When Leah Nakaora moved with her young family from Auckland to Hamilton nearly two years ago, she wanted to quickly connect with the community. So she joined Playcentre.

She attends River Downs Playcentre in Flagstaff twice a week with her son Joshua, 3, and daughter Ruth, 1.

"Our reserved son has grown so much in confidence and is becoming more and more confident around other children and in particular, adults" she says.

"And our daughter is so adventurous and confident."


Leah puts this down to her children's personalities, strengths and interests being encouraged by the families and philosophy of Playcentre.

"We are able to play and learn as a family - Daddy comes along on occasion too - and we are getting to know people."

River Downs Playcentre is holding an open day next Wednesday, March 9, at the centre at 5 Endeavour Ave, Flagstaff, to mark Playcentre Awareness Week.

Anyone who would like to attend and experience Playcentre is invited to drop in, during what will be a normal session from 9.15am-11.45am. There will be experienced Playcentre members on hand to answer questions.

The centre operates a morning session every day from Monday to Friday during the school term, and a special session for older children on a Wednesday afternoon. There are also regular camps in the school holidays as well as special events throughout the year.

Playcentre, which this year celebrates 75 years in New Zealand, operates in a unique model in which the child is encouraged to explore their environment and pursue their own areas of interests.

Each session has areas of play set up. Just some of these areas are painting, messy play, blocks, carpentry, clay, puzzles and play dough.

Parents are supported through the highly regarded adult education programme. Families attend a minimum of two sessions per week to ensure relationships are built and the child develops a sense of belonging.

"The magic that happens at Playcentre is that not only are the children having a great time and learning through their play, but parents are also learning - about their child, about parenting, and finding a supportive community and forming new friendships," says NZ Playcentre Federation co-president, Viv Butcher.

This support and friendship was the reason behind the establishment of the first Playcentres during WW2, to bring mothers together when their husbands were away at War. The concept was so popular it expanded throughout New Zealand and now there are more than 460 licensed Playcentres nationwide, catering from birth through to school entry.