips on starting a playgroup, regulatory requirements, planning and creating play resources, communication, and assistance with venues.

With so many messages about childrearing and sometimes conflicting information about how to prepare children for the future, P&Cs have a unique and important role in building the communication networks between parents, and between parents and the school. Parent associations can support parents to organise playgroups or informal play-based events, and can advocate for developing safe spaces for play after school hours and on weekends. ●

If your parent association is involved in a school- based playgroup, Marina would love to hear your experiences.
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