Fifty Years on and Still Running a Playgroup — Interview with Cheryl Sutherland



It was 1973 when Cheryl Sutherland moved with her family from Victoria to Queensland. That same year marked her first experience as a playgroup mum. It was also the beginning of many more playgroup experiences to come. It is now 2023, fifty years on since that first playgroup experience at the Mount Gravatt Hall, and remarkably, Cheryl is still running a playgroup today.

With a brand-new baby and a two-year-old, Cheryl had been an active member of the Nursing Mother’s Association in Victoria before moving north. After reading a newspaper article about the Mount Gravatt playgroup and knowing her toddler needed the company of others, she went along.

"I met this group of energetic and enthusiastic women who were determined to spread the playgroup vision throughout Queensland ... So naturally I latched onto them and off we went to the inaugural meeting and that’s how it started. I was always grateful that I moved into that suburb. I guess it saved my life - it gave me friends, a purpose to do things each day with a young family and no other people to help me."

A preschool teacher before giving up work to look after her young children, Cheryl had a particular set of skills that were greatly valued beyond running a playgroup and fundraising activities. Beginning her time as the Publicity Assistant, Cheryl soon found a calling elsewhere.

"Because of my training, I did a number of talks about equipment, and running simple, happy playgroups, the value of play, and the transition from playgroup to kindergarten to preschool. I was called upon many times to give talks at conferences, even after I left playgroup. That is what we did, if you had an expertise in a particular area ... We wrote the early playgroup books and set up starter boxes ...I approached the preschool equipment people; they were only too happy to give things or make things at a very cheap rate. We set up the equipment libraries and most of that happened in our garage.

1998 Playgroup turned 25 some past presidentsPlaygroup turns 25 and celebrates with some past Presidents, 1998. Photo courtesy of Alison Huth.

"I can remember never being home and always out there spreading the word at shopping centres, demonstration playgroups, you name it, we were really ready to get the name of playgroup out there amongst the people. Then the C&K Association and Lady Gowrie Centre, who were very supportive of the Association, wanted representation from us on the Queensland Branch of the Australian Preschool Association (APA). Coming from an early childhood background they said, ‘You have to do it, Cheryl’. That’s how I became the APA representative for the rest of my time and that helped to spread the word with all those other organisations connected with the APA ... they also decided I would be a very good person to convene Under 5s Week.

"I went to a National Conference of the APA and I was so proud of what the Association of Queensland was doing. In those early years we were considered the backwater up here in Queensland and I remember thinking that we were running rings around NSW and Victoria."

From those early years, Cheryl reflects on the support the Association was given by the C&K, the Lady Gowrie Centre and people who gave freely of their time.

"There were plenty of challenges as most of us didn’t really know what we were doing! Most of us were stay-at-home mums ... many had come from various professions; a lot were from nursing, but fifty years ago, you just left work to look after your children. We had some idea of where we were going but in many areas we were lacking in expertise and needed plenty of professional help ... C&K and Lady Gowrie were always there offering advisors ... Pat Spranklin really made the Association what it was with regards to how we were finally recognised as a charity, able to apply for grants and getting a Constitution ... we were always very, very grateful for the amount of time he gave the Association."

1977 2 Playgroup Float Humpty Warana Parade-1Cheryl Sutherland on the 1976 Warana Festival float

Lifelong friendships and connections were formed and Cheryl remains grateful for all of those.

"I managed, in 1980, to go back to fulltime work. I was told there was a job at Coorparoo Kindergarten through another playgroup mum whose children attended there. Up until then, centres were not really keen on employing married women here in Queensland. I was always grateful for being part of Playgroup Association because it meant I had a lot to do with C&K and the Lady Gowrie Centre, so I had extra contacts and references."

Saddened to be moving on, Cheryl, who was later humbled to become the Association’s first honorary life member, was often called upon to present at conferences after her departure. When retiring from full-time work, Cheryl began taking her granddaughter to playgroup at her local Broadwater Road Uniting Church in Mansfield. Before long, Cheryl was asked to set up and co-ordinate a Tuesday group and 14 years on, she’s still running it. With her vast experience - having kept the resources from her teaching years and from her own time of running a playgroup from her home - Cheryl was well-resourced to take on the valued community role.

"I really think playgroups matter for children and parents as much today as they did 50 years ago. Even if they have children at preschool and school, parents know how important it is for their younger children to have a special place of their own ...Play will always matter because that is the way children learn ... in 20 years, playgroups will be flourishing exactly as they are today."

This interview was conducted and compiled by Allison Paterson

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