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 2013 Review submitted by Warwick Marshall (parent and ECE qualified teacher)


Johnsonville Playcentre

Address:  26 Ironside Street, Johnsonville, Wellington
Maximum licence number of children: 30 children
Hours: 2.5 hour sessions daily Monday to Friday (depending on your child's age) and choice of sessions.
Management:  A community-based ECE service run by its parents and families.  Owned by the Wellington Playcentre Association under the auspice of the NZ Playcentre Federation.

Initially I was uncertain.  Visiting Johnsonville Playcentre presented a different proposition than other centres we had visited.  As usual my child and I made an unannounced visit but it was soon explained to us that an appointment was required.  We chatted with a parent for 10 minutes then left.  

A while later we tried again following this Playcentre’s procedure.  My email requesting a visit was responded to promptly with some visit dates and information regarding philosophy and expectations if we became members.  We had to make three visits over three weeks before we could be put on Johnsonville Playcentre's waiting list.  This review covers impressions of our first visit.

We happened to time our arrival with several Playcentre mums and their children.  They greeted us warmly and I instantly felt at ease chatting with them.  My child (2 years 7 months) loved their welcoming attention and instantly began running, playing, shouting and joining in.  

Because the Playcentre entrance is through the outside gate we immediately saw the vege patch and outdoor play area.  We were amazed to see the huge grassed playground full of trees and natural materials.  We saw high wooden platforms, huts, a slide, a swing bridge and a wooden swing frame.  The high quality playground matting under the swing frame formed into a bike track out into the expansive grass area and looped back for a return trip along a line of trees. Surrounding all this was high dense bush and a wire fence separating the playground from the green grass of the neighbouring park (a primary school playground).  Children at the far end of the play area were busy with activities that had been set up involving water, a magnet wall and cushion gym obstacles.

But even with all this in full sight it took my child 30 minutes to finally make it outside because once we got inside he got captivated by interesting puzzles, then made his way to the doll’s house, made wood toast from the wooden toaster and couldn’t believe his luck when he was free to let loose all his musical genius on a real piano.  Inside was jam-packed full of activities and wonderful spaces including a home corner, reading and puzzle area with two couches, art and craft table, play dough table and a drama corner complete with costumes, hats, a bed, babies and prams. 

A dedicated eating area consisted of two long tables surrounded by low bench seats and was positioned next to the kitchen bench where the children could pick up their morning tea and take back to their seats.  When morning tea time was announced the children all came rushing in except one or two who preferred to carry on their activity.  This was respected and their morning tea was saved for later.

The inside was modern, bright, fresh and inviting after a recent renovation.  Conveniently placed to one end of the building were excellent nappy changing facilities, two child friendly toilets, a hand washing basin, a dedicated sleeping area for under twos, an adult toilet and an office room.  In the same area were cubby holes and hooks for personal belongings.  This area was light and bright due to lots of exterior and interior glass windows.

The covered decking had a storage cupboard, bench and two sinks conveniently located for cleaning up - in this area children were busy with painting and crafts.  In another area of the deck was a built-in sandpit with excellent sand quality (smooth fine sand) and I saw a hose, lots of sandpit toys, pipes, blocks and a great wooden storage box to keep them all in.  Also on the deck was a carpentry table… I have never seen such a busy, productive carpentry table.  Two adults were busy overseeing five or six children engrossed in hammering, drilling, screwing and gluing while making magnificent structures.  Another feature of the deck was clear rollup screens that would shelter the deck and half the sandpit enabling children to continue on in bad weather.

Unlike most other centres we had visited here we were welcome to wander off by ourselves and stay for as long as we wanted, so we stayed for the whole 2.5 hour session.  I had never seen so many busy children but they were outdone by their even busier parents.  Parents don’t come to Playcentre to relax and chat while the children play, no way, they work!  They were very busy setting up activities and interacting with children to extend their learning as well as preparing morning tea and just having fun.  But of course there were opportunities to have a good chinwag too.  I did wonder though if the parents were a little too busy and if they could afford to pull on the brakes and stand back a bit more to encourage the children to explore by themselves and to find their own way.

There is everything to like about the adult to child ratio of which I was told this Playcentre was 1:3.  There were 17 children today though the group size limit is kept to 25, which is still a low number considering the huge space and resources available.  These two factors along with having children of mixed ages created a genuine family atmosphere where the children looked so comfortable and happy.

There is also everything to like about the fees of $15 a term for each session.  So if attending the maximum of 4 sessions (total of 10 hours) per week it will cost only $60 for the whole term.  But perhaps some families won’t like much that Playcentre is closed during school term breaks and holidays.  The Playcentre service could be invaluable for some families during these times.

A bicultural practice was evident through posters on the wall providing translations of words and I heard at least one adult include Te Reo in her speech particularly during kai time.  However, I don’t recall seeing any Maori or Pacifika families which perhaps seemed unusual for this area.

Johnsonville Playcentre has one mixed aged session per day from 9-11.30am except Tuesdays which is a session for under-twos only.  You can start your child at any age but you can’t leave your child until they have turned 2.5 years old.  The way this centre works is that each parent must attend one ‘duty’ session with their child.  When your child turns 2.5 years old you attend your ‘duty’ session and can drop off your child at one other session.  This progresses to a second drop off from 3 years old and a third drop off from 4 years old.  Thus three drop offs plus your ‘duty’ session is the maximum because Tuesdays are unavailable due to being for under-twos only. The sessions being only 2.5 hours long was surprising considering the spoils of space and resources available. Such short sessions and the progressive drop off system might be inconvenient for some families.

Adults there today were mums and a granddad, some of whom it seemed had teaching backgrounds.  While the parents are not qualified early childhood teachers they do complete Playcentre course work as well as offering all the experience of being a parent.  During our visit I didn’t have opportunity to observe how conflict or misbehaviour was managed.  I wondered if there might be hesitation when another parent’s child is misbehaving and what the skill level might be like when managing conflict between children.

Perhaps what impressed me most about Johnsonville Playcentre was the wonderful way each adult would sit with a child or group of children.  All the adults seemed to share similar techniques enabling them to simply be there for the children as well as extending learning and giving a strong sense of belonging for each child.  For example, my child was watching a toy rocket being launched into the air and was quickly given a turn, he was then invited to play musical instruments by another group, then a parent saw him rolling balls at the play dough table so gave him a long pipe to roll them down.  My child let go of any anxiety.  He was spoken to like he belonged, like the adults really cared and were genuinely interested in him.  All this had a tremendous effect on him because when we returned home he was positively glowing for the rest of the day.

As the session came to a close I thought good grief what a mess… so much cleaning up for the parents.  Then come the reinforcements, the refreshed parents arriving to pick up their children all pitched in making it fairly light work.  And, this allowed the ‘duty’ parents to meet and consider their curriculum and assessment for the children and deal with other sundry items. 

While I watched their meeting I realised I had lost sight of my child. I peeked around the corner to see he had taken time out to be alone, sitting on a couch with his cap lowered over his face engrossed with a good storybook.  It was remarkable that just during one visit how quickly and easily he had come to feel at home.