Supported playgroups for parents and children

The evidence for their benefits
CFCA Paper No. 40 – May 2016

Benefits of supported playgroups

Although the published evidence base for supported playgroups is limited, some research and evaluation studies have assessed the outcomes of supported playgroups against their objectives, particularly benefits for parents and children. This section provides a summary of these findings and should be interpreted with caution due to the limited number of evaluations available.

Benefits for parents

One of the main intended outcomes of supported playgroups is to encourage stronger parenting skills and levels of family support, particularly in relation to enhancing the parent-child relationship, increasing parents' understanding, skill and confidence in supporting their children's development, and providing opportunities to build social support networks (ARTD Consultants, 2008a).

Research and evaluation studies to date have indicated that supported playgroups can offer a positive social experience for parents. Parents commonly report improvements to their social lives through the development of new relationships and friendships between families, and said that supported and intensive supported playgroups had helped them to learn new things about caring for their young children (ARTD Consultants, 2008a; ARTD Consultants, 2008b; Berthelsen et al., 2012; DEECD, 2012). (See Box 2 for more information on the group as social support.)

Parenting skills and techniques that were developed within the playgroup led parents to become more confident in caring for their young children (ARTD Consultants, 2008a; AIFS, 2011). Improved levels of confidence, skills and knowledge manifested in the following ways: initiating activities and joining in with their children, socialising with other parents, modelling and applying what they learned at a supported playgroup at home, and socialising with other parents and children (AIFS, 2011). Social benefits often extended outside of the supported playgroup - in one study, 68% of families had contact with other playgroup families outside of the playgroup session (Berthelsen et al., 2012).

Benefits for parents attending supported playgroup were linked with levels of attendance and engagement. A 2012 research study of 18 supported playgroups in Queensland used parent interviews (conducted over the telephone at commencement of the study and again six months later), group record books completed by the facilitator, and a facilitator survey to describe patterns of attendance and engagement, and evaluate parental experiences. The study also examined how parents' experiences of the program, individual and family characteristics, and program factors explained their attendance (Berthelsen et al., 2012).

The study found that parents who attended more regularly reported more benefits than parents who attended less often, particularly in relation to understanding their children's development. There was a higher level of attendance by parents who were considered by facilitators to be more highly engaged with other parents, their own children and the facilitator. Barriers to attendance that were most commonly cited by parents were their children's health or behaviour, transport difficulties, the ability to relate to other parents, and the health of the parent.

The types of strategies integral to the successful provision of these supports are outlined in Box 3 below. The role that supported playgroups play in helping CALD and refugee families settle into their new community is explored in Box 4.

Box 3. Parental support in supported playgroups*

Jackson's (2011) analysis of data gathered in her 2009 PhD thesis that studied three supported playgroups found the groups facilitated a social environment that was supportive to parents in eight main ways:

  • Friendship and social network support was evident in the supported playgroup's emphasis on developing relationships and providing opportunities for parents to socialise. This helped to lessen social isolation experienced by families and contribute to parents' feeling of wellbeing and confidence.
  • Relational support was encouraged through techniques such as mediation when tensions between playgroup participants arose, which further supported the development of positive relationships.
  • Peer support, where parents informally learnt from one another through observing other parents and children at similar stages of development.
  • Emotional support, where a focus by facilitators on nurturing parents helped to promote positive outcomes for children.
  • Parenting role support was identified by facilitators as a critical part of their role and was achieved by using a strengths-based approach. Taking care not to criticise parents, the playgroups provided a space for parents to feel supported in their parenting role.
  • Information and resource support was provided to parents by facilitators at a time and place that best suited their needs.
  • "Circle of care" support benefited parents in that professionals from other groups could discuss needs of parents with facilitators, and the knowledge gained from these discussions helped build the parents' capacity to engage in the playgroup.
  • Multidisciplinary support was facilitated by the attendance of other professionals at the playgroup at the request of parents and enabled parents to access services that may not have otherwise been available to them in a non-clinical environment.

Strategies employed by facilitators to generate parent support were founded in genuine relationships between parents and facilitators and other participants. Facilitators recognised that parents had tacit parenting knowledge "which demonstrated their willingness to work alongside parents to create an environment that maximised their strengths and abilities" (Jackson, 2011, p. 35). Support in these instances was found to be co-constructed between parents and facilitators rather than being delivered in a formal setting by experts (Jackson, 2011). These supportive strategies are reflective of a "scaffolding" process where the learner (in this case the parent) is viewed as active in their own learning and is supported by the facilitator in "self-regulating" (Verenikina, 2008) their own learning. This is apparent in supported playgroups when it is the parents who suggest topics or guest professionals to visit the playgroup.

* While this level of intensive support may not be common to all playgroup models, other studies examining playgroups for vulnerable families confirm the universal relevance of many of these supports (Boddy & Cartmel, 2011).

This study is limited by its small sample size of three supported playgroups and cannot be considered as representative of all supported playgroups.

Box 4. Playgroups for refugee and migrant CALD families

Families from diverse communities face many challenges in settling into new communities in outer-suburban or rural Australia (McDonald et al., 2014). Families from culturally diverse backgrounds may be hesitant to attend a mainstream community playgroup because of concerns over their limited proficiency in English, or because they feel they will be not be welcome there (McDonald et al., 2014). Supported playgroups specifically targeting CALD groups provide a culturally safe environment in which to develop social supports, children's social and physical development and links to other services (Warr et al., 2013) that CALD and refugee parents otherwise might not have.

Adjustment to the Australian parenting culture, which supports an individualistic parenting ideal, and the loss of extended family and social networks in their country of origin that provided informal parenting support are additional parenting challenges faced by refugee (Mclaughlin & Guilfoyle, 2013; New et al., 2015) and migrant families (Warr et al., 2013). As a result of challenges such as these, CALD mothers commonly reported experiencing feelings of isolation and loneliness (New et al., 2015; Mclaughlin & Guilfoyle, 2013; Warr et al., 2013; La Rosa & Guilfoyle, 2013; Targowska et al., 2015). The supported playgroup was a highly valued "saving" space for refugee women. In particular, the "support they received from the playgroup was found to be a buffer against some of the stress and isolation they experienced" while resettling (New et al., 2015, p. 60).

Research suggests that supported playgroups provided a strong, key source of social support for refugee and migrant mothers (La Rosa & Guilfoyle, 2013; Warr et al., 2013; Targowska et al., 2015; New et al, 2015; Mclaughlin & Guilfoyle, 2013; McDonald et al., 2014; Hopkins & Barnett, 2013), facilitating their development of informal networks of support (Targowska et al., 2015). Supported playgroup members developed friendships with one another, at times referring to the supported playgroup as their "new family" (La Rosa & Guilfoyle, 2015). The social support found through supported playgroup acted as a protective factor to help enhance positive outcomes for the mothers (La Rosa & Guilfoyle, 2013). Supported playgroups promoted children's social and physical development through providing important opportunities for socialisation (Mclaughlin & Guilfoyle, 2013; Warr et al., 2013; McDonald et al., 2014) and helped to improve children's readiness to transition to school (Targowska et al., 2015). For many children, the supported playgroup provided their first exposure to the English language and first chance to socialise with children outside the family home (Targowska et al., 2015).

Specific strengths of supported playgroup models for CALD families were noted in the literature. In response to the distrust and low levels of confidence in services felt by CALD parents, one supported playgroup for CALD families utilised facilitators who were also from a migrant background to build trust (Warr et al., 2015). The facilitator then used role modelling, which was identified as the key strategy to help parents adopt new parenting behaviours (Warr et al., 2015). Expanding supported playgroup models to become integrated services, including life-skill classes for mothers, intensive family support, referrals, bus services and whole-of-family school holiday events (Targowska et al., 2015) is another strategy aimed at meeting the needs of CALD families. The availability of the bus service was deemed highly important (Targowska et al., 2015), as was the integrated program model that enabled women to attend life-skills programs such as English classes in the same space as the playgroup (Targowska et al., 2015; Hopkins & Barnett, 2013).

Benefits for children

A common intended outcome of supported playgroups is to improve the wellbeing of children (ARTD Consultants, 2008a). Studies assessing the outcomes for children are limited and rely on parent and facilitator reports. These limited findings from evaluation studies do, however, suggest supported and intensive supported playgroups generate positive benefits for children. Parents reported a positive change in their child's social skills in a number of studies (ARTD Consultants, 2008a; 2008b; DEECD, 2012; AIFS, 2011), evident, for instance, in their improved capacity to get along with other children (ARTD Consultants, 2008b) and in learning to share (DEECD, 2012).

Parents also commonly reported that supported playgroups created new opportunities for their children to learn, and reported that they had noticed their children had become more actively engaged in play (ARTD Consultants, 2008a; ARTD Consultants, 2008b). (See Box 2, for more information on play and development.) According to parents, their children had become more confident through their involvement in supported and intensive supported playgroups (ARTD Consultants, 2008a; 2008b). In particular, parents and facilitators noted improvements in children's speech (DEECD, 2012; ARTD Consultants, 2008a) and the learning of new behaviours through the role modelling undertaken during the playgroup (ARTD Consultants, 2008a). Box 5 further explores the association between playgroup use (not just supported playgroups) by disadvantaged families and child outcomes.

The setting of supported playgroups may also impact on the outcomes for families. Co-locating supported playgroups in schools may hold additional value as an enabler in the establishment of social relationships that are important to a cohesive and smooth transition to school (McLean et al., 2014). This is particularly important for hard to reach or vulnerable families, because this co-location physically connects families with the educational environment their children will later attend (McLean et al., 2014). (See Box 2, "Ecological models of human development", for more information on settings.)

Box 5. Disadvantaged families use of playgroups: Longitudinal findings

Hancock et al. (2012) used data from Growing up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) project to explore the association between participation in playgroup and outcomes for children aged 4 to 5 years. This study includes all types of playgroup models, including community and supported playgroups, as well as parent-child groups operating across Australia. The key outcomes measured were learning competence (assessing language, literacy, numeracy and approach to learning) and social and emotional functioning (relating to the child's peer relationships, pro-social behaviour, internalising problems, externalising problems and hyperactivity).

Hancock et al. (2012) demonstrated that disadvantaged families were least likely to attend but most likely to benefit from attending playgroup. Both boys and girls from disadvantaged families who had attended playgroup scored 3-4% higher in learning competence than those who had not attended playgroup. Girls from disadvantaged families who attended playgroup scored 5% higher on social and emotional functioning than those who did not attend playgroup.

Some limitations of the study include a lack of information on the type of playgroup and how often families attended, and the possibility that parenting style or other parenting activities (rather than playgroup alone) could have led to the better outcomes for disadvantaged children (Hancock et al., 2012). The findings, however, do provide support for policies encouraging disadvantaged families to attend playgroups (Hancock et al., 2012).

Soft entry points

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 (see Box 6, for more information on how intensive supported playgroups link families to other services; ARTD Consultants, 2008a; Jackson, 2011; Turner & Bredhauer, 2005). They have the capacity to act as conduits for government and non-government services to access and provide support to families (Wilkop & Clothier, 2013). This may take the form of providing information to parents; visits from other community organisations; and visits from health professionals, including maternal and child health nurses, occupational therapists, speech pathologists and dieticians (McDonald et al., 2014).

Studies undertaken to date indicate supported and intensive supported playgroups have the potential to increase parents' knowledge of other available services (AIFS, 2011; ARTD Consultants, 2008a); however, one study found that supported playgroups did not actually lead to an increase in use of these services (DEECD, 2012). Utilising a mixed method approach, this Victorian study interviewed and surveyed 61 parents at the beginning of their involvement in the supported playgroup and again six to eight months later, and conducted qualitative interviews with 12 facilitators at the beginning of the project. Assessing whether the use of early-childhood services such as libraries, family support services, mental health services, specialist children services, doctors, kindergarten, childcare, and maternal and child health services increased after participating in supported playgroup, the evaluation study found there was no statistical difference between parents degree of use of services from when they first joined to six to eight months later (DEECD, 2012). Nevertheless qualitative data generated from the study indicated these services were considered important to many parents as a source of support and advice (DEECD, 2012). The authors suggested that the supported playgroup may have reduced families' needs for services through regular access to support and advice from other parents and visiting professionals (DEECD, 2012).

Supported playgroups may provide a platform or a setting for professionals to access highly disadvantaged and vulnerable families to promote health messages (Myers et al., 2015; Weber et al., 2014). Research investigating families living in highly disadvantaged areas attending supported playgroups differ from those attending mainstream services. Supported playgroup families experienced more difficulties accessing, understanding and applying child health information, and children showed more concerning health practices (Myers et al., 2015). Similarly, parents' knowledge of children's physical activity requirements was low (Weber et al., 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 that supported playgroups may be a potential platform to deliver key messages promoting child health outcomes.

Box 6. Intensive Supported Playgroups: Save the Children's Playscheme model

Intensive supported playgroups "provide a unique model of service delivery" (Boddy & Cartmel, 2011, p. 26) with early childhood workers operating in tandem with family support workers, simultaneously focusing on the educational needs of children as well as the wellbeing of children and families (Boddy & Cartmel, 2011; Gahan & Broughton, 2010). An example is the Save the Children mobile intensive supported Playscheme model. Playscheme operates from a mobile purpose-fit van equipped with toys, games, craft activities, and information and resources for parents (Gahan & Broughton, 2010). It runs in more than 100 sites across Australia, servicing highly disadvantaged communities in both urban and remote locations (Save the Children Australia, 2014).

Gahan and Broughton's (2010) evaluation of Save the Children Australia's Queensland Playscheme program highlighted how the playgroup acted as a non-threatening first point of contact for families in need of immediate support for personal, welfare and parenting challenges that they have been dealing with over a long period. Regular contact with the families through the weekly playgroup allows parents time to build their skills gradually while allowing workers to monitor how parents are coping with challenges (Gahan & Broughton, 2010). With this dual focus on welfare and education by multiple workers, "the Playscheme program makes a considerable contribution to disrupting intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and marginalisation" (Gahan & Broughton, 2010, p. 75), with beneficial effects being more apparent for those families attending regularly over a long period (Gahan & Broughton, 2010).

Boddy and Cartmel's (2011) review of evaluations of Save the Children's playgroup programs (also inclusive of the It Takes a Village: Multicultural Early Learning Program that offers additional services to families) highlighted several potential benefits for parents and children:

  • improved parental confidence and knowledge about parenting;
  • enhanced parenting and life skills;
  • increased informal and formal support networks for parents;
  • improved school readiness among children;
  • better understanding of healthy eating and positive parenting principles among parents;
  • development of fine and gross motor skills, along with cognitive and listening skills among children; and
  • increased social capital among families.