Creating a virtual village: online playgroup groups connecting young families

Two-year-old, Mahli Goetze, taking part in an online playgroup at her Queensland home.
Two-year-old, Mahli Goetze, taking part in an online playgroup at her Queensland home. Photo: Supplied

Two-year-old, Mahli Goetze, is dancing around the loungeroom of her Port Douglas house watching a big screen while her dance teacher runs an online lesson for a  group of toddlers.

Dance Sensations Port Douglas had only just begun operating a few weeks ago when COVID-19 hit and it had to make the switch to offering online lessons.

"She can still see her friends and still participate with them.  Seeing her dance around and have fun counteracts the stress we are feeling too.  It is good for us seeing her enjoying life," mum Jessie Goetze said.

Jessie Goetze with daughter Mahli
Jessie Goetze with daughter Mahli Photo: Supplied

"I have never relied on screen to entertain Mahli so I am trying to incorporate it into our life at times when she would have normally been going to playgroup.

We used a vitamin jar for a shaker, tea towels as a scarf and a teddy bear instead of holding hand in a circle. It was a lot of improvisation."

Mahli has also joined an online playgroup.

Children from around Australia and even the world are dancing and singing and listening to stories online thanks to Playgroup at Home set up by Playgroup SA.

Chief executive Craig Bradbrook said since setting up the group on Facebook last Wednesday more than 8000 people have joined.

"It is such a vital piece of early childhood infrastructure so we wanted to ensure there was something out there for families that they could tune into each day.

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"It has been an incredible show of support from the community."

Each day children can sit down and listen to story time or dance around while Tony from Kool 4 Kids entertains them with livestream music and dance sessions, even a live streaming yoga session.

Mr Bradbrook said he never expected to be getting out his guitar and joining in with the singing and music sessions but has found the whole experience humbling.

"It is absolutely crucial to try and maintain a sense of normality in routines for children that they can look forward to it each day and see what story is being read or what they can engage in.  There is such a disruption to routines at the moment," he said.

Playgroup at Home has two parts; one allows the community to connect with each other and share activities they are doing at home, while the other is content created by Playgroup SA.

"Parents have been sharing their ideas and creating a virtual village.  We even have some expats from around the world who have tuned in and are providing video of how they are managing with the self-isolation."

Mr Bradbrook said the concept is evolving with plans next week for drawing lessons with a graphic designer as well as meditation with cosmic tone drums.

"We never thought a fortnight ago we would find ourselves setting up a production line for kid's activities. It is like building a plane as we fly it and we are learning and trying to improve it.  All the staff are embracing it."

Playgroup Australia CEO, Fiona May, said it was imperative the organisation still provided support for families and each state and territory was working to offer online activities.

She said some facilitators were contacting families at home to check on them as well as developing content for online and live broadcasts and encouraging families to connect with each other.  Some groups are setting up WhatsApp groups or private Facebook pages.

"It is important for families to help each other through this time," Ms May said. 

She said each state was setting up its own playgroup at home online group and thousands of families had already joined.

We really hope it will support families during this time. We are giving them different ideas for play and share what they are doing with other families.  It also helps parents during this time connect with other families who are having similar experiences," she said.

Playgroup at Home can be found through the state playgroup Facebook pages.