Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

Play School (1966 - current)

Children's series
1800 episodes x 30 minutes

Series synopsis:

Based on the British program of the same name (produced by the BBC from 1964 until 1988) Play School is the longest-running children’s series on Australian television. There would be few Australians who do not recognise the theme to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s iconic pre-school children’s series:

There’s a bear in there
And a chair as well
There are people with games
And stories to tell
Open wide, come inside
It’s Play School.

Executive producers (EPs) for the program have included Allan Kendall (1966–80), Henrietta Clark (1980–84 and 1990-99), Claire Henderson (1984–88), John Fox (1988-90), Virginia Lumsden (1999–2008) and Jan Stradling (2009–current). Long-serving ‘special assistants’ to the program were Shirley Gardner (1966–86 and 1988–91) and Kay Murphy (1979–2008). Current series producer is Sophie Emtage and producer and director is Julie Money.

During each half-hour episode, two actors, usually one male and one female, present a mix of creative activities, games, dress-ups, rhymes, short animations and songs. They talk directly to camera and each day there is a regular story segment, introduced via a Play School clock, as well as an invitation to the audience to guess which window to ‘go through’ to glimpse life outside the studio. An overarching weekly theme and sub-theme underpins and informs each set of five episodes. In the past, daily themes (Useful Box Monday; Dress-up Tuesday; Animal-themed Wednesday; Imagination Thursday and Finding Out Friday) also influenced the form and content for each week’s series of programs.

Over the years the program has featured a who’s who of high profile talented Australian actors. The six original presenters were Lorraine Bayly, Anne Haddy, Kerrie Francis, Diane Dorgan, Alister Smart and Donald McDonald. Former presenters from the 1960s include: Patsy King, Jan Kingsbury, Darlene Johnson, Don Spencer, Ruth Cracknell and Benita Collings (the most prolific presenter with 401 episodes). Joining in the ’70s were: John Hamblin, Noni Hazlehurst and John Waters; in the ’80s, Trisha Goddard, Philip Quast, Simon Burke and George Spartels; and ’90s presenters included Colin Buchanan, Angela Moore, Glen Butcher, David James, Deborah Mailman and Monica Trapaga. Recent presenters include Sofya Gollon, Karen Pang, Justine Clarke, Jay Laga’aia, Andrew McFarlane, Rhys Muldoon, Leah Vandenberg, Teo Gebert, Matt Passmore, Alex Papps, Georgie Parker, Abi Tucker, Jolene Anderson and Hugh Sheridan.

The presenters are joined by a cast of well loved toys including Big Ted, Little Ted, Jemima, Humpty and a single Banana in Pyjamas (based on Carey Blyton’s song) which was the inspiration for the successful ABC series Bananas in Pyjamas.

Curator’s Notes:

Despite its apparent simplicity, Play School has survived for nearly 50 years and continues to have relevance for modern audiences because, as Claire Henderson (EP 1984–88 and head of Children’s TV 1994–2008) points out, ‘We respect the child, we respect the audience. We don’t patronise, we don’t exploit them, we don’t preach to them, we don’t talk down to them.’

What makes Play School special for its young audience is the way the presenters talk directly through the camera to them at home. As Allan Kendall (EP 1966–80) put it, ‘The strength of the program lay in the ability of those presenters to talk intimately to the children and involve them in everything they did’. Henrietta Clark (EP 1980–84 and 1990–99) comments that ‘What we were trying to achieve with the program was mainly to connect with our audience with honesty and a reality – as if it was real life in which you were involved’. With talented presenters, there is a sense that every child watching feels that they are spending time with people they know and trust.

One of the other keys to Play School’s continued success is the sense of spontaneity and simplicity both in terms of performances and content. Most people are surprised to discover that the presenters do not make up the programs as they go along but work closely from a script. Claire Henderson believes that this is a ‘great tribute to the team who actually put Play School together’. Allan Kendall, when first given the job of EP thought, '“Oh, this’ll be a snatch. Fancy making a program for four year-olds.” Well, it didn’t turn out that way. In fact, it is the most difficult of all audiences to make programs for.’

In fact, every Play School program takes eight weeks to produce from the first script outline meeting to studio recording. There is script input from the executive producer, series producer and episode writer or producer-writer as well as a pre-school adviser and an outline writer who is also pre-school trained.

Longevity in terms of staff commitment to Play School is demonstrated by three of the longest serving early childhood advisors: Jenny McKenzie, who worked on the program from its beginnings for 16 years; June Buckingham, who advised for a total of 21 years between 1978 and 2007; and Judith Keyser, who still advises and outlines Play School and has done so for over 20 years. Over a period of about six weeks the team prepares the script before the program goes to the design team. Finally every episode has a half-day rehearsal before it is recorded.

Children’s programming has always been a major focus for the ABC. On its first day on air in July 1932, Bobby Bluegum was part of the opening day radio line-up, and on day one of ABC TV transmission the first episode of The Children’s TV Club (1956–61) was screened. When afternoon broadcasting began in 1957 the ABC broadcast Kindergarten Playtime (1957–66), Thursday Partyland (1957) and, soon after, Mr Squiggle and Friends (1959–2001). In 1966 Play School replaced Kindergarten Playtime for the pre-school audience.

There have been various revamps of elements of Play School over the years, including four versions of the opening titles and a major rework in 1999 which delivered a new set, new Play School clock and changes to the production process. This meant that instead of the program being recorded ‘as live’ in a continuous half hour as had been the case previously, the program was recorded in distinct segments.

Play School first went to air on 18 July 1966 at 10.05 am (in NSW and Victoria) and soon after nationally. Play School is currently screened every weekday at 3:00 pm on ABC1 and at 9:30 am and 4:30 pm on ABC4Kids. It is the second-longest running children’s TV program in the English-speaking world still in production (only the UK’s Blue Peter, which first aired on 16 October 1958, is older). Play School was admitted to the Logies Hall of Fame on its 40th anniversary in 2006.

Titles in this series

Play School – Bags Wednesday 1984

Noni (Hazlehurst) and John (Hamblin) compete in a sack race then invite the children at home to sing and jump with them. Noni feeds a tiger, elephant and seal version of John in a ‘pretend’ zoo. John reads a book ...

Play School – Trains Thursday 1969

Don (Spencer) and Anne (Haddy) make a steam train out of a washing basket, plant pot, two ‘clean’ rubbish-tin lids and part of a garden rake. Passengers Big Ted, Little Ted and Humpty get on board. Then Ruth (Cracknell) tells ...