Playcentre Aotearoa

All I really need to know, I learned at Playcentre

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In 2004 I was living in Auckland with my husband and 1 year old daughter.  We had arrived 3 years earlier, newly married, still shaking off the dust of September 11th.  Familiar story, a planned 1 year stint has stretched to 20 years plus 2 more children.  But that was never the plan, and I’m quite sure we would not have continued our life across the vast moana from our homeland, if not for Playcentre. 

Playcentre was a serious shock to my system.  In the States I was a primary school teacher, so I arrived at Glen Innes Playcentre full of USA-grade confidence, sure that I would be the ‘best’ Playcentre Mommy ever.  As my o’s gradually turned to u’s, my mind was similarly opened to the concept of child-led play, but not without a furious battle between my teacher-trained brain and Playcentre Philosophy.   Besides the raging pedagogical conflict, I faced a greater challenge at Playcentre; WOMEN.

From an early age, I studiously avoided groups of females.  With no sisters and a penchant for tree climbing and other physical play, I existed in a world dominated by males. Throughout my life the pattern remained, and I was known to say things like “I like guys better than women” and “Women are too catty and emotional.”

So there I was, now shifted to Narrowneck Playcentre, faced with a group of 20 women and the task of running a Playcentre together.  Option #1: keep my head down, come for the sessions and biscuits only, avoid social interaction with the other Mums.  Option #2: Spray my tall poppy seeds all over the centre and quickly secure the role of President so I could make all the decisions myself without this ridiculous consensus decision-making business.  Action stations!  

Luckily the Centre was big enough to absorb my ‘enthusiasm’ on both the pedagogical and decision-making fronts, and with the help of experienced members and the Playcentre Education programme I gradually reframed my thinking… becoming so fanatical about the Playcentre model that I stayed on as a Trustee Board Member from 2015-2018, after my own children had left Centre. 

Fast forward 3 years

Since that time on the Board, I’ve been completely removed from national governance…. until 2 months ago, when I received a call from a Playcentre colleague alerting me to the lack of Chief Executive since February 2021 alongside mass employee resignations, and asking if I would consider getting re-involved in governance in the lead up to our Annual General Meeting (AGM).   

The 5 weeks that followed were a busy time.  As one of the nominated Representatives for the Northern North Island region I furiously read decision-papers and found a disturbing lack of supporting information such as minutes, annual plan, up to date financials, or answers to explain such high employee turnover.   Reaching out to other Reps, my concerns were echoed, so we decided to request a postponement of the AGM date to allow time for information gathering, consulting with centres, and discussion with our treaty partners.   This request was denied, hence we threw ourselves into the mahi, supporting each other as best we could through nightly zoom calls and sharing of information… and trying to help centres understand the national situation and share their current reality with us.

AGM, Saturday 31st July

Tensions were high.  From the first moments of the meeting, it was clear there would not be an opportunity for consensus decision-making, despite the Trustee Board’s assertion “It was never our intent to make our members feel unheard.”  We as Reps were kept on mute and literally denied our voice, not to mention the many others who had registered as observers but were then told they were unable to attend due to a 100 person cap (after previously being told all were welcome to register).   We were informed by our Trustees, in no uncertain terms, that not only would there be no questions asked, there would also be NO STATEMENTS made, and our contribution would be limited to a simple ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ on the decision-papers.  This was all particularly confronting when compared to my past experience at national meetings, which ran over 3 days with ample time for kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) discussion.  

We then moved into breakout rooms split between the two houses of governance; Tāngata Tiriti (Representatives of Playcentres) and Te Whare Tikanga Māori (Representatives of Rōpū Māori).  We in Tāngata Tiriti house saw clearly that our only opportunity to speak would be within the introductions… if we were to have any input with more depth than an emoji, it would have to happen then and there, against the clear instruction of our Trustees.   As the introductions began, we held our breath to see if our fellow Reps would assert the grassroots centre and Rōpū voice in decision-making or defer to those in positions of power…

Group cohesion can be built through authority/position, or relationship.  Our Playcentre philosophy values understanding and discussion between both adults and children, over a dictatorship style of group management… but it’s certainly not the easiest route.  Over the few weeks leading up to the AGM we as Reps had some very challenging conversations.  We struggled to enact partnership and had numerous misunderstandings.  Through our korero we gradually built trust in each other, even though we didn’t all agree on the best way forward.  We entered into the AGM with group cohesion based on relationship, but were faced with a Trustee Board using their position of authority to control the conversation.   This particular moment of truth, when each Rep had to decide how to use their limited speaking time, required both individual bravery, and group cohesion… my heart swelled to bursting point when my fellow reps chose to assert the voice of centres and demand that Playcentre Aotearoa (consisting of Playcentres, Rōpū Māori, Associate Life Members, and National Life Members) holds decision-making power at the AGM, rather than the Trustee Board. 

You see, an interesting precedent has been seen at the National level in recent years.  The representatives of Centres and Rōpū, with diminishing timeframes, information, and support at national meetings, have sometimes found themselves unable to reach consensus in the time allocated.  In such a case, our constitution allows for 3 options: suspend deliberation pending further information/research, delegate the decision to the Trustee Board, or agree to use formal voting.  What’s been happening is that the Trustee Board has chosen the second option, delegating the decision to themselves, without the consideration of Playcentre Aotearoa Representatives.  Not only that, some decisions were reached in partnership between the Representatives, only to be thrown out by an ‘Advisory Panel’ (including acting Trustees) that was designed to give advice only, with no constitutional power to veto.  Other decisions made in partnership at national meetings have simply been ignored by the Trustee Board.  All of this adds up to decisions being made exclusively by the Trustee Board, rather than Centre and Rōpū Representatives. 

Now this might be all well and good when operations are ticking along and education is humming, but can pose some challenges in a time of great change and risk for the organisation.  In my conversations over the past 2 months with Centres all over Aotearoa I’ve heard similar stories of concern regarding overstretched Regional Offices, poor availability of Centre level employees to help run sessions, lack of engagement with the new education programme, and the subsequent closing of sessions and centres.  It appears there are some significant risks to the organisation that may not be visible to the Trustee Board, and this is of grave concern for our overall health and sustainability.  It is imperative that Centres and Rōpū have a voice within our governance structure, and indeed our constitution demands this through our representation at the AGM.  When this voice is limited to such a drastic extent that we are allocated a paltry 3 minutes per decision on weighty topics such as the budget/levy, and endorsement of Trustees… without sufficient supporting information to review prior, it is simply not possible for us to have any meaningful input. 

A future in partnership

Rōpū representatives have requested a Special General Meeting (SGM) on 4th September to assert our constitutional right to make decisions in partnership at national meetings… and the korero continues.  It seems that Playcentre still has more to teach me, about the power of bicultural partnership and the joy of women working together toward a shared vision; Whānau Tupu Ngā Tahi.  Thank you to all my fellow Reps, Centre members, and the wider Playcentre whānau, for showing me yet again what it means for families to grow together.   Kia kaha, hope to see you via zoom on 4th September!

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