Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Steiner mum visits Playcentre

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!


jenny-junebug said...

I've been doing a lot of thinking about preschool lately for my little guy. I'm so indecisive I've got him fully signed up at two schools and they start in about 6 weeks. I flip flop between "crunchy" vs "not as crunchy". At least we are fortunate to have choices. I did a pro/con list which was supposed to help with the decision, but didn't! I guess I'll have to go with my gut. Good luck in figuring out what works best for you and your little one. The Playcentre concept certainly sounds interesting!

Dawn said...

This year my son went to a preschool co-op which is similar to the playcentre idea in that the parents run the program..different in some other ways. There were a lot of plastic toys. I liked being able to remain "hands on" with my son but it was also a lot of work to balance the time I spent there with my older daughter's needs since she's home schooled, and siblings were not allowed. I wish we had a Waldorf playgroup where I am. It is nice to have choices and it sounds like you have a couple of great options now.

Mary said...

Hello! Always interesting to see people's impressions of the Playcentre environment!

My comments:
- it's a bit of a cliche, but all Playcentres are different. So what you witnessed may, or may not, be what you would find in the Playcentre down the road. A lot of people find it's about how they fit with that particular mix of people as much as whether the philosophy appeals. Also, things can vary from day-to-day (i.e. between supervision teams).
- clutter - yes, I think that can happen very easily, especially with lots of children exploring! I think we probably have too much equipment at our Playcentre. It means that it can be a bit hard to see the forest for the trees. We are supposed to tidy up as we go so that each area of play is attractive and ready for the next child - but that's like saying I'm supposed to do all the housework every day. Ahem.
- background music! ah! This is a bit of a bete noir for me. I can't stand background music for the sake of background music. I find it intrusive and annoying. Music for dancing, singing to, as a purposeful accompaniment to an activity - great. I'm sure I've read research that says that background noise is counterproductive for language acquisition (another reason not to leave the tv or radio on all day at home!).
- Supervision. Yes, we have to be constantly vigilant, especially with respect to ensuring the outside area has sufficient adults. I wonder if the supervision issue was related to the physical size of the Centre? Adults having coffee rather than supervising can be a difficult issue. Playcentres are about families, not just the children. And for some people, this is the only adult conversation they are going to get today. So we need to be kind to one another and allow some time out for a cuppa and a chat. But this cannot be at the expense of supervision. Actually I joined two Playcentres when I started out. One of the reasons I chose the one we are at now was the coffee issue - I got sick of looking after other people's children while they chatted over coffee - it never seemed to be my turn.... About the climbing boy...the actual risk may have been mitigated by his level of physical competence. Certainly I react differently on session to different children doing different "risky" things. I might provide far more physical support to one child wielding a saw than another. So you never know, a duty adult may well have been quietly watching him from afar, knowing from their relationship with him that he was an excellent climber, thinking of ways to extend his climbing interest over a more forgiving landing material!

- Morning tea. We have shared morning tea and a healthy food policy. On my duty session this week that meant pasta, mandarins, apple and rice crackers, with water. So no packets of chippies! It is entirely possible (and I would say, best practice) to have a healthy food policy where you byo too.

I wouldn't be in a hurry to join up if you are happy with your current group. Have you asked about waiting lists though - that would be the only issue in terms of leaving it for a while with a view to coming back later if you desired.

I think we all have an image in our heads of our ideal Playcentres. The good thing is though, that as a parent-run collective, once you are in you can add your ideas into the mix!

sweetp said...

Your PC experiences will depend a lot on which centre you visit and I don't think you can adequately judge the "movement" on one visit to one centre. We started PC this term and have been enjoying it. Our centre is not busy and there is only the odd session which is a bit noisy, mostly it is very calm with a smaller number of children - a nice safe environment for my shy 2yo....also all our parents do their bit to supervise ;)
I do have to agree though about the food thing and shudder at some of the lunchbox "goodies" I see. However there is no reason why I couldn't suggest we do a topic/project on healthy eating. I think the nicest thing about PC is that it is a parent co-op and therefore you can have a say as to what goes on and feel like it is 'your' centre, kwim.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like in general a wonderful place. Free play is in short supply these days. I would be concerned about the lack of supervision and the noise/overstimulation, but not so much about snack time. But a Steiner Playcentre might be a great new thing!

Gypsy said...

Thanks everyone for your comments - its so lovely that you actually read my longwinded posts! Mary, love your detailed response thanks so much - I think you and I are kindred spirits on a few of these things. The little boy climber was tiny, and when the welcoming officer who I was talking to saw him she ran like a rocket, calling others as she went - so widespread panic!!! But I think I will go again and talk to them about some of my concerns to see if they are justified!

Nikki said...

Great post! Yes, different centres, different ways. Our centre has a healthy eating policy, no chocolate/sweets. My kids have a very plain snack box compared to a lot of others (corn thins with vege spread, apple, fresh popcorn and other fruit/carrot sticks etc. I too dislike background music for the sake of it, but in my 1yr at PC I've only noticed someone put it on maybe 1/2 dozen times and other times I do a sneaky turn-it-down coz it's inverably loud! On my duty day we often stick with the bare minimums out and the kids have a great time and will occasionally ask for something, but we have really noticed the value in watching them create really imaginative play from just a wooden wheelbarrow and a swing and they will often use a lot more natural items found around the yard. The inside of our building is no where near as cluttered as other centres I've seen. As for coffee breaks - yeah, there have been many ongoing discussions to try and pull it in line, but as Mary says, it is also time out for the mums there to catch up with friends and form friendships and widen their community then making way to form outside of PC relationships - that was one of my main reasons for joining.