Tips for Planning a Cooperative Playgroup or Camp

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.


  1. mominisrael says

    HMO6–absolutely. Not every mother is cut out for a playgroup. I can do it once a week but not on a regular basis.

  2. I always thought I would be a gannenet when I was growing up. Then I was camp counselor for 2 year olds, three years in a row. As much as the parents loved me (I did a good job đŸ™‚ ) I needed at least an hour to unwind before being able to talk to anyone at the end of the day. Realizing that one day I may have to come home to my own family, I decided that it was not a good profession for me. Now a days I could not possibly imagine watching other peoples kids all day – even one day a week and even to save money – and then having to deal with my own. Afternoons are hard enough with just my own around. It sounds great – but you also have to know yourself!

  3. I was part of one, twice, about 30 years ago. They were good while they lasted and were for 2 year olds. Ten years later I was part of a different “sharing” arrangement for one afternoon after gan. One day my neighbor took my two sons, and the other day I took hers of the same age.

  4. Well said. I was part of one last year and it worked pretty well. I tried to arrange one this year but it didn’t work out. I too thought that maybe I could be a ganenet one day and was also a couselor in camps for two and three year olds. I used to fall asleep on the bus ride home because I was exhausted. I decided instead of being a ganenet, I would teach. It takes a lot of energy but much less than taking care of two year olds.

  5. Just curious, do you not send your children to gan?
    I ask because for a while I didn’t but I can’t pin point it, but I felt alot of social pressure that I SHOULD send them and why wasn’t I.
    There was only one other family I knew who didn’t send their kids to gan (but then I didn’t knw so many ppl)

  6. Thanks for the great tips. I will have to link. My friends and I are well on our way to making a small playgroup. I’m really excited and love getting advice from someone far more experienced.

  7. RaggedyMom says

    Five friends and I ran a cooperative playgroup for the school year before this previous one. We had six kids (incidentally all girls) and ran it three days a week, with a pair of moms watching the girls. The kids were 2 and we felt we needed the extra supervision of a second mom.
    We also kept it short – 9-11:30 a.m. Between free play, stories, circle time, a snack, a project, and manipulative play, the time passed quickly. The challenge was that all but two of us lived in apartments and had no outside space, be it a yard, garden, or balcony. A full day in a tight environment wasn’t feasible for us.
    Aside from a couple of the girls, all of the kids were very easygoing and calm. It was great that my daughter started gan the following year with no qualms about me saying goodbye, and with a good sense of school-type routines. And without the commitment of many hours of school time, and at virtually no cost.
    However, I don’t plan to run a cooperative playgroup for my son. He’s rambunctious enough that the idea of 5 more his age all at once is not appealing enough to make it worthwhile!
    But by far, my decision is based more on the challenge of having a newborn around i”yh, and nowhere to hide it here during playgroup, plus having to shlep it to my partner mom’s house on the times when it’s my turn to watch the kids over there.
    My son was born about 6 weeks into the cooperative playgroup “school year” and having 6 two-year-olds all over the baby led to a lot of raw mommy nerves and a lot of extra trips to the pediatrician’s office.
    I think in theory, the idea is great. The execution really depends on lots of other variables! Good luck, SL! I’m sure you’ll succeed!

  8. mominisrael says

    Thanks BB and Batya.
    Miriam, my son started gan at age 5 for gan chova (although I did have informal playgroups for him at age 2 and 3). People ask my kids all the time why they aren’t in gan. The social pressure is enormous. In the TA area, though, there are a lot of kids not in gan, mostly in the non-Orthodox community.

  9. mominisrael says

    SL–hope it helps. RM–thanks for sharing your experience. I didn’t mind having young babies while doing playgroup; toddlers were much mroe challenging.

  10. Mom-It definitely helps. I am so busy this week, but I will have to email you about our plans off line and get some input from that also.

  11. When I was a sahm, I kept the girls home until they were 3. I worked when the boys were little.