When my first child was about 10 months old, I met a woman in a nearby park. She asked me what early childhood services I would be taking my daughter to; at that stage, I had no idea. So she launched into her spiel about Playcentre, an Aotearoa/New Zealand parent co-operative that offers early childhood and adult education, creating a parent support community along the way. The next week I went along to my local Playcentre…
My daughter is now 21 years old. I was a member of that centre for 10 years, contributing as a session supervisor, adult education officer, collage corner looker-afterer, and vice-president. I absorbed the training as fast as I could. I was an active member of the local Association working in the adult education programme, including a stint as librarian, and was made a life member (which now mostly means I’m called on to facilitate tricky meetings). My Playcentre work was counted as “sufficient educational experience” to accompany my science degree when I wanted entry into the Masters of Education programme. Further, I was on the national Federation education team for four years, coordinating all the Association education teams.
Playcentre has been a life-changer for me. When I was raising young children, it opened up a world of parent support and intellectual stimulation, and a scholarly direction I hadn’t known I would enjoy. The community networks that developed for me are now part of my way of life. Yet I believe that the Aotearoa/New Zealand early childhood education (ECE) policy landscape is marginalising Playcentre and endangering its survival (I’m in favour of evolution of Playcentre, but not extinction). No big surprise, then, that my doctoral research is a historical look at ECE policy over the last 25 years and its impact on Playcentre. History has lessons for policymakers!
Although my research is examining the last 25 years of Playcentre history in detail, I have also been exploring its longer history to put the work in context. Playcentres started during World War II (WWII) in Wellington middle class suburbs as self-help ventures, in contrast to the already well-established kindergartens that had originally been aimed at children of the poor. These centres quickly formed a network, combining with other similar groups such as Gwen Somerset’s nursery school at the Feilding Community Centre and Doreen Dolton’s nursery school attached to a secondary school in Christchurch. When Gwen became the first President of the New Zealand Nursery Play Centre Federation in 1948, she influenced the organisation to develop along progressive education lines - which was familiar territory for many of the well-educated founders. Gwen championed free play, learning through play and parent education based on child development and the observation of children.
In the post-WWII era, government and society strongly reinforced the traditional nuclear family and the associated gender roles: male income earner, female household manager and child carer. Playcentre was a mixed bag in this respect as it supported (rather than challenged) women as full time carers of their children, but on the other hand, it gave many women an acceptable outlet for their talents in the many jobs necessary to run a centre and/or a national organisation as a parent co-operative.
Second wave feminism from the late 1960s promoted accessible and affordable childcare as a means for women’s emancipation. This required government support for childcare services on an equal footing to the half day services such as kindergarten and Playcentre that were seen as being ‘educational’. The childcare advocate’s message was that care and education for young children were inseparable and that the services should not be treated differently. In 1989 the Before Five reforms merged the administration and funding of all the ECE services under one umbrella, a big achievement for childcare advocates. For Playcentre, however, the effects were mixed: more money and recognition, but more administration and striving to fit bureaucratic categories that were designed for teacher-led services and not parent co-operatives.
Since the Before Five reforms, there has been increasing professionalization of the ECE workforce, an ‘educationalisation of play’ (Stover, 2011), and the promotion of ECE as a child’s right. With the rise of Human Capital Theory where education is integral to producing a productive citizen, ECE has come increasingly under government attention – partly because of its role in freeing women up to participate in the paid labour market but mostly (according to the dominant discourse) because of the educational benefits accrued to the child. ECE has come to be seen as something that only qualified teachers in formal institutions can do. Although partnership with parents is seen as important, the discourse firmly points to a care (parent) and education (teacher) divide, even though the rhetoric is still that care and education of young children are inseparable. Where does this leave Playcentre, a formal education centre with educated parents as the teachers? It is all these changes, policies and discourses, and their effects on Playcentre, that I am trying to tease out in my research.
As part of exploring the recent history of Playcentre, I have written and co-written entries for the Dictionary of Educational History of Australia and New Zealand (DEHANZ) at dehanz.net.au. One is an overview of Playcentre’s history, and the other is about the educational philosophy of one of Playcentre’s early influential leaders, Gwen Somerset. DEHANZ is a new and expanding resource curated by the Australian and New Zealand History of Education Society (ANZHES) which is aimed at researchers and students interested in the history of education from our part of the world. If anyone is knowledgeable about a particular area of antipodean history and would like to write an entry, contact the editors and make their day.
Stover, S. (2011). Play’s progress? Locating play in the educationalisation of early childhood education in New Zealand. Unpublished PhD thesis, Auckland University of Technology.