Connecting generations through play
November 2, 2022
“The importance of play is ageless. Play brings people together!” So begins the case made for Intergenerational Playgroups on the website of Playgroup Australia.
The ABC TV Program, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, which first aired in 2019, powerfully demonstrated how bringing different generations together to ‘play’ is transformational for all involved – it breaks down social barriers, improves health, reduces isolation, fosters understanding and creates lasting relationships.
But this is something Margaret River Uniting Church has known for a long time. They began running their Intergenerational Playgroup almost two decades ago after selling their property in the centre of town and moving to a growing new suburb.
“The original building was on prime real estate, so this enabled us to build a new building on a bigger block which we also wanted to use as a community centre,” says founding Playgroup Coordinator Mary Elton.
“We were looking at different ways of engaging with the community and I saw the Department of Communities had grants available for Intergenerational Playgroups, and the congregation was fully supportive of this idea.”
They applied and were successful. The grant money helped fit out a welcoming space inside (and outside) the Church with toys and equipment. Two months after they moved in, the first Intergenerational Playgroup began.
Ever since, the playgroup has provided a much-valued community service for local families while fostering intergenerational connection and friendship. At its peak, five playgroups operated at the same time. Today, 18 years on, the playgroup continues to meet each week.
There are four committed volunteers from the congregation, aged 60-90, who are involved each week. Sometimes they do a craft activity together and there is a sandpit for play outside. The parents who come along are served a cup of tea or coffee and have the rare opportunity to catch up with other parents while someone else is playing with their children. Each session ends with a sing-along.
One of the best things about the playgroup is that it has created connections between people and generations that might not have otherwise met.
When asked about the benefits for each generation, Mary says it provides the children with an opportunity to socialise and learn through play, with the support of the older volunteers.
“Parents really appreciate when we get out the paints and the messy stuff, so we can do that and help the kids explore.”
“For the parents, it’s really beneficial, particularly because there are quite a few transient and FIFO families in Margaret River. They get to meet each other and support each other and lots of friendships grow out of that. A lot of the families don’t necessarily have older family members around them, so it provides that connection.”
“Through COVID, we had a contingent of English mums who couldn’t connect with their families, and, even though their children had begun Kindy, they continued to come because they appreciated that support.”
And the impact on the older members of the playgroup is just as rewarding.
“It’s just a highlight! The kids are so gorgeous and the families are so gorgeous. As well as developing friendships and being a happy place, it really connects you to the community that you might not normally see. It’s also gives you a sense of purpose to come along and know that you are helping.”
One long-standing and very committed volunteer, Rene Noell, is 90 years old.
“Rene is just wonderful. She is a great listener, cuddles the babies and looks after the mums. She is loved by everyone in the community.”
For Margaret River Uniting Church, the Intergenerational Playgroup has always been a part of their missional outreach, providing real and authentic connections between the church and the community.
“It’s demonstrating our faith, just by being alongside people and being on their journey,” says Mary.
At the same time, it provides a visible presence of the church within the community.
“In Margaret River, people are involved in lots of different community groups, and because we’re only a very small congregation, you get known for being part of the Uniting Church and what it’s about.”
“We have a rainbow welcome sign outside the church, and in a recent conversation with one of the mums, she told me that was the reason she came to the playgroup.”
“Our main worship area is in the middle of the church building, and whenever we have playgroup, that’s always open."
When Queen Elizabeth II passed away in September, the church was set up for playgroup families to come and light a candle and place some flowers for the Queen. Another time, one of the children painted a picture of the world and it was hung inside the church for their Environment Day service, thus creating another link for the wider congregation to the playgroup.
“It’s opportunity for people to get to know what the church is about. So many people don’t have any experience of church now. You need something gentle to open up that experience by getting alongside people. That’s what it has allowed us to do.”
On the other hand, the church is much more engaged and connected to what’s going on in the community.
“It’s definitely helped us to be more aware of the issues in the community, for example, the issues faced by FIFO families, and for families from overseas who are quite isolated. They might have been things we weren’t aware of if we didn’t have the playgroup.”
It’s a wonderful example of living as an Intergenerational Church that not only welcomes different generations within the congregation, but also within the whole community.
“It’s an ongoing connection. Sometimes you see families really struggling, they might have a baby that never sleeps, then five years later you run into them and you see that change. It’s a great gift just being on that journey with people.”
Watch the video below featuring the Margaret River Uniting Church Intergenerational Playgroup.