Coordinator at KU Inner West Supported Playgroups

Tell us about the KU Inner West Supported Playgroups.

There are 10 playgroups that consist of two-hour sessions in different venues including community centres, schools and church halls. The playgroups are for children aged birth to five and children are accompanied by a parent or grandparent. The playgroups consist of one hour and 15 minutes of play time in a play-based program, followed by cleaning up and packing away, then morning tea. Following morning tea is group time, which involves twenty minutes of music and story time, including singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. Everyone is involved together as a group, and this is enjoyed by children, educators and parents as they all sing, dance and tell stories collectively.

How did the playgroups change during COVID-19?

The playgroups were closed due to the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions in March 2020. The first thing staff did when our playgroups closed, was to call all our families to see how they were coping and ask what support they needed at home.

Our message to parents focussed especially on maintaining the mental health and wellbeing of the whole family. We kept in constant connection with our families, and if any families were experiencing issues or hardship, we passed this information on to the playgroup’s Family Support Worker so she could provide further support where required or link families with services such as Lifeline. Some of the parents were suffering from anxiety and fear, feelings of isolation and worrying about family members living overseas, others had children with challenging behaviours. The Family Support Worker contacted these families and assisted them with putting strategies in place to help manage, and where possible, alleviate these issues. The Family Support Worker followed up with these families on an ongoing basis, ensuring they were receiving consistent help and support as and when they needed it, so they could adopt coping mechanisms to be able to regulate their emotions, and also support their children.

How did you support families during COVID-19?

The team developed an online program composed of music and stories. Songs well known to children were included in the program, and a few new ones as well. Stories were told using puppets and other visual aids. We supported children to practice good hygiene by pretending to wash hands in a fun way during the session. We also used this opportunity to get children moving with music and connecting with their parents. Sessions were run on Zoom for 30 minutes, and sometimes up to 45 minutes.

The team also created a series of booklets that were designed to help the families connect, relax and have fun. The first booklet ‘Having fun together’ had information about items that could be found in the home, and ways to use these items to engage in play, such as building a cubby using cushions, playing in the garden, singing songs together and dancing, and creative activities such as making a ‘restaurant’ at home and sharing a meal together. Seven specific booklets were developed during May and June. Information and activities were focussed on providing parents with understanding and practical ideas on how to support children to play and learn at home, relieve stress, keep them physically moving and support the child’s emotional safety and wellbeing.

The activities were carefully selected to encourage connection between parent and child, provide support to regulate their child’s nervous system (co-regulation = self-regulation), focusing on relationships, child-led play, parent-led play and to support children through fun activities. All of these approaches match the principles and core ideas that inform our practices in the facilitation of our supported playgroups.

We encouraged families to share photos of their activities inspired by the booklets with one another, and this created a sense of connection and joy.

As a team, we held meetings every week on Zoom where we would share personal stories, and support one another as colleagues and friends working together during a time of great uncertainty, and this enabled us to better support our families.

What difference did this make to families?

The online program helped families feel connected because even though they couldn’t physically come to a playgroup, they could still engage with the teachers and each other online. The booklets helped to decrease their anxiety and fears, as the ideas helped them become more relaxed by providing an opportunity to do something creative as a family. The booklets were very well received, and we had many messages of thanks from our families.