Since Sephardi Lady commented that she was hoping to start a playgroup, I thought I would share some experience. I’ve helped organize many different types of playgroups throughout my mothering career.
The first thing to remember is that it’s all about convenience. Each mother (or father) wants the group because it frees up time for her and saves money. She may also hope her child will socialize and learn, but in my experience that is not the glue that holds the playgroup together.
My friend, who recently asked to form a playgroup with me for our 3yos, just told me that she may have to reconsider. An older child was diagnosed with a learning disability and will need therapy appointments for a while, and she doesn’t know if she will have the time and energy to commit herself to a playgroup.
So that brings me to point number one: You can’t count on a cooperative playgroup to last throughout the year. Playgroups with at least four families tend to have more staying power than smaller ones. However, what you gain in stability you lose in flexibility.
Geographical convenience can be a big factor. My first playgroup was set up to be instead of gan, five kids five days a week for four hours each. Four of us lived near each other, and the fifth drove in every day. Our biggest problem was getting to that mother’s house. We had a carpool but one mother, who joined late, didn’t want to participate. I had a baby during the year and didn’t have room for everyone in the car and had to ask a neighbor to watch my middle child. I was the only one who insisted on carseats when I drove, and one for my son when others drove. This created tension throughout the year. Open communication might have helped
The mother who joined late (because she returned from the US at the beginning of the school year) hadn’t known that a carpool was involved. Issues to be worked out in advance include transportation; how flexible the playgroup day will be; vacation days; rules for food and snacks; television and/or computers; safety issues; by when to notify the hostess if the child isn’t coming that day; field trips; sick children/mothers; how to handle behavior issues; and maternity leave if necessary.
I think the hostess mother should have a lot of leeway about the day’s schedule. When I hosted the playgroup for my oldest, who was 3.5, my rambunctious two-year-old also attended by default. He was fine playing with the other children, but when I tried to read a story he would distract everyone by jumping up and down on the sofa. So we had lots of free play and art activity but few stories. Another mother with no younger children ran a very structured day. The kids enjoyed going to each other’s homes and got used to the different styles quickly. Each mother, though, tended to have the most problems with her own child.
One thing that I learned is not to include children under two, even “advanced” ones. They generally can’t participate in the activities that over-twos enjoy and need a lot more maintenance. Sometimes parents are desperate to find a few more participants, but with under-twos it tends to turn into babysitting more than a playgroup.
Parents have different expectations. I heard about one playgroup where each working mother took the kids on her one day off a week. Now I can’t imagine using my weekly day off to care for five children until 4:00 PM, even though it saves a lot of money. However, you can bet that that playgroup held together throughout the year with very few cancellations. If some mothers need the playgroup as daycare and others view it as enrichment, this can create conflict.
You need to look at the playgroup commitment as a job. While you won’t earn any extra income (unless the alternative is sending to preschool), the one day hosting the playgroup “pays” for the other days. Sometimes it’s easier to care for your own children each day than to shlep the child to the playgroup, deal with other mothers’ “meshugasim” (eccentricities), and commit yourself to run the playgroup on a day you really need to be grocery shopping. When I sent my oldest to a private (non-cooperative) playgroup a few days a week, I found myself running home to “get things done” during the few hours he would be away. But invariably the baby occupied my time, and would fall asleep just as I needed to pick up his brother. As I gain experience I have learned how to fit my needs into my children’s day. I guess that topic will have to wait for another post.
Playful Learning, by Anne Engelhardt and Cheryl Sullivan, covers all the ins and outs of cooperative playgroups. Anyone with small children can benefit from this treasure trove of ideas incorporating arts and crafts, movement, music, drama, pre-reading, and more.