Playgroups give children early lesson in life, study shows

Sydney Morning Herald July 14, 2011

PLAYGROUPS are considered the poor cousin to formal childcare, even though about 150,000 Australian children attend them regularly, usually with their mother. After 40 years of operating in parks and church halls, playgroups have undergone their first serious independent evaluation – and the results are impressive. They show attendance can improve the learning and social development of children who need help most. Boys and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds who attended a playgroup for some time in two consecutive years were substantially ahead in literacy, numeracy and vocabulary by the age of 4-5 compared with children from similar backgrounds who did not attend. Attendance helped halve the attainment gap in learning between the children from poorer and more advantaged backgrounds, research showed. Girls from poorer backgrounds were also ahead in social skills, compared with girls from similar backgrounds who did not attend. ”We know children from disadvantaged families tend already to have fallen behind by the time they start school, and what this shows is that playgroup attendance is associated with closing the gap,” lead researcher Kirsten Hancock, a senior analyst at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, said. The study, involving a group of universities and children’s research institutes, was based on an initial sample of 5107 babies, aged three to 19 months, drawn from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, which tracks children over time.