Principles for high quality playgroups: Examples from research and practice

CFCA Practitioner Resource – September 2017

Playgroups are about play

Offer high-quality, fun, structured and unstructured play experiences for children and carers and provide opportunities for play-based learning to support positive child development. Play should be freely chosen, be largely self-directed, intrinsically motivated, spontaneous and pleasurable (Brockman, Fox & Jago, 2011). Play is recognised to offer a range of benefits to children.

Play is an essential component of playgroups. High-quality playgroups provide opportunities for play-based learning and embed play within all their activities. Play provides children with many opportunities to learn (DEEWR, 2009) and is generally considered to be:

  • freely chosen;
  • personally directed;
  • intrinsically motivated;
  • spontaneous; and
  • pleasurable (Brockman, Fox, & Jago, 2011).

Play has many benefits for children and is associated with the development of language and literacy, sociability and mathematical ability (Hancock et al., 2012). Playgroups support positive child development through providing a play-based learning environment.

The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (DEEWR, 2009) defines play-based learning as "a context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they actively engage with people, objects and representations" (p. 6). Through the supported playgroup format, play can be embedded throughout the whole session. For example, when professionals visit the playgroup, to ensure their presence doesn't detract from the focus of play, they can, where possible, deliver their services through play-based activities or informal discussions with families.

Through prioritising play and identifying it as the central component of playgroup, playgroups can have a role in highlighting to carers the value and importance of play for their children's development, and in building carers' confidence and capacity to engage in play with their children at playgroup and to continue this play experience at home. Practitioners who participated in the workshops highlighted that playgroup can introduce carers who, through their diverse or disadvantaged backgrounds, have little or no personal experiences of play, to the benefits of play.

Playgroups, for instance, can encourage carers to engage with their children through open-ended play. Open-ended play is defined as unstructured, free flowing play, where children decide what to do, how to do it and what to use (Bruce, McNair & Siencyn, 2008). Outdoor play spaces that include elements such as plants, trees, edible gardens, sand, rocks, mud and water can encourage open-ended play (DEEWR, 2009), and utilising easily accessed household objects or low-cost and recycled materials to use in play activities at playgroup can demonstrate to carers that play is less about the product (i.e., a game or toy) and more about the process (i.e., the experience) and something they can do with their children in many different ways and places. For example, Playgroup WA's "Play ideas" resource suggests activities for playgroup using recycled cardboard, plastic tubes and recycled boxes, and also some variations for home. For instance, at playgroup children might be encouraged and assisted to create a fire truck out of recycled boxes using paint and tape, while at home to play creatively and imaginatively with empty cereal or tissue boxes, sticking them together to create something of their choosing.

High-quality playgroups have a combination of structured and unstructured activities, creating spaces for open-ended play alongside other more structured communal activities such as story time, singing, dancing and snack time. Whole group snack time can be a good opportunity to promote nutritional messages and for families to connect through food, which, as noted by playgroup professionals, can be particularly important for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) playgroups.