An overview of literature on supported playgroups

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(Photo: Manuka)

Family services have been using supported playgroups widely for many years to work with families who may not access community playgroups and other services1. The high cost and complexity of conducting research that clearly demonstrates the effectiveness (or otherwise) of supported playgroups, means that the available research has limitations and cannot provide clear evidence that supported playgroups are successful. The available research does, however, suggest playgroups are highly valued by services and parents, and have a range of potential benefits for parents and children.

What are supported playgroups?

With a dual focus on the well-being and development of children and their parents2, supported playgroups have been funded to help strengthen parenting skills and family support, improve the wellbeing of children and build stronger communities3. They allow parents to learn about child development, reduce social isolation, and link families with other services. In contrast to community playgroups, which are run without the support of a paid facilitator, supported playgroups are facilitated by one or two paid staff, usually with an early childhood, family or community work qualifications who are employed for their skills in recruiting, engaging and supporting families1. Supported playgroups target families experiencing multiple complex needs, or specific populations (e.g., refugee families, Aboriginal families, young parents, or families facing substance abuse or mental health issues). There are a variety of approaches to supported playgroups including:

  1. Standard supported playgroups are usually facilitated by one facilitator on a weekly, or more frequent, basis. The service provides a venue, resources, and designs play activities which are set up and facilitated by a staff member1,2.
  2. Intensive supported playgroups are facilitated by at least two workers (usually an early child worker and a family worker) in order to provide more intensive support and to help build links with other services2.
  3. Mobile supported playgroups take playgroups to geographically isolated families or families living in temporary accommodation (e.g., caravan parks).These mobile playgroups operate as outreach programs and provide a similar program to the standard supported playgroup or intensive supported playgroups1.
  4. Locational supported playgroups provide playgroups to Indigenous families in their own communities. They provide playgroups from single, fixed locations (including private homes). Local women are employed to facilitate the playgroups and, rather than just inviting the mother and father, all people who are involved in the life of the child are welcome4.
  5. Supported playgroups with specific interventions include an intervention delivered within the context of a supported playgroup1. These programs focus on specific behavioural changes (e.g., increasing sensitivity of mothers, improving confidence in parenting, promoting thinking skills for children), improving the learning environment at home or the way parents and children interact5,6.

Common variations in the different models include the length of time families are involved with a playgroup, whether families transition to community playgroups or not, how structured the program is, and the target population.

Content of playgroups

Activities and program content in supported playgroup sessions are generally unstructured and flexible so that they are able to adapt to different circumstances and contexts. There are many descriptions of program changes being made to meet local needs, include different target communities or diverse groups of families, and function in different settings. Common program activities include2:

  • Parents engaging in play with their children
  • Encouraging discussions between parents
  • Sharing snacks
  • A combination of indoor and outdoor play if suitable space is available
    • Indoor activities include music, singing, group story and free play
    • Outdoor activities include water and sand play, and gross-motor development through the use of various play equipment
  • Provision of high quality toys and resources including ‘unusual’ resources and activities, which children may have not have had access to at home15
  • Guest speakers who address topics of interest to the group.

Why supported playgroups?

Supported playgroups offer an important alternative for families when parent-led community playgroups struggle to successfully engage or include them, or fail to meet their needs2,7. They are based on the idea that children’s development will be enriched by increasing their parent’s awareness of the importance of play, socialisation and learning opportunities. They also provide an opportunity for the early identification of developmental problems and appropriate referral2. Playgroups seek to help parents be more responsive to their children’s learning needs and potential, leading to a home environment which is more stimulating1,2. This is important because the quality of interactions between parents and children at home provides the foundation of early literacy, which in turn supports successful transition to school1. Supported playgroups also provide an opportunity for increased social support for parents1,2 and may assist children to be more sociable2. There is some evidence that playgroups serve as effective soft entry points to other services for children and families2 and may be a successful means for delivering health promotion messages (e.g., about healthy eating) to highly vulnerable or disadvantaged families by a range of professionals8.

What’s the evidence?

Generally satisfaction levels are very high for supported playgroups1 and parents report they find them helpful9. The lack of strong research evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of supported playgroups, is largely due to the high cost and complexity of conducting broad, quantitative research on these kinds of programs1,2. Much of the research is based on small case studies rather than a systematic approach to evaluating programs and practices because of the diverse nature of the families and staff, the different models for support provided to the groups, the diversity in session content, and the various program delivery formats across different communities1.

The available research suggests supported playgroups may improve outcomes for children, parents and communities, however, much of the research focuses on supported playgroups as a way of improving early learning outcomes for children. Some evidence for the effectiveness and benefits of playgroups has been established using longitudinal data from Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC)1. Boys and girls from disadvantaged families, who attended a playgroup from an early age, had higher early learning competence , compared to those who did not, although demographic analyses suggest that disadvantaged families are less likely to attend playgroups1.  Despite more studies describing program processes and participation than specific outcomes, the research reveals little information about recruiting and keeping families within these programs. It should also be noted that while most reports discuss playgroups in relation to parents generally, most participants were mothers and so even less is known about the impact of playgroups on fathers.

The strongest available research evidence relates to a small group of studies which used experimental or experiment-like research designs to evaluate a specific intervention delivered through supported playgroups. These studies used established measures to examine children’s development, parenting skills and knowledge, parent wellbeing, confidence and efficacy (or the ability to create planned results), parent-child relationships and the home learning environment. These playgroups were found to be effective in improving parental behaviour in ways that are known to support children’s early learning and development and improve developmental outcomes for children1. Equivalent studies are needed for a broader range of supported playgroups.

Impacts for parents

Supported playgroups with specific interventions provide the strongest evidence of parental change. With these playgroups parents were able to better facilitate their children’s learning, were more responsive to and less directive of their children, encouraged their children to speak more, had better quality interactions with their child, improved the care-giving environment, and viewed their children more positively. Descriptive accounts of supported playgroups indicate they reduce social isolation for parents by encouraging peer support and appear to help build social capital for the families involved. Supported playgroups are described as helpful in supporting recently arrived refugees and immigrants in overcoming social and cultural barriers while providing important information about children’s development. Studies describe them as helping to develop parent confidence and competence1. There is also some evidence that playgroups can lead to increased time spent by parents playing actively with their children10, and parents being more engaged with the community 10 and their school11.

Recent research on parent-run community playgroups (not supported playgroups) found a number of benefits for the mothers involved including helping them to find support and friendship; allowing them to develop parenting skills, leadership skills and the ability to work in teams; and developing community connections and social capital12.

Impacts for children

Studies of supported playgroups with specific interventions described children as gaining better skills in language, thinking and behaviour; better transition to school or kindergarten (especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children); improved social skills and general development; and greater exposure to resources and opportunities for learning1. There is little evidence regarding the impact of supported playgroups on the wellbeing of children2. Parents report that supported playgroups help children with learning to share13, getting along with other children, being more engrossed in play, confidence and speech2. Supported playgroups are also thought to help with the development of gross motor, fine motor and listening skills2. There is also evidence that playgroups can lead to children playing outdoors more10.

Impacts for the community

Playgroups have been described as effective soft entry points to other services for families considered at risk. However, studies of standard supported playgroups generally did not measure linkages to other services. One study suggested there was no increase in the use of other services as a result of supported playgroups13. Other studies suggested parents increased their knowledge about the availability of other services or viewed playgroups as a gateway to other services. There is little focus on measuring community outcomes, and minimal evidence on the ability of supported playgroups to build community capacity for families, except in the studies that highlight improved connections between families and schools. Playgroups held within schools focus on getting children ready for school and involving parents in the learning environment, and allow families to become known at the school and more comfortable in that environment. Relationships made through attending playgroup held within schools are thought to be kept into the school years1.

Staff

Facilitators and facilitation are critical to supported playgroup success2. Facilitators are viewed as trusted role models by parents and thus a consistent facilitator presence is important. Supported playgroups with specific interventions typically have facilitators with higher and more specific professional qualifications than supported playgroup program facilitators. A skilled facilitator is best supported by a managing organisation that provides a program site with flexible, responsive support. The job satisfaction levels of facilitators have a positive relationship with higher attendance levels of families at supported playgroups1.

The processes related to ‘how’ supported playgroup programs deliver their services vary. A wide range of practices involved in providing specific program elements, activities, procedures, philosophies, and policies effect the way each program is provided to families. Practices may be implicit or explicit in how they work to achieve the objectives of the playgroup. Attracting parents to the group, encouraging regular attendance and participation in group activities are all important factors for a successful supported playgroup1.

Implications for practice

Qualitative research, while not providing as strong an evidence base for the effectiveness of playgroups, can provide helpful insights into features of successful playgroups. Some studies found higher levels of attendance were associated with better outcomes for families suggesting that higher attendance increases the impact on families. It may help if facilitators are proactive in engaging families and supporting their regular attendance. Potential strategies include incentives (e.g., food and excursions), regular phone calls, providing transport, providing information in a range of languages, and home visits1,9,13,16.

Other implications from successful supported playgroups include:

  • Actively involving members of the targeted community in recruitment and/or facilitation9,17
  • Ensuring there is adequate time to develop trusting, nonjudgmental relationships, particularly when targeting families who have had negative experiences of, or mistrust, government and other services9,16,17,18
  • Providing an opportunity for other services to offer outreach to hard-to-reach families rather than expecting the families to come to services can assist families to access services they might not have otherwise9,13,18
  • Working in partnership with other services can help with recruiting and retaining families13.

Studies have also identified potential dilemmas in providing supported playgroups. In some playgroups, the facilitator gradually withdraws support over a fixed period and the group continues independently or members join other community playgroups. This approach is considered useful for building capacity to meet local needs. In other playgroups, families stay with the playgroup for as long as they wish, and leave independently if and when they are ready. There is research, however, which suggests both approaches can be problematic or limited for some families and services thus need to consider carefully how families transition out of supported playgroups2. There is also varying evidence about holding playgroups for specific groups (e.g., illicit drug users, young mothers, refugee families). While there can be advantages in building on their shared experience, there can also be unintended negative consequences such as further stigmatising parents (e.g., in playgroups for illicit drug users) or limiting opportunities for socialising with a wider range of people9,18.

Practitioners can help build the evidence base by being clear about the role of the playgroups in their approach to creating change (e.g., through a clear theory of change or program logic), the principles of practice underpinning their playgroups, attempting to measure what difference their playgroups make, and supporting broader evaluations1,2.

Conclusion

Although the existing research evidence base for supported playgroups is not strong, it provides consistent indicators that playgroups are a promising approach to engaging and supporting families, including those currently outside the service system. There is emerging evidence for positive outcomes for children and parents, but little evidence yet for the community outcomes that many believe these models provide. The evidence suggests that the success of playgroups depends on a combination of skilled facilitators and models of delivery appropriate to local contexts. Further, greater consistency and standardisation in how these outcomes are measured is required to further build and strengthen the evidence base.

To read more I suggest you look at the first two works in the reference list below.

The above overview was written by Leanne Schubert, Graeme Stuart (me), and Deborah Hartman from the Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle as part of a project supporting nine rural and regional family services to implement evidence-based programs and practice. The project was funded by the Department funded by the Department of Social Services through the Children and Families Expert Panel. You can see other posts arising from this work at https://sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com/resources-for-students/expert-panel-caps/.

Suggested citation: Schubert, L.,  Stuart, G. & Hartman, D.  (2016) An overview of literature on supported playgroups. Retrieved [date] from https://sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com/2016/07/07/supported-playgroups/

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

  1. Playgroups as a foundation for working with hard to reach families
  2. Mutual self-help parent groups
  3. Building relationships
  4. Childhood trauma and brain development
  5. The Parent Empowerment and Efficacy Measure (PEEM)
  6. Engaging fathers: An overview of evidence-based practice

References:

  1. Williams, K., Berthelsen, D., Nicholson, J., & Viviani, M. (2015) Systematic literature review: Research on supported playgroups. Brisbane: School of Early Childhood, Queensland University of Technology. Available from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/91439/
  2. Commerford, J. & Robinson, E. (2016). Supported playgroups for parents and children: The evidence for their benefits. Child Family Community Australia (CFCA), Paper No. 40 (May). Available from https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/supported-playgroups-parents-and-children
  3. ARTD Consultants. (2008). Evaluation of the playgroup program: Final report for the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services, and Indigenous Affairs. Sydney: ARTD Consultants. Available from https://www.playgroup.org.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/Research/
    FINAL%20ARTD%20Playgroup%20Evaluation%20Report%20October%202008.pdf
  4. AIFS (Australian Institute of Family Studies). (2013). Not Just Kids Play: A Model of Playgroup in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities. Retrieve on 28 June 2016 from https://apps.aifs.gov.au/ippp
    register/projects/not-just-kids-play-a-model-of-playgroup-in-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-communities
  5. Hackworth, N.J., Lawrence, D., Mitrou., F., Zarb., D., Berthelsen, D., Nicholson, J., & Zubrick, S.R. (2012). The association between playgroup participation, learning competence and social-emotional wellbeing for children aged 4-5 years in Australia. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 37(2), 72-81.
  6. Bohr, Y., Halpert, B., Chan, J., Lishak, V., & Brightling, L. (2010). Community-based parenting training: Do adapted evidence-based programmes improve parent-infant interactions? Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 28, 55-68.
  7. Gibson, H., Harman, B. & Guilfoyle, A. (2015). Social capital in metropolitan playgroups: A qualitative analysis of early parental interactions. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 40(2). 4-11.
  8. Myers, J., Gibbons, K., Arnup, S., Volders, E., & Naughton, G. (2015). Early childhood nutrition, active outdoor play and sources of information for families living in highly socially disadvantaged locations. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 51(3), 287–293.
  9. Lakhani, A., & Macfarlane, K. (2015). Playgroups Offering Health and Well-being Support for Families: A Systematic Review. Family & Community Health April/June, 38(2), 180-194.
  10. Weber, D., Rissel, C., Hector, D., & Wen, L. M. (2014). Supported playgroups as a setting for promoting physical activity of young children: Findings from a feasibility study in south-west Sydney, Australia. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 50(4), 301-305. doi: 10.1111/jpc.12466 Available from http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/jpc.12466
  11. Pourliakas, A., Sartore, G.-M., Macvean, M., & Devine, B. (2016). Supported playgroups for children from birth to five years: An evidence brief prepared by the Parenting Research Centre. Sydney: Benevolent Society. Available from http://www.benevolent.org.au/~/media/6BCBDA27D83889697EB698B0C1F8C6F7.ashx
  12. McShane, I., Cook, K., Sinclair, S., Keam, G., & Fry, J. (2016). Relationships matter: The social and economic benefits of community playgroups. Melbourne: Centre for Urban Research, RMIT. Available from http://playgroupaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/RMIT-Report-Relationships-Matter.pdf
  13. Grealy, C., McArthur, M., Jenkins, L., & Holland, E. (2012). Supported Playgroups and Parent Groups Initiative (SPPI) outcomes evaluation. Melbourne: Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Available from https://www.eduweb.vic.gov.au/edulibrary/public/beststart/sppioutcomeseval.pdf
  14. Evangelou, M., Coxon, K., Sylvia, K., Smith, S., & Chan, L.S. (2013). Seeking to engage ‘hard-to-reach’ families: Towards a transferable model of intervention. Children & Society, 27. 127-138. DOI: 10 .1111/j.1099-0860.2011.00387.x
  15. Matthews, J., Cameron, E., Fox, S., Hackworth, N., Kitanovski, M., & Vista, A. (2012). Supported Playgroups and Parent Groups Initiative (SPPI) process evaluation. Melbourne: State of Victoria, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Available from http://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/programs/health/sppiprocesseval.pdf
  16. Warr, D., Mann, R., Forbes, D., & Turner, C. (2013). Once you’ve built some trust: Using playgroups to promote children’s health and wellbeing for families from migrant backgrounds. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 38(1), 41-48.
  17. Jackson, D. (2011). What’s really going on? Parents’ views of parent support in three Australian supported playgroups. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 36(4), 29-37.
  18. Byrne, J. T., Bedford, H., Richter, K. P., & Bammer, G. (2000). “They Should Have Them All Over the Place”: A Health Program for Children of Illicit Drug Users. Substance Use & Misuse, 35(10), 1405-1417. doi: 10.3109/10826080009148222

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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