Playgroups for Learning Team Excellence

The Playgroup for Learning Team has been awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Staff Award for Excellence in Research and Research Partnership for their work on understanding the benefits of playgroup participation among young children, now and in later life.

This team, which conducts research in the Early Childhood Futures program at ACU’s Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education, comprises Senior Lecturer Dr Karen McLean, Research Program Director Professor Susan Edwards, Jacinta Bartlett, Sam Carroll and Dr Timothy Katiba, and HDR students Melanie Thomas and Celine Chu.

Early learning and the participation of children and families in playgroups is the focus of the team’s work. Their research studies the fair and equitable access to playgroups in early years education provision, enabling learning for all and enhancing learning outcomes in early childhood.

Emerging leaders

The research began in 2012 when Karen, who had just finished her PhD through ACU, began working with a consortium in Ballarat involving Playgroup Victoria, education groups and local government. 

“We were looking at playgroups in schools in terms of building community connections in early childhood, and strengthening that connection between schools, the community and families to support that process,” says Karen.

The project attracted philanthropic funding and won a state award for improving access to early childhood services. This initial research led to two subsequent projects, and the Playgroup for Learning Team has worked closely with Playgroup Victoria since.

“From those humble roots, it’s been about building that evidence base,” says Karen. “In 2012, there wasn’t a lot known about the outcomes of playgroup participation. Playgroups have started to attract a lot of interest in the research area in recent years, particularly internationally, and we now know a lot more about early childhood in terms of the children’s later trajectories and life outcomes.

“We were one of the first groups to be researching in that space, and over time we’ve emerged as leaders in that field because we’ve spent nine years building those relationships.”

Projects and progress

The Playgroups for Learning Team is progressing its research through two main projects at present.

Karen holds an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award to look at how caregivers involved in community playgroups use social media to self-organise, support each other, and build their own knowledge about play.

“The impetus for that research came from a project we did in 2016, looking at the role of the playgroup coordinator to promote participation and advocate for playgroups,” she says.

“We saw what parents were communicating with each other on social media platforms like Facebook, and we saw the under-realised potential of social media use to be part of that support.”

The team is also working on an ARC Linkage Project, with Playgroup Victoria as an industry partner, looking at the development of a best practice framework for playgroups in schools.

“This project uses social capital theory and looks at bonding relationships, which are the relationships families have within playgroups that build their knowledge and support, and bridging relationships, those between families and professionals in schools,” explains Karen.

“It looks at what contributes to high bonding, high bridging relationships. Playgroup Victoria will then use that primary output in playgroups in schools.”

Susan and Karen are also co-chairing a national advisory group to develop a playgroup declaration. It’s the first time that peak stakeholders and organisations working with playgroups have come together to build the shared understanding required to progress the field.

“That will allow us to understand what is the value of playgroups for children and their families, what’s the evidence base, where are the gaps, and what we need to focus on in the future to build the evidence so we contribute in a very powerful way to learning outcomes for children,” Karen says.

“It will have a very clear benefit to the community at a national level, and eventually we’re working to the international level.”

A winning approach

This isn’t the first time the Playgroups for Learning Team has won a Vice-Chancellor’s Staff Award – they first won a Community Engagement award in 2012 for their work in Ballarat. But this year’s announcement was received with great delight by the Victoria-based team, who last met in person back in March.

“It was an absolute honour; we were giving each other big Zoom hugs,” says Karen. “And I think part of that is because we’ve been so passionate. We love the fieldwork, we love the connection, and we know we’re making the difference. It’s lovely to work with a team that shares that passion.”

The team would like to acknowledge their mutually beneficial industry partnerships with Playgroup Victoria and Playgroup Australia.


Professor Susan Edwards

Professor Susan Edwards

Dr Karen McLean

Dr Karen McLean

Dr Timothy Katiba

Dr Timothy Katiba

Sam Carrol

Sam Carrol

Melanie Thomas

Melanie Thomas

Jacinta Bartlett

Jacinta Bartlett

Celine Chu

Celine Chu

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