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Community playgroups have significant social and economic benefits not just for children but also for their parents, particularly mothers, finds this report.

Relationships Matter: The Social and Economic Benefits of Community Playgroups, funded by Playgroup Australia and undertaken by RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research (CUR), identifies the benefits playgroups afford parents across the social spectrum.

Community playgroups have been a feature of Australia’s early childhood education and care landscape for at least forty years.

Community playgroups (hereafter referred to as playgroups) have a significant presence in Australian communities. As this report shows, around 40% of families surveyed in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) participated in playgroups. Despite this level of engagement, playgroups struggle for visibility and policy traction. In part, this is because their benefits have not been fully described in terms that can be readily taken up in social and economic policy.

Research in this field has focussed on the developmental benefits of playgroup participation for children. However, as a playgroup member interviewed for this study said, that tells only half the story of playgroups’ benefits. The other half – and the focus of this report – describes the benefits of participation for parents and carers, and the spillovers or wider social value that this generates.

This report is the major outcome of a research project that sought to analyse the social and economic value of playgroups. Drawing on qualitative and quantitative data, detailed in the report, the research contributes to knowledge and advocacy gaps by critically appraising:

  • the contribution of playgroups to the landscape of social care
  • their adaptive response to changing social and economic trends
  • their role in developing social capital and acting as a catalyst for parents and carers to engage with other social settings, and
  • their contribution to the informal or non- market economy.

To achieve these aims, the report conceptualises playgroups as a form of community capacity building. The concept of community capacity describes the range of personal, social and organizational resources available to playgroup members. These resources are enhanced and developed as a result of playgroup participation, and in turn build the capacity of the wider community. The report adapts Chaskin’s (2001) model of community capacity to the playgroup environment to structure our literature review and findings.

This report draws on LSAC’s data to show that playgroup participation is an important predictor of social trust.

Social trust is a key element of community capacity building. Trust encourages cooperation and reciprocity, fosters knowledge sharing and facilitates business transactions.

The report details our methodology, findings and conclusions, and includes a set of recommended actions to optimise playgroups’ role in community capacity building.

The findings of this study emphasise the point developed by social capital theorists that relationships matter. However, the report also reveals some structural weaknesses and constraints that may impede playgroup participation and the contribution of playgroups to community capacity building. These include:

  • constraints around the finances, leadership and training support of playgroups
  • variable participation across cultural, linguistic and faith groups
  • gaps in information provision about playgroups.
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