Principles for high quality playgroups: Examples from research and practice

CFCA Practitioner Resource – September 2017

Supported playgroups draw on skilled facilitators to engage families and link to local services

Utilise paid staff with the qualifications (e.g., early childhood education, family support or community development), skills and/or qualities to build relationships and facilitate engagement between the families in the group. Playgroups are best supported by a facilitator with local knowledge who can foster relationships and connectedness.4

Supported playgroup models require a high level of support from paid facilitators to engage families. Research investigating families living in highly disadvantaged areas attending supported playgroups found they differ from those attending mainstream community playgroups. Families attending supported playgroups experienced greater difficulties accessing, understanding and applying child health information, and children showed higher levels of concerning health practices (Myers et al., 2015). Similarly, parents’ knowledge of children’s physical activity requirements was low (Weber, Rissel, Hector, & Wen, 2014). Such findings indicate that families who have the greatest need for information may not be able to access it (Myers et al., 2015), and highlight the need for skilled facilitation.

Research has demonstrated that families receive more benefits from supported playgroup if they are engaged and attending regularly (Berthelsen, Williams, Abad, Vogel, & Nichol, 2012). Strategies for playgroups to engage and maintain the participation of families can vary based on the needs of the families attending. To promote the playgroup and attract families, playgroups can create partnerships with early childhood services (such as child care centres, kindergartens and schools), health providers (such as Maternal Child Health services; DEECD, 2011) and local neighbourhood centres. Promotional activities can include running a free fun day in the park, placing colour photographs of playgroup members and events in the local paper, and using local schools to meet and engage families (DEECD, 2011).

Strategies to engage and maintain the participation of families at playgroup is crucial to the running of successful, high-quality playgroups. Practitioners we spoke to highlighted the importance of families and co-ordinators at community playgroups having a warm and welcoming approach toward new members, to assist in developing their sense of belonging to the group.

Engaging and maintaining the participation of more disadvantaged and vulnerable families requires greater consideration. Techniques to increase engagement of disadvantaged (or "hard to reach") families include, but are not limited to:

  • Going to where the families are. Instead of waiting for families to attend, go to places such as parks or local shopping centres to connect with families, providing them with information about the playgroup and developing relationships with the local community. Disadvantaged families may not attend the playgroup if it is unfamiliar or intimidating to them or in an inconvenient location.
  • Promoting and delivering services in a non-stigmatising and non-threatening way. Avoid using negative labelling for the families attending (e.g., complex or multi-problem) and associating the playgroup with concepts of "charity" or "welfare", as families may be sensitive to stigma associated with these words. Treating families with respect and seeing them as more than their "problems", as well as locating the playgroup in a neutral venue such as a school, may be helpful.
  • Employing strategies that empower families. Rather than promoting a relationship of dependency, promote opportunities to encourage families to contribute to the playgroup, such as involving carers in the planning and development of the playgroup.
  • Developing relationships. Developing relationships with families (which is assisted through having a non-judgemental, respectful attitude, being encouraging, empowering, warm and empathetic); communities (as families, in particular Indigenous families, are more likely to attend a service if it is known and recommended in the community); and other services (having a relationship with other services can help find and reach families and better meet their needs) is critical (McDonald, 2010).

The skill level, abilities and qualifications required to successfully facilitate/co-ordinate a playgroup also vary based on the community in which it is run and the needs of the families attending the playgroup. For some supported playgroups, such as those with multiple staff run for families experiencing transient living conditions, it might work to have one worker with qualifications in family support and another in early childhood development. For playgroups run for Indigenous families, having workers qualified in community development working alongside Indigenous support workers may be considered necessary.

Practitioners told us that it is not always possible, particularly in rural and remote areas, to employ facilitators for supported playgroups with these qualifications. The abilities and skills of workers to successfully facilitate a playgroup are therefore of equal importance. The following four types of successful facilitation were outlined by Jackson (2013) and found to lead to increased experiences of emotional support, confidence in parenting, and decreased feelings of isolation and inequality for carers:

  • Family-centred practice: Facilitators able to create a high-quality childhood learning environment and also having a high-level of interpersonal skills to interact well with carers.
  • The care factor: Facilitators being able to develop trust with families by listening to carers, demonstrating an unconditional acceptance and respect, and showing genuine interest and care.
  • Creating a space: Facilitators able to create a responsive and flexible space in the supported playgroup that meets parents needs for social and other forms of support.
  • Knowledge of the local service system: Facilitators having a thorough knowledge of local services and referral pathways for families.

Supported and intensive supported playgroups can be considered unthreatening "soft entry" points that meet families' needs for social support while also linking them to more formal supports when needed (Commerford & Robinson, 2016). This may take the form of facilitators:

  • providing information to parents;
  • organising visits from other community organisations;
  • arranging visits from health professionals, including maternal and child health nurses, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, dieticians (McDonald et al., 2014) and financial counsellors (DEECD, 2011);
  • collaborating with other services or agencies to bring new participants into the playgroup; and
  • providing "warm referrals" (where the facilitator introduces the carer/family) to other services such as family violence or mental health support services.

4 This principle applies to supported playgroups specifically, however, the engagement strategies outlined may be applicable to other playgroup models.