Parents Hub welcomes supported playgroups

Developmental educator Robyn Papworth, Parents Hub founder Erin Bourke, Yarra Ranges Council mayor Sophie Todorov and Uniting's Julia Fitzsimmons visited the Hub on Wednesday 31 January. Picture: MIKAYLA VAN LOON.

By Mikayla van Loon

It can be complex enough for parents navigating the early childhood section without adding a requirement for additional needs or support.

Mooroolbark’s Parents Hub is aiming to change that with the newly funded supported playgroup sessions running twice a week for children aged zero to five.

Hub founder and chief executive officer Erin Bourke said the sessions are looking to fill a gap for parents who have tried traditional playgroups but have perhaps struggled to feel comfortable.

“Especially for the children being so young, some of them might not have a diagnosis yet, the parent just feels there might be a delay or something like that, this is really important,” Erin said.

“But also for the parents to come and connect with each other because often they feel very isolated when they go to play centres and other playgroups feeling like their child’s very different or they’re feeling judged by other parents.

“We’ve had positive feedback that all the parents have felt really comfortable and safe here, that’s why we’re running these.”

With support from Uniting Carer Gateway and Yarra Ranges Council, the sessions are free to access and are guided by developmental educator Robyn Papworth.

Although Erin said these playgroups are not exclusively designed for children with neurodiverse needs or disability, catering to all children, the space has been created to offer safety, comfortability and inclusivity.

“It takes the pressure off, it’s that gut feeling and even being inquisitive. Not having to have a diagnosis to join the group, that’s a huge thing,” she said.

“With this it’s ‘I just have a feeling’ and they can come and talk to a parent who may be a couple of steps ahead and then their feelings have been validated.”

Erin said supported playgroups do exist across the Yarra Ranges but either have very limited places available, require a diagnosis for NDIS help or are too costly for parents to afford.

This is despite 14.7 per cent or 18,000 residents in the Yarra Ranges filling the role of an unpaid carer, which is well above the Victorian average, according to the 2021 Australian Bureau of Statistics Census.

A Carer Gateway spokesperson said it’s these ‘hidden carers’ they are trying to target with the free sessions.

“The Supported Playgroup at Parents Hub is designed to be a safe and inclusive space, tailored for new parents supporting a child with suspected or diagnosed additional needs who are seeking connection and early-intervention services,” they said.

“The profound impact of these interventions can reshape the entire trajectory of the caring experience.”

For Robyn who has worked across Allied health, in various locations throughout her career as an exercise physiologist and developmental educator, she said it is imperative that parents and children have access to a program of this kind in the Yarra Ranges.

“I work a lot in Casey, Cardinia and Merri-bek but there is not much in the Yarra Valley for special needs, considering the area we have, there is really not much.

“I wanted to make it accessible. So a nice, calm, relaxing space not like a clinic and this space is so homey as soon as you walk in.”

Supporting children in those very early years from zero to five, Robyn said, is crucial for capturing children in their key brain development stages.

Since the pandemic, Robyn said it has been even more essential to allow children to play and learn from physical touch because of screen time and increased separation from their parents.

“Covid kicked screen time in and we had it because we were all in survival mode and this device is just so easy…but it’s a 2D world where we’re trying to create a 3D world,” she said.

While Robyn said these skills of playing are important for the right now, they’re also extremely entwined with ageing well.

“We’ve got no head movement [looking at a phone] and that’s how we prevent falls. Imagine them when they’re in their 80s trying to prevent falls because we get our balance through our head, and our feet, but mostly in our head.

“That’s why we’ve got kids tripping over everything and so zero to five you are actually preventing aged care and they think we’re just playing but we’re trying to develop all those skills.”

Robyn helps assess what each child needs at that session but will often have a clear objective or planned focus, with flexibility depending on how the children are reacting and responding.

Although funding is currently only available from Uniting for the Mooroolbark sessions, there is a view to expand across the Yarra Ranges, linking with community houses or established kinders to offer similar programs.

Sessions can be booked through the Parents Hub website,