27 September 2023

Lockdown babies given the chance to connect in specially designed playgroup program

| Claire Fenwicke
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child plays as his mother and an educator watch on

Three-year-old Henry and his mother Lily Marlin learn about active play ideas from educator Rabi Munkayilar at the Reconnect Playgroups program in Scullin. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

For Canberra mum Lily Marlin, having her first child during the height of lockdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic was something which changed the experience of becoming a new parent.

“It was obviously a unique experience having a baby during COVID and not being able to go to the new parents’ group and socialising with other parents,” she said.

“There was a Zoom parenting class, but that definitely wasn’t the same thing.”

Her son Henry, now 3, attends a special playgroup in Scullin aimed at children born during the pandemic years and who missed out on those early interactions.

The Reconnect Playgroups program is open to children born in the lockdown years, and those who were expecting a child.

young child roars in a playground

Percy, 3, works on his roar during a Reconnect Playgroups session in Scullin. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

ACT Playgroups executive officer Carley Jones explained data and the group’s own observations had shown children either born in or who were very young from 2020 onwards had less developed social and physical skills than their peers.

“We’re also hearing from parents that this is their first time venturing out and accessing services, so [the children] really only had mum and dad and extended family for the first 12 months to two years of their lives,” she said.

“We talk about physical growth, social skills, bring in a whole heap of community services so that families have the chance to know what’s out there in terms of supporting them in their parenting journey.”

Playgroups can tend to be associated with the new baby phase, learning about how to care for sick children, dealing with teething and feeding issues, and generally the new world of being a parent.

But Ms Jones said it was also a time for parents to create connections before the toddler phase turned everything on its head.

“During lockdowns we didn’t have those opportunities to get out and build a support network with other families. So learning how to deal with changes in sleep, toileting, the transition to preschool and school – there’s been a big opportunity for these families to chat about [these things] at Reconnect,” she said.

“Parents can learn about nutrition, we have a partnership with EACH – which is the NDIS partner here in the ACT – so they can learn about typical child developments, speech, language.

“There’s really no end to the types of services that we can invite to come out and talk with the parents.”

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The program has received more than $126,000 from the 2022-2024 Focus on Supporting Children and Families Healthy Canberra Grants.

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said it was part of the ACT’s The First 1000 Days Strategy which aimed to improve the health and wellbeing of Canberra’s families and children in their early years.

“We know for all children, that first 1000 to 2000 days is such an important period for both brain development and for those physical motor skills … for kids to learn to connect their brains and their bodies, and also to learn how to socialise,” she said.

“Those are some of the things that kids were missing out on during the COVID period, when they were stuck at home, and also parents were missing out on the opportunity to get some advice from professional playgroup organisers about how to support their kids with that kind of play which can foster their development, and get support from other parents.

“We know that if parents are doing well, kids are going to be doing better.”

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Lily said she had gained just as much as Henry by attending the playgroup.

“It’s been really nice coming to the playgroup because Henry has a younger sister, and when I was pregnant with my daughter it was really good bringing him here to see the other babies and other children, to interact with them to help prepare him for being a big brother,” she said.

“I also find it really good for him to meet other adults … so he can build relationships as a school-readiness skill.

“It’s one of our highlights, every week, coming here.”

ACT Playgroups runs the Reconnect Playgroups program, which has three morning sessions a week: Tuesdays in Scullin, Wednesdays in Gungahlin and Thursdays in Gilmore.

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