About three and a half hours north of Alice Springs, some 20 kilometres to the east off the Stuart Highway in the NT, lies the community of Alekarenge.
Here, four mornings a week, about 20 to 30 zero to five year olds and their parents and carers attend a Families as First Teachers (FaFT) playgroup.
Each Friday, however, there’s a “mobile playgroup”, held either in the grounds of Alekarenge School where the program is based, outside the shop, at the preschool or elsewhere in the community.
“This really lets us reach out to more families,” explains Michelle Leonard, Family Educator at FaFT in Alekarenge. “And it encourages the fathers to get involved.”
Invariably, the parents and carers who regularly attend the FaFT playgroups are women, and caring for the babies and toddlers living in the community tends to be seen as a traditionally female role.
So often the fathers can be a bit reluctant to come into the FaFT room. But if the playgroup takes place somewhere else, they seem to feel more comfortable about getting involved and sharing books with their youngsters.
Many families in the community don’t have any books in their homes, and the community shop does not stock any, so Michelle and the Family Liaison Officer work with families to choose from the Book Buzz selection and the books are delivered to them when they arrive in the mail.
Many of the Book Buzz books are also used each day in the FaFT program for “conversational reading.”
“We encourage families to talk with their children in their own language, emphasising it is the interaction that is important,” says Michelle. “Even the very young babies engage in story time — and some for a sustained period, which is great for this age group.”
In 2020, the pandemic made for some creative thinking at Alekarenge, in order to maintain the FaFT program and continue to support families in the community.
“It brought on a bit of a shake-up. COVID certainly made us think about how we could reach out.”
Many more Book Buzz packs were delivered to homes, along with laminated sheets offering ideas on how to share the books with the children so families could use the same approach at home as at FaFT.
Some of these resources were “created in a rush”, Michelle says, but they are still proving extremely useful in 2021, now that things are getting back to normal.
“Parents are developing confidence in reading to their children, both at FaFT and at home. It’s helping to expand vocabularies, and it definitely helps with school readiness and the transition to big school.”
In several families, some of the older, school-age children are helping with reading to their younger siblings at home.
And a few of these older kids have even started coming into the FaFT room to ask for more books to read to the little ones!
“We’re very proud of our program and the work we’re doing with families. The more we can engage with literacy skills, the greater the benefits for kids later on. And the books from Book Buzz are very well suited to our families’ needs. Book Buzz is a brilliant resource.”