Playgroups as a foundation for working with hard to reach families

Artwork by Alexa (3)

Artwork by Alexa (3)

The Caravan Project at the Family Action Centre has been using playgroups for over 20 years as a foundation for working with families who are suspicious of, and reluctant to use, health and welfare services. Playgroups are valuable in promoting the social, cognitive and physical development of children, building relationships with families and bringing communities together.

Features of our practice include:

Community development. An important focus is helping build strong communities, and playgroups encourage people to come together in a setting where formal and informal networks can be developed or strengthened, and residents can discuss ways of improving their environment.

A strengths perspective. We build on the strengths of caravan park residents and recognise that, although some residents find life on a park very challenging, caravan park communities have numerous strengths that help improve their quality of life.

Building relationships. Marginalised residents of caravan parks are frequently mistrustful of service providers and building relationships can be a slow process. Playgroups are a low-key non-threatening way of engaging with residents and give them time to decide whether or not we can be trusted.

Purposeful conversation. Every group or home visit is an opportunity to have a purposeful conversation and to help extend people’s thinking and beliefs around problem solving and what to do about their own unique situation

Assertive outreach. Rather than waiting for residents to come to us, we actively encourage residents to be involved in our programs and seek out residents who may be in need of support (e.g., by door knocking and asking park managers if there are new residents or people they are worried about).

A child focus. Although our playgroups have a dual focus – community building as well as the normal focus of playgroups – it is important not to lose a child focus. A strength of playgroups is that they ask adults to put the child at the centre of a physical and emotional space.

Advocacy. We often need to advocate on behalf of residents at an individual level (e.g., to park managers), at a service level (e.g., to help them access services) and a systems level (e.g., to promote change in policy and practice).

A belief that change is possible. We don’t always see the results of our work as people often move from a park as things begin to improve. We have to trust that we do make a difference and collect evidence to show others (e.g., funding bodies) that change does occur.

Over the years we have learnt that the following are important for the success of our work.

We need to offer playgroups right in their community. Rather than expecting residents to come to us, we go to them, which means that our playgroups are normally run outdoors in highly visible locations. This encourages people to come. On one park, when we tried running a playgroup in a community hall about 300 metres away, we found that numbers decreased dramatically.

We need well supported, skilled staff. Staff need to be able to respond to a wide range of issues (e.g., child protection, mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse), balance the needs of residents with keeping park managers on-side and cope with the uncertainty and changeability of the work. We find it often helps to have one (or two) workers focusing on the children and one worker focusing on the adults. Because the work is challenging and demanding, staff need to be well supported by management and each other.

We need to develop strategic partnerships. The complexity of issues affecting many residents can only be addressed through partnerships with both the residents and other services. On a particularly marginalised caravan park we have built key partnerships with the local child and family health nurse, the local primary school and another mobile children’s service, as well as working with a variety of other services. The playgroups provide an excellent opportunity for other service providers to meet residents and to develop relationships.

We need to be responsive to the needs of children and parents/carers. Our programs and work with individuals need to be tailored to the specific needs of those involved.

We need to be flexible and creative. We do not have rigid rules or guidelines (e.g., we can cope with unaccompanied children, and children coming and going), while we develop a plan for each group we adapt the plan as we go and are able to respond quickly to changes within a park. It helps for staff to be able to think outside of the square and to be adaptable (e.g., when it is raining we generally can’t run a group but we still go out to visit the families and give the children some activities to do at home).

We believe that playgroups are an excellent way of working with hard to reach families. In doing so, it is important that we do not see the families as being the problem and thinking about all the ways that they make it hard for us to reach them. Instead, let us focus on what we can do to reach them and how we can change our practice so that they will want to engage with us.

Originally published in

Stuart, G., & Witt, D. (2007). Playgroups as a foundation for working with hard to reach families. Playgroup Queensland News Bulletin(3), 2.

If you liked this post you might want to subscribe to the blog (top right-hand corner of the blog),  and you might like to look at:

  1. Supporting residents of caravan parks
  2. Families with children living in caravan parks
  3. “I try and make it feel more like a home” – families living in caravan parks
  4. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  5. What is the Strengths Perspective?

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Families & parenting, Strengths-based approaches & ABCD, Working with communities and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Playgroups as a foundation for working with hard to reach families

  1. Jeremy Hearne says:

    Hi Graeme and Mariejwsie, we developed a number of playgroups in Melbourne’s North utilising Supported Playgroups funding engaging Aboriginal community and culturally diverse communities. We found the model worked well as it allowed ‘us’ in community health to bring services to community in a gentle, safe a respectful manner. The benefits were as described in this article but also included unintended outcomes such as parents of children participating seeing the playgroup as an English class through their participation in the reading sessions with their kids.


  2. Hi Graeme,
    As you would remember from the wonderful Conference we partnered with you to put together, Save the Children has been operating Supported Playgroups for near thirty years in Queensland and around Australia with the key objective of engaging hard to reach families. It was from research conducted with the Family Action Centre funding was achieved for the preferred model of ISP’s. back in 2002.


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