After reading the fabulous Magic Places and finding Susan Harper’s Schema Matrix so useful I decided that I really should check out Playcentre for myself.
For those of you not from these fair shores, Playcentre is unique to New Zealand. A Playcentre is a fully licensed early childhood education (ECE) facility, that is run entirely by parents. The parents undergo training and manage every aspect of the centre – they are the teachers, the cleaners, the managers, the strategic planners. They take the idea that ‘parents are first teachers’ very seriously indeed. Playcentre people are quick to tell you that its not a coffee group – this isn’t parents sitting around chatting while children play – the parents are very hands on. I’ve heard from Playcentre mums I know are that they hardly get to take a breath all session – even when the children are busy eating a parent will tell them a story!
The Playcentre books I have read are really inspiring. Children learning through free play is at the very heart of the philosophy. Playcentre books talk about the importance of making up stories for children, and using puppets to act out stories. In “The Playcentre Way” Alisa Densem suggests that someone should be reading stories out loud all the time. In "Magic Places" Pennie Brownlee talks about having an atmosphere of calm and order, with lots of natural wood, and stresses the superiority of natural materials for childrens play. Early academics are out, freeing childrens creative spirit is in.
The traditional Playcentre set up has 16 areas of play (sand, water, clay, playdough, painting, physical, puzzles, family play, fantasy, blocks, carpentry, junk construction, books and storytelling, collage, exploratory play and music). All areas are set up all the time (ideally) and children have free access to all the activities. Parents are trained to observe, facilitate and where appropriate extend children’s play in these areas.
So, feeling inspired I took my Steiner hat off for the morning (as much as one every can) and went along for a session.
The Playcentre that we visited is an amazing facility with a large standalone building on a fairly decent sized section, next to a Council owned park. Munchkin had a great time exploring this fantastic space. The playground was extensive - a large permanent wooden structure of slides, climbing frames and tunnels, with additional wooden boxes and planks added on to create a real adventure playground. Foam gym mats had been put around so the kids could leap on to them.
There was a wooden house full of wonderful dress up costumes, a winding path for riding trikes, a massive sandpit with all the usual sandpit toys and a couple of large wooden sit on diggers. Finger painting was a bit hit, and there were several colours of playdough to use.
We didn’t get to the collage section but it looked pretty popular. Munchkin and I enjoyed the reading corner, and I saw a group of boys making a fantastic train track out of wooden blocks. I didn’t see anyone using the exploratory (science) play area, but there was a fish tank which fascinated Munchkin for ages.
It is pretty overwhelming though – lots of kids, lots of toys, lots of signs up everywhere creating a very cluttered environment. There was constant noise from a cd player of kids music, although none of the kids were dancing or listening to it. I think this shattered my nerves more than Munchkin’s to be fair.
At times, supervision seemed a bit lacking – it started to hail at one point and a mother realized her 12 month old who had been playing outside with no apparent supervision was missing – in the hail! Another point in the day saw a young boy climb to the top of the balcony railing teetering over the concrete path. What surprised me with these two examples is that in both cases the parents seemed to be inside enjoying their cuppa … which of course is not the Playcentre way at all!
Morning tea was a bit of an eye opener for me – a far cry from the organic fruit and wholemeal buns of our Steiner group. Morning tea was a bit of a shock with almost every other child having a little packet of chippies and a little packet of biscuits (mainly 100s and 1000s or choc chippies). Munchkin was definitely the only child with a no packaging, home made morning tea.
As anyone that is still reading this will probably gather – I’m pretty torn about it. I haven’t made a decision about whether Playcentre might be right for us. For now, we are getting so much out of our Steiner playgroup that we will continue there for now. We are of course, lucky to have the option – I know not everyone does. But it has got me thinking a lot about what a ‘Steiner inspired Playcentre’ could look like … another post perhaps!