The Variety Play classroom was noisy and warm, with the voices of kids playing with toys on the ground and parents sitting around them on benches.
Normally at 4:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, the room would be quiet and empty, waiting patiently for the next two-hour session of Variety Play to arrive. But Wednesday, June 12 was a little different.
On Wednesday, everyone was waiting for Marjorie Hughes to arrive to her surprise party, so they could wish her well on her path to retirement.
Hughes, better known as Miss Marge to the parents and kids in Agassiz, has been involved with the district’s Variety Play program for the last 30 years.
“Really, the goal has been to make memorable life experiences and to have this positive impact on children,” Kristen Patrice, recreation programmer at the District of Kent, said about Variety Play.
Miss Marge “has been the magic of the program,” she added. “We heard that time and time again, that people registered in Variety Play because of her, because of what she brought to that program and what the program stood for.”
|Miss Marge making a speech at her surprise farewell party on Wednesday, June 12. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)|
Miss Marge first began with Variety Play in 1989, when she was asked to fill in as an instructor for the Tiny Tots class — a 45-minute playtime two days a week.
At the time, Variety Play was held at the Ferny Coombe Pool, from September to December and then again from January until March. The men and women’s change rooms were turned into classrooms, and the bathrooms were boarded up because the water was turned off for the season.
“The only water that we had was in the lifeguard’s bathroom,” Miss Marge remembered. “So if anybody ever had to go to the bathroom, we had to take all the kids at the same time.”
Supplies for crafts had to be stored in the pool office — every piece of paper and eraser — and when the program was over, Miss Marge’s red tickle trunk and dresser were stored in Agassiz’s old incinerator building.
“When we got it back, it was always covered in bird poop and mouse poop and dead mice,” Miss Marge said. “It was awful actually. But you do what you got to do.”
Despite the uncomfortable conditions, Variety Play was an immensely popular program, with parents lining up at four or five in the morning to sign their toddlers up for the recreational play time.
“Back then, it’s because there wasn’t anything else,” Miss Marge explained. But the program has continued to be popular, even with the introduction of day cares in Harrison, the Agassiz Christian School and Seabird Island.
“I think it’s because it’s mostly play,” she said about its continued popularity. “They learn how to share, and how to be good friends.
“I do have a curriculum I follow … but it’s mostly just play. If a kid doesn’t want to do anything, he’s got 13 years ahead of him in school. He doesn’t need to worry about doing it here.”
In 2001, Variety Play moved from the Ferny Coombe Pool and its water-less change rooms to the newly construction Community Recreation and Cultural Centre. Miss Marge got her own classroom for the Tots class (ages three and a half to five), and another instructor got one for the Tiny Tots (ages two and a half to three and a half).
“I remember walking into here and almost bursting into tears because I had my own bathroom,” Miss Marge said.
Over the years, more has changed at Variety Play than just the location.
The hours for the program have gotten longer, with Variety Play now taking up two hours twice a week, rather than just 45-minutes.
And the families have changed too. More dads are dropping their kids off at the program, and parents are wanting to be more involved and knowledgeable about what their kids are doing during the program.
It was some of these changes that made Miss Marge decide it was time to retire from her role.
“It’s a different world now, and I don’t want to change,” she said. “I have to realize that things are changing. Not so much for my job, but … it’s just a different world.
“It’s time to let the kids learn different areas of life.”
Miss Marge isn’t planning on going too far though — she said she will still be in touch with the District of Kent for volunteering opportunities.
And besides, Agassiz is a small town. Miss Marge has been running into her past and present students for years.
Miss Marge has been recognized during high school valedictorian speeches, and was invited to have her picture taken with several graduating students a few years ago. At her surprise farewell party on Wednesday, June 12, some parents of current Variety Play students were even looking for photos of themselves from when they were young.
And of course, it’s always easy to find someone you know in downtown Agassiz.
“We’ll be sitting in a restaurant or something and I’ll say to my husband, ‘Oh I had them in playschool,’” Miss Marge said. “Tom says, ‘You had everybody in playschool.’”
Although a lot has changed with Variety Play, the core of the program has always remained the same: fun, disorganized play.
“Thirty years ago, you were told to go play out in the street and come home when the lights came on,” Miss Marge said. “And now, everyone has a play date. Everything is organized.
“So this is where the kids can come and it’s not all organized. It’s just play.”
The District of Kent is planning to keep that tradition of Variety Play going even after Miss Marge leaves.
Currently, Patrice said, the district doesn’t have a replacement for Miss Marge. But next council meeting (June 24), Kent council will be looking at a comprehensive Let’s Play initiative, which could include a more robust offering of childcare options, including childminding, Variety Play and other preschool programs.
“Variety Play will hopefully go ahead whether or not childminding goes forward” in September, Patrice said. “The goal is to have it be part of a bigger plan.”
But until that’s decided, Miss Marge has some outgoing advice for parents of the kids she has been teaching for years.
“I just think that they should see the world through their kid’s eyes,” she said. “I don’t think they should worry about his fingernails should be clean and he should have a clean shirt when he goes out.
“Kids need to get dirty and they need to play,” she continued. “It’s okay to get wet and messy and dirty … Just let kids be kids and see the world through their eyes.”
That’s the philosophy that has made Variety Play so popular over the last 30 years.
“Miss Marge brought that special — she’s special,” Patrice said, tearing up. “She’ve very special, she’s one of a kind. The kids have been so lucky to have her.”
“And I’m lucky to have the kids,” Miss Marge said, tears coming into her eyes as well.
Every year Miss Marge writes a letter to the kids who are graduating from the Variety Play classroom. This year was Miss Marge’s last letter, written to the students of the future class of 2032.