Waitati is home to a diverse group of residents who are united by a common love of Blueskin Bay's serenity and a desire to live slightly adrift from city limits. But what they're not unmoored from, is each other.
There's community glue aplenty here – and much of that neighbourly spirit begins its life at the Blueskin Playcentre, which has been nurturing local families since 1959.
Nestled within the grounds of Waitati School (where they pay a token rent) this Playcentre has a roll of 15 children and runs for three mornings a week on parent help with guidance from a paid session facilitator. Cara Moffat is a big fan. A mum of three, she says she'd be lost without it: "I'd be so sad if it wasn't there. It makes you feel connected – especially in a small community. And there are some lovely bonds between the kids and parents."
When the Playcentre movement was gathering steam in New Zealand in the 1940s, it sought to foster the development of children through play and promote parents as the best first educators of their preschoolers.
Playcentre's current motto, ‘whānau tupu ngātahi – families growing together', shows the focus is still on growing the child and buttressing parents via the power of the village.
Cara, a clinical psychologist, works part-time in town so she's not short of social contact. But these village parenting ties are different. "One of the special things about Playcentre is that when you're struggling as a parent you can go into a judgement-free place, have supportive chats and come away with some new ideas."
She says Blueskin Playcentre has a great culture. "We're all happy to have a laugh about how ridiculous parenting can sometimes be, but if someone genuinely needs a hand, people will always offer. If you rock up late and you're a bit frazzled, someone will say, 'I'll take bubba' and someone else will say, 'Come with me, let's get you a coffee'. Where else are you going to get that, unless you're lucky enough to have friends with kids around the same age who aren't working, or you have extended family nearby?"
There's a trade-off though. Its democratic structure means a Playcentre's success rises and falls on parental input. "We all chip in to keep it ticking over but the advantage of that is you can tailor it to the needs of your community. Ours is big on inclusivity; we want it to be open to everyone so we don't charge fees. Parents understand the flipside of that: at the end of term they'll need to come in and do a bit of deep cleaning because we don't have the money to pay someone. But we're happy to put in a bit of mahi to keep it a really accessible, come-as-you-are place."
At its best, the volunteer Playcentre model can stimulate the sort of personal relationships that are proving increasingly rare in modern society. "There's something quite old-school about Playcentre – it probably reflects the time in which it was developed when it was easier to have a village. Our modern life can get in the way of that. Playcentre is a way of coming back to that idea, of everyone working together to support young families and children." Retro cool then? "Yes, let's call it that!"
Blueskin Playcentre loves its grandparent helpers too. When 'Nanny Sue' Bourne retired in 2020 after a decade of volunteering (while her grandkids were in attendance) they showed how much they treasured her service by making her a life member and giving her a Playcentre key.
Then there are the bonds that grow outwards from Playcentre into the wider community. Cara tells of Mandy Mayhem, former Blueskin Playcentre mum and now Dunedin City Councillor: "Earlier this year we put out a message on the local Facebook pages for a camp bed for our sick bay. We were fortunate enough to have several offered to us, so we got in touch with Mandy and gave her the spares. They now live at Waitati Hall, which Mandy (as local emergency response coordinator), operates as a community hub when snow closes the motorway. She helps people stranded on the road to find a bed for the night and makes huge pots of soup for them. She's a great example of community spirit in action and also the way those Playcentre community connections can keep going after your kids have moved on to school."
Explore more from AA Directions magazine while you're here:
- Q&A: Kenrick Smith, mindfulness coach and sand artist
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