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Knaus, M. & Warren, J. (2015). A supported playgroup located on school grounds: Developing family relationships within a school environment to support children’s transition to school. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 18, 20- 36.
A supported playgroup located on school grounds: Developing family relationships within a school environment to support children’s transition to school
Children in the early years of life face many changes and transitions and the provision of a supported playgroup on a school site enables the continuity of early childhood programmes and offers a pathway for a smooth transition to the school environment. Research has shown that when children from disadvantaged families participate in playgroups, better social and emotional outcomes are realised. The findings of this research offer insights into the importance of the formation of relationships between parents, children and the school community when transitioning children to school.
Key words: Playgroup; transition to school; disadvantaged children.
In the early years of life, children are participants in the social and cultural world around them. As children interact between home environments and community settings they are exposed to multiple contexts that change over time (Bowes, Grace & Hayes, 2009). More than any other phase, early childhood is characterised by a series of transitions into new environments (Bernard Leer Foundation, 2007). One major life event for children and families is the transition to school. Such an event can often be a social or biological turning point that includes expectations and responsibilities (Bernard Leer Foundation 2007). Transition to school presents many new challenges for children as they learn to adapt to physical and social environments and routines (Berlin, 2010).
Parent-led community playgroups have a long tradition in Australian contexts and are generally identified as an organised gathering of parents and children who meet regularly to play and socialise. A supported playgroup differs in that it is operated by an organisation, and is usually facilitated by early childhood educators or community workers. Research has demonstrated that positive experiences and quality programmes have a favourable impact on later school success (Pianta & Kraft-Sayer, 2003; Dockett & Perry, 2008). Programs that involve families, educators, and support professionals working in partnership have potential to incorporate smooth transitions into the compulsory years of school (Jackson, 2011). A supported playgroup within a school setting is one type of transitional programme.
In this paper, the researchers will report on a supported playgroup operating in an urban Western Australian (WA) school. This supported playgroup is situated in a low socio-economic context and caters for families with children aged birth to three years. In WA children can participate in a non-compulsory Kindergarten school programme the year they turn four years of age.
The aim of the research was to identify how the implementation of a supported playgroup in a low socioeconomic area contributes to the developing relationships with families, community and the school environment to promote a smooth transition to the school programme. The research reported in this paper was guided by the following questions:
- What does the supported playgroup offer to the participating families?
- What do families believe is the role of the school in facilitating transition?
- What strategies are effective in developing relationships between families, support professionals and school personnel?
- Does attending playgroup support families in the transition to the Kindergarten year?
Transition to school
Transition to school has been a subject of interest for some time (Pianta & Kraft-Sayer, 2003; Dockett & Perry, 2001, 2003, 2008, 2009; Noel, 2011, Perry & Dockett, 2011). In the past, emphasis has been placed on preschool programmes, parent and school meetings and literature to support families in the transition to school process; however, there has been little reference to how playgroups can benefit children and families. Supported playgroups are one particular model used in Australia as an early intervention strategy to provide stimulating early childhood environments for the development and wellbeing of children and support for their parents (Jackson, 2011).
Playgroups can be utilised as a model for transition to school as they offer a two-fold approach; catering for the needs of both parents and children. When children and families feel connected with the school and education, communities benefit (Dockett & Perry, 2008). This is particularly evident when the playgroup is located on the school grounds. A supported playgroup located at a school site offers many opportunities for building relationships. Dockett and Perry (2008) and Noel (2011) regard relationships as being integral for successful transitions to school. This is based on the notion that children do not grow and develop in isolation, but as part of a community.
Continuity between educational programmes is an important aspect in the transition to school as identified by Einarsdottir, Perry and Dockett (2010). Research by Skouteris, Watson and Lum (2012) suggest that pedagogical differences between early childhood services and primary schools create an imbalance and disconnection between the two contexts. A supported playgroup located on the school grounds can provide a bridge between the two types of environments.
Engaging with families
Families tend to have the most influence on children’s development and socialisation. However, families do not function alone but engage with social systems, institutions and communities (Bowes, Watson & Pearson, 2009). Engaging with families to develop positive and respectful relationships is considered a high priority in early childhood education (Dockett, Perry, Kearney, Hampshire, Mason & Schmied, 2009). The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) emphasises that partnerships and relationships with families, educators and support professionals, results in the development of a child’s sense of wellbeing (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR], 2009). Partnerships in a supported playgroup environment are based on trust, communication, understanding each other’s expectations, valuing each other’s knowledge and contribution. As each family is different, Bowes, Grace and Hayes (2009) stress the importance of understanding individual family contexts. These contexts are varied and change over time.
While it is recognised that family engagement plays a significant role in successful transitions, research has identified that some families from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be involved in school transition programmes and do not actively participate (Bernard Leer Foundation, 2007; Dockett et al, 2009). Socioeconomic backgrounds have a major influence on educational performance and can be a predictor of a child’s success at school (Bernard van Leer Foundation, 2007). Focused interventions such as the provision of parenting education support systems and early childhood programmes have found to be effective strategies for reducing inequalities and improving developmental outcomes for low socioeconomic communities. Transition programmes that engage families are more effective for children of low socioeconomic status and children considered at risk (Berlin, 2010). Data from the Longitudinal Study of Australia’s Children (LSAC) between the periods of 2004 and 2008 identified that playgroup participation for children from disadvantaged families, aged birth to three years, provides better outcomes than non-participation in a playgroup in regards to children’s social and emotional functioning and learning competence (Hancock, Lawrence, Mitrou, Zarb, Berthelson, Nicholson & Kubrick, 2012). Such evidence points to the significance of participation in playgroup settings for disadvantaged families as a predictor of later learning outcomes for young children.
Bowes, Grace and Hayes (2009) emphasise that providing community support and intervention programmes strengthen children, families and communities. It is commonly believed that investing in the early years has a profound impact on children’s well-being later in life and that early childhood is the most effective and cost efficient time to ensure all children develop to their full potential (McCain, Mustard & Shonkoff, 2007). According to research by Shonkoff, positive relationships can change the architecture of the brain and that “an environment of stable, stimulating and protective relationships builds a strong foundation for a lifetime of effective learning” (2011, p. 982).
Two particular theories underpin this research; Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (1979) and Social Capital Theory (Bourdieu, 1986; Putnam, 2000). Both of these theories relate to the network surrounding a child in their transition to school. Transition to school is a complex social process and each of these theories supports the aims of the research undertaken.
Transition programmes such as supported playgroups, impact beyond the school and to greater society. The influence of multiple factors on a child’s development relates to Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological theory demonstrating a bi-directional influence between all stakeholders. In Bronfenbrenner’s model, the child is embedded at the centre of several surrounding concentric circles representing multifaceted layers of the environment. The interactions and relationships of the child influence the surrounding contextual layers and these in turn influence the child. The microsystem according to Bowes, Grace and Hayes (2009, p. 8) “consists of the face to face settings with which children are involved” such as the school and the supported playgroup. Transition to school is characterised by the many changing interactions and relationships in the child’s environment; family, playgroup, school and community. The interrelationships between these contexts are the next layer in Bronfenbrenner’s model, the mesosystem. Successful transition to school relies on the positive connections between the child and the environment. These connections are dynamic and continually change and evolve within the realm of the child’s experiences and relationships. Ecological theory “recognises that there are many contributors to transition experiences and that the perspectives and expectations of each of these contributors shape those experiences in some way” (Dockett et al, 2009, p. 354).
Social capital theory is based on the premise that social networks are a valuable asset to a community. Bowes, Watson and Pearson (2009) refer to social capital as the relationships between people; family, extended family and the community. Relationships take time to develop and maintain and the experience of these networks create a sense of belonging. Families who feel a sense of belonging are more likely to engage with the school than those who do not have that same connectedness (Dockett et al, 2009). Social networks are a valuable asset and are beneficial to people. Bourdieu (1986, p. 249) referred to this as “the potential resources linked to a network.” Putnam discussed the cultural resources shared by community members as “connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” (2000, p. 19). Networks within a child’s family and community have far reaching effects on their opportunities, choices and educational achievement. Putnam (2000) ascertains that child development is powerfully shaped by social capital. Communities high in social capital have improved outcomes for children and parents (Bowes, Watson & Pearson, 2009).
The general hypothesis developed at the start of the research ascertained that relationships play a key role in a playgroup setting and in the transition to the school environment. The best approach for a study focusing on social relationships was to adopt a qualitative paradigm using ethnographic methodology. In ethnography, the researcher’s presence become what is referred to as the “human instrument”, being adaptable and responsive to the social context with “mutual shaping and interaction” taking place during the research (Lincoln & Guba (1985, p. 155).
The research was conducted in a naturalistic setting at the supported playgroup, on the school site, and examined the dynamics of a sociocultural system within the context. The researchers became participant observers and interacted in the everyday running of the supported playgroup. In order for relationships and trust to develop between the researchers and participants visits to the playgroup were made on a weekly basis over four terms. While the supported playgroup was operating, many informal conversations were held between the participants and researchers. Documentation of the discussions was noted using anecdotal recordings and subsequently analysed at a later date.
After gaining approval from the university ethics committee participants were recruited. They included parents of the children attending the playgroup, school staff, Playgroup Leader, school Principal and Deputy Principal. Thirty families consented to be a part of the research and the majority of participants were aged 30 years or over and came from low socio-economic contexts consisting of a variety of cultural backgrounds including Burmese, Vietnamese and African.
Different data sources using a variety of methods such as parent questionnaires, interviews and focus groups allowed for cross validation to verify that the data was consistent. Interviews were undertaken with the supported Playgroup Leader, Kindergarten teacher, Principal and Deputy Principal of the school. As reading and writing in English was not a strength of the participants a translator assisted in the process of completing the questionnaires. The translator was well known to the participants as she was employed by the school as an Education Assistant to support non-English speaking families. As part of the analysis, the data was manually coded and categorised into various themes which were narrowed down into the key themes referred to in the findings.
The playgroup is situated on the grounds of a school located in the north eastern suburb of Perth, Western Australia. The school is an Independent Public School thereby enabling the school community to have the flexibility to make decisions about the curriculum based on the students’ needs, staff recruitment, financial management, student support, governance and accountability. [In Western Australia almost a third of public schools are classed as Independent. The school is still a part of the public school system but being independent allows for greater autonomy and flexibility.] The school celebrates a rich cultural diversity with a multi-cultural population with 10% of the students being Vietnamese and 30% Aboriginal with more than 20 languages spoken (Western Australia Department of Education, 2012).
The school community has been measured on the socioeconomic status (SES) index resulting in a score of 87.04 points, thereby indicating significant social and economic disadvantage (Australian Early Development Index [AEDI], 2012). The majority of the parents and families of the school community face many challenges when it comes to providing care and education for their children. Many of the families lack financial, social and educational support. The families of the school community often have inadequate or limited access to community resources that promote and support children's development and school readiness. Tools such as the AEDI have identified children attending the school to be ‘developmentally at risk’ or ‘developmentally vulnerable’ in the areas of physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, communication skills and general knowledge (AEDI, 2012). Other factors that the school faces on a daily basis associated with low SES communities such as poor attendance, malnourishment, issues of mental health and wellbeing are true of this school community. Further challenges to the school include a transiency rate of 33% on an annual basis according to the School Business Plan. The transience of students entering and leaving the school on a consistent basis adds a level of difficulty to the continuity of learning and makes longitudinal data collection an issue for the school.
As part of the Low SES Communities Partnership Plan the school has identified key outcomes to be addressed and end targets to be met. A key improvement strategy identified by the school is to develop strong links with families and children (0-3 years) and promote a positive transition to school programme through the development and implementation of the playgroup. End targets of increasing participation numbers of the playgroup by 25%, improving the early learning and development of children, increasing the children’s readiness for school and supporting families to create their own capacity to provide positive early developmental experiences for their children are intended outcomes of the playgroup.
As identified in the interview with the Principal the supported playgroup adopted a family-centred and non-judgemental approach where families are unconditionally accepted and respected, thereby promoting a safe inclusive environment. The supported playgroup offers the capability for families to socialise in a supported environment with provision for educational opportunities for children aged birth to three years to improve their development and learning outcomes. The supported playgroup operated three mornings a week for two hours and incorporated a structured routine with indoor and outdoor play, music time, story time and morning tea. The need to support families and create their own capacity to provide positive early developmental experiences for their children is also an intended outcome of the supported playgroup. Furthermore, the playgroup sets out to develop strong links with families and children and promotes a positive experience within a school environment.
The links between the school, families and community is evidenced by the provision of programmes for parents and families that assist in building self-esteem. These include recreational activities such as music, arts and crafts. Such opportunities have allowed participants to try new experiences and activities, resulting in a sense of achievement, accomplishment, self-confidence and well-being. Parents are also offered educational programmes such as the importance of reading to your child, first aid for babies and toddlers, child nutrition, language games to make and play and mathematics within the home environment. Parents participating in the study have stated that these programmes support them to feel a part of their child’s education and empowered them to communicate with teachers within the school.
The data analysis led to the identification of the following key themes including socialisation, environment, personnel, sense of belonging, transition and the benefits to the school.
One of the most frequent responses surfacing from the questionnaire and focus group data was that the playgroup was just as important for the parents as for the children. This was also evident from the weekly observations made by the researchers. The questionnaire asked: What do you like about playgroup? There were twenty responses from the parents indicating they attended the playgroup primarily for social reasons and the opportunity to talk with other adults. The parents’ responses as to why the playgroup was important to them included:
For both of us to socialise.
To talk with adults.
To get out of the house.
When my wife came to Australia she didn’t have other friends with babies. She doesn’t get invited out a lot now after having a baby. Also culturally the way babies are raised and play is different. It is good to see how Australian babies play.
To join in and be a part of everything going on.
It is good for him and me to mix with multicultural people.
The dynamics in the group are interesting in terms of mixing - how will I be perceived as a Noongar.
Parents very friendly.
Talking to adults, making friends.
He has got to learn how to play with kids and learn the sharing thing.
The social interaction.
To learn English and to see my son enjoy. He can learn and practice English too.
The potential to develop social support networks was important to parents who felt isolated in their parenting role. Support was also available from the school staff, professionals located on the school grounds, a Smith Family representative, parenting programmes and more significantly through the friendships developed at the playgroup. There were no obvious cultural or language barriers in the playgroup and parents mixed regardless of nationality or culture. They found ways to communicate with each other using gestures and basic English. They would share their interests, cooking ideas, child rearing practices, and general conversation about everyday events.
Programme and environment
The playgroup programme offers children and families a predictable routine that closely resembles the routines incorporated within the school environment. In this way the children know when certain things happen and what will follow (e.g. snack time follows free activity time). Routines can help promote a feeling of safety for young children and for the families from this research, a routine helped them to feel ‘more organised and in control’. Open ended experiences and activities providing opportunities for children to experiment and explore were implemented as part of the programme. It was reported by several parents in the focus groups that the playgroup programme and environment was friendly and welcoming. This was another contributing factor to parents becoming ‘regulars’ and wanting to attend as many days as possible. This demonstrates the environment is an important factor on the development of relationships. Some parent comments included:
The activities are always different but the routine is the same.
Offers different activities for children that we don’t do at home.
Lots of different activities and new people.
Positive friendly atmosphere.
It is a welcoming environment. Has a nice feel.
Good environment for learning.
Quality of equipment, activities, structured programme.
The children became settled as they began to adjust to the routine and expectations set by the Playgroup Leader. As many had older siblings the playgroup children began to refer to playgroup as ‘their school’ indicating a sense of belonging and a ‘special’ place especially for them.
Having the supported playgroup at the school also had benefits for the parents. Parents cited the proximity and closeness of the playgroup to where they lived; being able to drop their older children at school and then go to playgroup was seen as an advantage for many families. A parent for example explained that the supported playgroup ‘has the school in common, other playgroups just have the suburb in common’.
Some of the parents indicated that the reason for the welcoming atmosphere was the Playgroup Leader. The Playgroup Leader was a strength and support to the families. Comments included:
[she] introduced me to everyone and also explained to me how everything worked.
You need to have someone running it with a structure rather than just parents running it and stepping on people’s toes. At another playgroup it was just chaos.
Having the right Playgroup Leader is more than providing learning opportunities appropriate to the developmental needs of the children or managing resources effectively. The welcoming atmosphere that the Playgroup Leader established was developed through the exchange of information and advice to parents. She encouraged the parents to interact with their child and participate in the routines of the session. By taking time to listen and respond to the children the Playgroup Leader encouraged the parents to enable their child to become independent and resilient.
The Deputy Principal and Principal were accepted visitors to the playgroup and chatted to parents about their children and everyday events in a warm, open and friendly manner. The Principal was perceived as a ‘friendly face’, interacting with the parents and children. On occasions he would take music sessions, play his guitar and read a story to the children. The Deputy Principal spent considerable time with the families and she became aware of their individual circumstances and offered support and advice on various issues. Parents felt comfortable enough to often divulge information about their personal circumstances, family or financial issues and parenting problems. The Deputy Principal liaised with other agencies to provide the necessary support which was ongoing.
Some of the parents had indicated that they did not have a pleasant schooling experience. The visibility of the school leaders at the supported playgroup assisted in breaking down such predetermined barriers. One of the parents in the focus group stated that the supported playgroup; ‘gives you more confidence to talk to the people in charge of the school, as we were intimidated before’. Such visibility and continued contact by a variety of the school staff was important in developing relationships and connections between the playgroup, families and the school.
Sense of belonging
As the parents interacted with other parents and school staff they developed a feeling of mutual connectedness and a sense of belonging. The idea of ownership of the playgroup was apparent when parents, without being asked, began to implement the routines and started preparing morning tea and setting up for scheduled activities. Interacting, reading and playing with the children were modelled by the Playgroup Leader and the researchers. As a result of this modelling, the parents interacted with their children rather than standing at the back of the room and not being involved with their child. Towards the end of the year, the researchers and Playgroup Leader noted that the parents were successfully running the playgroup as a united team in an informed manner. The parents developed a friendship, camaraderie and a social network group. They would go to the park together and attend adult education/craft afternoons offered at the school. This friendship group was so strong that the following year the parents requested their children be placed in the same Kindergarten group. According to Howes (1988), children who have a familiar peer in a new group setting have fewer problems adjusting to new environments.
As stated in the introduction, early childhood is characterised by a series of transitions into new environments (Bernard Leer Foundation, 2007). One such transition is from a playgroup to a Kindergarten environment which can be a stressful time for both children and parents. In order to overcome these pressures and to place the children in the best possible position to commence Kindergarten, the supported Playgroup Leader implemented one session a week strictly dedicated to the children who were transitioning into the Kindergarten the following year. The purposes of the transition programme were many. The programme provided the opportunity to familiarise children with the workings of the Kindergarten, facilitate collaboration between parents and the Kindergarten staff and continue the involvement of families in their child’s education. The transition programme also provided the children with the opportunity to participate in the routine of a Kindergarten day, become familiar with the physical environment and explore the larger school context. As the transition process was implemented in a matter-of-fact way, the children and parents became more comfortable in what lay ahead and increased their readiness for school.
The continuity between the school and the supported playgroup occurred when the children were able to visit the Kindergarten room, library, music room as well as participating in some school events such as the special assemblies, and the athletics carnival. Collaboration with school staff was further established by regular visits from the Kindergarten teacher and music teachers who held many interactive music and movement sessions. These experiences provided opportunities that the parents were unable to offer in their home environment.
Benefits to the school
While the parents clearly indicated the benefits of the playgroup, the school staff did so as well. In interviews with the Principal and Deputy Principal, it was obvious that the supported playgroup was of benefit to all stakeholders. Originally the supported playgroup began as an early intervention strategy, seeing families early enough to begin intervention as a pathway to prevention. Over time, as the playgroup developed, this approach shifted from a deficit model to one of a more positive strategy that became a whole community approach. According to the Principal, it was seen as a good investment, and an important programme operating at the school. The success of the supported playgroup emanated from the passion and driving force of the Principal and Deputy Principal with support from other early childhood educators at the school. Funding was procured from various sources to operate the playgroup.
The Playgroup Leader identified some short-term and long-term impacts from the playgroup. In the short term:
- Parenting skills were improved through modeling, discussions and information sessions;
- The learning and development outcomes of the children were improved;
- Children became familiar with the school environment and developed independence;
- Children developed ongoing relationships and attachment to staff at their school.
Such evidence explains the importance of social networks, the connections among individuals and the potential resources that are linked to social capital. In the long-term:
- Parents viewed the school as a non-threatening environment and felt comfortable to talk with anyone at the school;
- Parents were more willing to help at the school, be involved in events and activities and be a part of the school community;
- Children established relationships at the school enabling them to transition to the ‘big school’.
The most significant aspect of this research was the quality of the relationships that were developed between the families and the school community. Trust, willingness to share experiences, and reciprocity were all evident in this research. Research undertaken by Jackson (2011) also affirms that a supported playgroup provides a social environment for parents fostering positive relationships and increased parent knowledge related to their child’s development and learning.
Contrary to Bernard van Leer’s (2007) research stating disadvantaged families are less likely to participate in transition programmes, the families in this study indicated the supported playgroup provided opportunities for an active role in the participation of their children’s transition to school. The key links to the success includes:
- The schools early childhood philosophy;
- The schools key improvement strategies acknowledging the importance of early intervention;
- An active presence at the supported playgroup by key school staff members;
- A Playgroup Leader who is able to make connections with families;
- A Playgroup Leader who has knowledge of children’s early learning and development, and
- Location of the playgroup within the school boundary.
Bronfenbrenner (1979) asserts children are a part of a larger social system and are greatly influenced by their environment. The quality of the supported playgroup programme as identified in this research is reflective of the multifaceted relationships between parents and children, children and school staff and parents and school staff. The contribution of these relationships impacts positively on children and their ongoing learning and development.
While there are strong arguments for governments to invest in the early years through early childhood programmes the Bernard Leer Foundation (2007) question why there is little government investment in providing transition programmes such as playgroups and parental support, when these types of services provide so many advantages. Different models of integrated service delivery operate in Australian states and territories and in other countries.
In Western Australia, this issue is beginning to be addressed with the endorsement of the state government to establish 16 Child and Parent Centre’s (CPC’s) on school sites in low socioeconomic areas (Whiteside et al, 2013). The CPC’s are a government initiative led by the Department of Education and supported by non-government organisations offering a range of integrated services and programmes for children and families. The government acknowledges that such initiatives provide economic as well as the other associated educational, health and social benefits. The CPC’s on school sites will provide effective transition for “children’s early learning and development across the Pre-kindergarten, Kindergarten and full time early years of schooling” (Whiteside et al, 2013, p. 12). It is proposed that the CPC’s will offer playgroups that will be parent led. However, the authors argue that this research has revealed ‘supported playgroups’ are paramount to the success for all stakeholders. When playgroups are facilitated by early childhood educators or community workers, they offer social connectedness, information and resource support and ways to interact with children in order to promote learning and development. Playgroup Victoria (2008) affirms that playgroups connect families and when based at a local school the foundations are laid for an easy transition towards the next logical step in a child’s life. This research confirms the benefits of programmes that offer supported playgroups on school sites.
This study suggests that playgroups located on school sites have potential to benefit families and the school, in particular, families from disadvantaged backgrounds. The identifying feature that contributed to the success of the supported playgroup was the positive relationships that were developed between stakeholders. This research will be continued with the tracking of the cohort of families and children in this initial project. It will investigate the children’s transition from the schools’ supported playgroup into the Kindergarten programme by observing the children’s social and emotional performance and their dispositions to learning.
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Whiteside, L., Barratt-Pugh, C., Barblett, L., Stamopoulos, E., Knaus, M., Targowska, A., & Teather, S. (2013). Child and parent centres on public school sites in low socioeconomic communities in Western Australia: A model of integrated service delivery. Perth, WA: Edith Cowan University.
Marianne Knaus is a researcher and early childhood lecturer at Edith Cowan University. Research interests include the importance of developing relationships in playgroups as a way of children transitioning to the school context and mathematics in the early years.
Judy Warren is a lecturer in early childhood education at Edith Cowan University and is presently working in a school context. Her research interests and publications focus on young children’s social and emotional wellbeing.
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