Supported playgroups for parents and children

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

Types of playgroups

Playgroups are generally broken into two categories: those that are self-managed (typically called community playgroups) and those that are supported. The characteristics of each are outlined below.

Community playgroups

Community playgroups are universal services that are initiated and self-managed by the parents and/or caregivers who attend them (FaHCSIA, 2011; ARTD Consultants, 2008a) with the assistance of State or Territory Playgroup Organisations. Community playgroups have been part of the Australian early childhood landscape for more than 40 years, with more than 200,000 families with preschool-aged infants and children attending a community playgroup each week (Playgroup Australia, 2013). Community playgroups aim to include all families and provide opportunities for children to learn and develop through play (FaHCSIA, 2011).

Playgroup Organisations help parents and carers start new playgroups or find an existing playgroup to join. They also provide general support such as information about training and support, insurance, events, fundraising, and assistance with accessing venues and resources (CCCH, 2011). Volunteer parents set up a range of play activities each week to advance early learning and meet the varying developmental needs of the children (FaHCSIA, 2011). Activities range from music and singing, imaginative outdoor play and free play, art and craft, outings and cultural activities (FaHCSIA, 2011).

Community playgroups aim to provide:

  • broad, universal self-managed peer support;
  • an opportunity for children to socialise and learn through play, and to develop their social, emotional and physical skills;
  • an opportunity for parents and carers to develop social and support networks; and
  • early intervention where children are disadvantaged (FaHCSIA, 2011).

Supported playgroups

The Australian supported playgroup model has a dual-focus on supporting the development and wellbeing of both children and their parents, together (Jackson, 2013). Supported playgroups are facilitated by a paid facilitator who is a trained early childhood educator, and aim to support families with particular needs or vulnerabilities by providing opportunities for parents to meet and share experiences, and for children to play, learn and socialise (Boddy & Cartmel, 2011; CCCH, 2011; Jackson, 2011, 2013). Supported playgroups target families who are:

  • culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD; including migrant and humanitarian entrant families);
  • Indigenous;
  • young parent families;
  • socially isolated;
  • disadvantaged;
  • experiencing mental health issues; or
  • living with a disability (either the parent or child) (Plowman, 2008; La Rosa & Guilfoyle, 2013).

Families in these groups are often vulnerable, facing stressful life circumstances alongside low social support and economic pressures. Supported playgroups thus offer an option for families who may not be able to effectively engage with, feel included in, and benefit from parent-led community playgroups (Berthelsen et al., 2012; Warr et al., 2013; Mulcahy et al., 2010). Supported playgroups are often targeted at individual demographic groups, such as CALD families or young parent families, or they provide specially designed activities for families with a shared experience or concern, such as the federally funded PlayConnect playgroup,2 which is a supported playgroup for families with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or similar behaviours (Plowman, 2008; Playgroup Australia, 2012).

Jackson (2013) articulated the aims of supported playgroups as:

  • stimulating children's development through quality early-childhood experiences;
  • increasing parental knowledge related to child development, early childhood learning and positive guidance skills;
  • facilitating social networks;
  • providing access to information and resources; and
  • providing opportunities for the identification of developmental problems and referral to appropriate services.

Some supported playgroup models aim to transition families to community playgroups within a set period of time, usually over a period of nine to 12 months (McLean et al., 2014; Oke, Stanley & Theobald, 2007), while others are ongoing, depending on the model and funding. Some supported playgroups operate as mobile services to enhance the service's ability to reach families who may be marginalised from mainstream services (Plowman, 2008) or to enter, for example, remote communities, caravan parks and correctional facilities.

Locational supported playgroups

Locational supported playgroups provide Indigenous families with a safe and supportive environment to come together in their communities, giving children the opportunity to engage in play-based early learning activities and giving parents and carers access to parenting support (Plowman, 2008). The model is used to provide vulnerable families with young children parenting and early childhood development support from a single, fixed location (AIFS, 2013).

An example is the locational supported playgroups delivered by Playgroup Queensland that focuses on consulting families and the wider community in the running of the playgroups and employs local Indigenous women as facilitators or coordinators (AIFS, 2013).

Intensive supported playgroups

Intensive supported playgroups target socially excluded vulnerable and marginalised families (Boddy & Cartmel, 2011) who may be also be experiencing disadvantage through insecure or transient living arrangements, and aim to build the "strengths, safety and wellbeing of families" (Dadich & Spooner, 2008, p. 96) whose circumstances are negatively impacting on their ability to parent effectively (ARTD Consultants, 2008a; Oke et al., 2007). Intensive supported playgroups are facilitated by at least two staff (usually an early childhood worker and a family support worker) who provide extensive support to families by "building linkages" between families and a wide range of other services in the community (Plowman, 2008). Groups may meet weekly or more regularly. (See Box 6, for information on Save the Children's Playscheme model of intensive supported playgroup.)

Funding models and guidelines

There is no one model or established set of guidelines for the delivery of supported playgroups. This is largely due to differing guidelines for state, territory and federal funding, as well as different models of implementation within the host organisation. These issues have contributed to a lack of cohesion in establishing an evidence base for the supported playgroup model.

At a federal level, the Department of Social Services (DSS) provides funding for community playgroups directly to Playgroup Australia, and funding for supported playgroups through broader grants to the providers of Communities for Children Facilitating Partner, and Children and ParentingSupport sub-activities. Through Communities for Children, Facilitating Partner grants, DSS funds 'Facilitating Partners' (the non-government organisations who manage and facilitate the initiative; DSS, 2014), who often include supported or intensive supported playgroups in activity work plans in response to community need.

Community partners, who are contracted by facilitating partners to run the playgroups, often develop the playgroup format and activities themselves. Children and Parenting Support providers are funded to deliver a range of early intervention and prevention services, and can include community or supported playgroups in their service offering.

At a state and territory level, governments also fund a variety of supported playgroup models (Hancock et al., 2012). For example, the NSW Government's "Families NSW" prevention and early intervention strategy funds supported playgroups and Aboriginal supported playgroups (a critical component of this strategy) that are delivered by a variety of different community organisations (ARTD Consultants, 2008b; Berthelsen, 2012; Jackson, 2009). Another example is the supported playgroups that are funded by the Victorian Government Department of Education and Training through their Supported Playgroup and Parent Initiative, in partnership with local governments and Playgroup Victoria (DEECD, 2008; DET, 2015; Playgroup Victoria, 2015).

Each of these funding bodies has their own supported playgroup model and set of guidelines to follow. For example, the Victorian model is formalised in that it requires all supported playgroups to deliver smalltalk, an evidence-based parenting program, to all participating families with children aged from 12 months to 3 years (DET, 2015; see Box 1).

The Families NSW supported playgroup program has a broad and flexible delivery model that utilises a holistic family-focused and strengths-based approach (ARTD Consultants, 2008b; FACS, 2014). It emphasises supported playgroups as being a time-limited service for families rather than a long-term intervention, with a focus on transitioning families to other services such as community playgroups. Supported playgroups are also offered as part of the NSW Government Schools as Community Centre (SaCC) project, where additional supports are also provided, such as "Triple P" positive parenting programs for families with children aged 3-8 years, and transition to school and early literacy support (FACS, 2014).

Strengthening the evidence-base for supported playgroups may assist in the development of more cohesive playgroup models.

The differing models and limited coordination between federal and state governments in the delivery of playgroups is an issue raised in the 2008 evaluation by ARTD Consultants (2008a). The report recommended developing better strategic links to enhance cohesion in services at the local level because "new initiatives can threaten the sustainability of existing playgroups in the locality [while] poor coordination of programs at a local level has led to some providers working in competition with one another" (p. 53). The peak body for playgroups in Australia, Playgroup Australia (2013), further claim that community playgroups have lost nearly half of their members (or families) since 2005. There could be many possible reasons outside of the rise of supported playgroups for this decline though, including the numbers of families using other forms of early education.

Box 1. smalltalk

Supported playgroups receiving funding from the Victorian Government are required to deliver smalltalk to all participating families (DET, 2015). smalltalk is a community-based parenting group program designed, implemented and evaluated by the Parenting Research Centre. It is targeted at families experiencing vulnerable circumstances (Hackworth et al., 2013).

The smalltalk program addresses aspects of parenting and family functioning known to impact on the development of children's early learning at home, such as enhancing quality everyday interactions; providing a stimulating environment; enhancing parental self-care; strengthening parenting confidence; and building parental connectedness to the community and service (Hackworth et al., 2013).

The smalltalk program was designed for delivery via the supported playgroup (a 10-week program for parents of children aged 12 months to 3 years) and Maternal Child Health platforms (a six-week program for parents of children aged 6 to 12 months; Hackworth et al., 2013). A randomised controlled trial of 2,228 parents (of which 1,226 parents received smalltalk through the supported playgroup platform) examined the efficacy of the program by comparing outcomes for participants attending a standard supported playgroup to those receiving smalltalk and smalltalk plus. Participants in smalltalk plus received an additional six home-based individual coaching sessions (Hackworth et al., 2013). Findings from this trial found smalltalk participants demonstrated significantly greater improvements in parent-child interactions and home learning environments than participants in the standard supported playgroup programs (Hackworth et al., 2013).

2 PlayConnect is funded as part of the Helping Children with Autism (HCWA) package, which is in scope to transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). This means that once the NDIS roll out has been completed, HCWA will close because the participants' support needs will be funded through the NDIS.