Privately Owned Playgroups

Private playgroups are now fairly widespread in some areas. The premises vary from part of someone’s home to a hired church hall, which may be used on a sessional basis (everything has to be put away every day) or a more permanent footing, or, very rarely, a private building on its own land.

The owner or proprietors of a group may or may not be part of its staff. The staff may or may not include trained teachers who again may or may not be nursery trained. Some members may be trained nursery nurses or state registered nurses. Some may have done a part-time playgroup training course which could amount to no more than a dozen or so evening classes or may be one or more years part-time but in-service training. The number of staff will depend on the number of children allowed and how the local authority interprets the regulations. Mothers who come in regularly on a rota basis may be regarded as a member of staff. Where this happens, which is very rare in the private group, two or three permanent members of staff are usually there besides the mother/helper – or the mother/helper may be extra to the required number of staff.

For groups which have to register with the Social Services Department the number of children they can take will depend on the amount of space. For children of three to five years there should be twenty-five square feet of space per child. This may sound helpfully specific but again may be interpreted in different ways by the local authority. Some are willing to include corridor and foyer space, some are not. Some home groups may be registered as using rooms or garage space which allows them to take more children but in fact it is not used as play space and the children may be very crowded. Some authorities insist on outdoor space being available. Some church halls are vast and on paper provide enough space for forty or more children. Although regulations may advise having only tvyenty-four children in any one room such groups may be allowed to produce a couple of screens and on the grounds that this then ‘creates’ two rooms have the forty children. Sometimes the space taken up by a stage may be included, sometimes not. Other factors affecting the number of children in a group is the number of lavatories and hand basins the premises can provide. Remembering that the original 1948 Act dealt with child minders and day nurseries and had full day care very much in view, this is not surprising. This rule can be interpreted so widely by different authorities that one may find outside lavatories some distance away being used or just one near the playroom actually in use with more at some distance being counted in the total number but never used. Other authorities may have insisted on extra lavatories being put in. Private ‘schools’ might not be registered with the Social Services Department if they mainly take children of school age and their ‘ nursery class’ is incidental to this main function. More and more local authorities are employing ‘playgroup advisers’ who are able to concentrate on this aspect of the work of the Social Services Department. This is helping to sort out some of the anomalies which previously existed but it is wise to check on these points by going to look first.

The ratio of staff to children may also be interpreted in so many different ways as to make nonsense of the spirit of the regulations. One may find one adult required for every ten, eight or six children. Where one adult can be considered sufficient for ten children the regulations imply that she should be suitably trained. This can be interpreted as nursery teacher training, any age or subject teacher training, nursery nurse training, state registered nurse training or a playgroup training. The playgroup training accepted may amount to no more than a total of twenty or thirty hours spent in a classroom with a different speaker every week, or it could be ten times this number of hours spent over a year with a tutor covering many aspects of child development and group management, plus supervised practical experience working with children. Even where regulations have been tightened up in an area the playgroups, nurseries or kindergartens already in existence are almost invariably allowed to carry on as they have been doing, although new groups just starting may be vetted much more stringently.

The hours can vary from 9 a.m. To 1 p.m., 1 p.m. To 4.30 p.m. Or could be much shorter sessions of 10 a.m. To 12 noon and 1 p.m. To 3 p.m. Children may attend anything from one to five sessions each week. In some groups, most often those connected with a private school, children may stay all day.

Some playgroups provide a similar environment to that of the nursery school. A well-established group which has amassed equipment over a number of years may be able to offer more activities than a very new nursery class. Some groups are run more like a very formal infant class, some may be very limited – ‘We have at least one toy for every child.’ Certain groups will not offer the ‘messy’ activities such as water, sand, clay and paint although there are plenty of table toys.

Age will depend on what the local authority will allow. Some authorities register groups to take children from two years, others will insist on the age of three as a minimum. Some will say rather ambiguously’ rising threes’. Whatever age children are taken they usually stay till they go to school. In an area with no state nursery provision this may be until they are five. If new nursery classes open up and take children at the age of four the local playgroups may find all their older children creamed off so that the average age within the group could drop dramatically. The playgroup could also be tempted to make up their depleted numbers with children under three so that again the average age drops.

The parents have no responsibility except to conform to any rules or regulations stipulated by the group when a child is accepted.

Usually this is nil but in some cases can be very deep. They may come in to give assistance with providing and maintaining equipment or might help with fund raising and generally act as a great source of help and strength to the people nominally owning the group. This situation is fairly rare however and it is sad to hear from the ‘owners’ of a group how much they need and would appreciate help from the mothers but feel they cannot ask since ‘The mothers only expect to pay the fees and would resent having to make any further contribution.’ It is even sadder to then talk separately with the mothers and discover how often they would like to be involved but feel they should not’ interfere’ by offering to do things.

There are inevitable fees and these will reflect the cost of the premises, heating and other services, staff salaries and the incidental expenses that go with these, the cost of providing and maintaining both capital equipment and consumable goods and possibly an element of profit. A true profit over and above legiti- mate running expenses is usually out of the question if fees are kept to reasonable limits.

Community Playgroups5 Parent Cooperative Groups These are quite common but tend to be clumped together in specific areas.

As for private playgroups these have to be registered with a local authority. They are most likely to be a hired hall or rooms since a community group in a private home presents great difficulties. A very few have managed to acquire their own premises. An increasing number are being allowed to use youth centres.

In this type of playgroup the parents are responsible for what goes on although responsibility may be delegated to a committee. Parents in effect interview and appoint staff. The staff found in a community playgroup will vary but the constitution of the group will often stipulate the kind of training and experience the staff should have. Often the group will pay playgroup training expenses for someone they wish to employ. In this type of group mothers often come in on a regular rota basis to make up the full complement of staff or to supplement staff for special activities. The same local authority regulations will apply to these groups as for private playgroups. Those groups which are registered as charities and receive grants may find that the body which provides the grant also insists on certain standards. This may include a higher staff-to-child ratio than the local authority asks for. Once appointed, staff are usually expected to be responsible for the day-to-day running of the group.

Again this depends on the size of the premises and the local authority. Since these groups run on an expense-only basis there is usually little margin in their budget. The number of children needs to be just large enough to keep fees reasonable yet leave the group financially solvent.

On the whole the parents who belong to community groups will have a fairly clear idea of what they want. Some of them may have been on playgroup courses and visited nursery schools and classes. They are also likely to be in touch with their local branch of the Pre-School Playgroups Association and with other groups in the area. In addition if they receive a grant there may be some conditions attached to this as to the type of environment provided. While the group may be poor on paper there is usually plenty of willing effort available to help make equipment and raise money for it. All this means that these groups usually provide very well for children’s play needs; they do not do any formal teaching and in general provide similar equipment and activities to the nursery school.

This can vary depending on the local authority but most often will be three to five years. Again where nursery classes are starting to cream off their older children the average age of the group may fall rapidly.

Here responsibility for the group is total. Even where some kind of grant subsidy is made the parents are usually responsible for administering this. The responsibility may well be delegated to a committee,

Oddly enough this can vary a good deal. A very strong committee, or even a very strong play-leader, may completely run the group and the parents are content to let this happen. In other groups all parents may take a very active part in its management. In some groups every mother is expected to take her turn at being a mother/helper. In other groups the mothers are free to make whatever contribution suits them best and often, as their confidence and competence develops, become willing and able to do more. In groups where older children are removed to go to nursery class children may not be in the playgroup long enough for their mothers to become really useful to the group or to gain a great deal from their involvement with it.

Fees are calculated on a shared-expense basis. In some areas they may be as high as those of the private groups as they have to reflect varying rents and expenses. The cooperative group may spend more on equipment and pay more staff higher salaries than the private group. In some areas where grants are received under the Urban Aid scheme fees may be very low. Where expenses outstrip income from fees regular fund-raising is necessary, unless a sizeable grant is received.

There is yet one more ‘may be’ to add to this collection of possibly, probably, some authorities do, some authorities do not, in some areas but not in others. Some of the groups one finds may be excellent, some may not. Where they are excellent this is directly attributable to the good sound commonsense of the mature, able women who run such groups, to their willingness to learn and attend playgroup courses and to the generous willing help playgroups are often able to give to each other and to new groups just starting. In no small part it is also due to the parents, mothers in particular, whose interest in and concern for their own children has given them the energy and confidence to help provide a most valuable service.

In fact a very common picture of a community playgroup would show a group of twenty to twenty-four children aged between three and five years with a staff of three or four adults. There will be the ‘supervisor’ and an assistant who are there every day. The second assistant may or may not be there every day – in some cases two people share this job. The fourth adult may well be a mother taking her turn at being a helper. Some, perhaps all, of the staff will have had some training and the mother too may be attending a playgroup course. The group will probably be open for five mornings each week, although the children may attend either three or two sessions. The building will be less than ideal, sometimes positively scruffy, often cold, but will have been made safe and clean. The equipment will have to be put away every day – often into inadequate, inconvenient storage space. There will usually be some outside play space adequately gated, fenced and supervised. The children will be free to choose from well-maintained and well-presented equipment. The session should provide at least ninety minutes’ continuous uninterrupted time for play – in some groups it will be more. There may well be an extra mother’ settling her child in’, another who has brought her child for a preliminary visit. There may be another sitting mending dressing-up clothes. There will be that busy but controlled hum of activity that is an almost infallible indicator of happy children and relaxed, confident adults. The younger children may appear to be doing little or nothing – but close observation shows that they are carefully and unobtrusively watching what the older children are doing. Everything will be ready when the children arrive and each mother and child will be welcomed by the supervisor. At the end of the session mothers often gather outside the door and talk together until the story ends and they go in to the group to collect their children. Again the supervisor or another member of staff will say goodbye to mothers and children while the other adults start to put away all the equipment or, if there is an afternoon session, tidy up and reset the room.

Not all playgroups are like this but many are and others could be with a little more help, knowledge and financial assistance.

There are still more ways of providing for young children:

Private Day Nurseries

Like state day nurseries these care for children who for one reason or another cannot be cared for at home during the day. They have to be registered with the local authority Social Services Department under the 1948 Day Nurseries and Child Minders Act. Standards do vary enormously and fees are high as this is an expensive service to provide.

Child Minders

These also have to be registered under the same 1948 Act. Some provide whole day care for children for the same reasons as a private day nursery. Others are more like small home playgroups where children go to play rather than be looked after but because they take only a few children are rather arbitrarily classed as child minders.

One O’Clock Clubs

This name is really specific to a number of groups in Inner London but other areas may provide similar services. Premises are provided in some parks and recreation grounds, specially trained play-leaders and staff are employed, and nursery equipment and materials are supplied all free of charge to parents and young children. The Clubs are open from 1 p.m. – hence the name – to 5 p.m. Every weekday afternoon. The only restriction is that mothers must stay with their children and are responsible for them. Attendance is not necessarily regular and absolutely anyone is free to use these facilities.

Mother and Toddler Clubs

These vary a great deal. They may open only once each week or it could be every afternoon. They may be primarily a meeting for the mothers where there is a speaker or a specific discussion and their young children either stay with them or one or two adults will look after all the children in another room. There may or may not be special play material for the children to use. Some are more like a playgroup where mothers stay and join in. There may be a fee depending on the type of group it is.


These are usually places provided for children so that their mothers may be free to do something else. They may operate regularly, as little as once a week or every day; there may or may not be a charge; there may or may not be play activities for the children; and there may or may not be trained staff – more important there may or may not be enough staff. If they charge for this service and operate for a substantial part of the day (usually interpreted as two hours or more) they should be registered with the local authority. The age of the children can vary enormously.

Provision for play needs for under-five-year-old children is therefore rich in diversity or a mess, depending on the view one takes. These individual mothers whose concern with nursery education is necessarily short-lived and in the main specific to their own two or three young children have had a surprisingly large effect on what has happened in this field for exactly these reasons.