Logistics, chemistry important for playgroup success

Posted April 6, 2009 12:38 p.m. EDT

At first glance, playgroups are aimed at entertaining children, but they often become a lifeline for stay-at-home parents. Because parents have so much invested in their playgroup, finding the right group and keeping it running smoothly can be an important challenge. Logistics and chemistry play important roles in determining whether a group succeeds or fails, but with the right balance, it’s magic for everyone involved.

Cathy Ward’s first playgroup convened when her oldest daughter was 6 months old. With these children now turning 5, its members are still connected, and siblings have come into the picture. The parents make meals for each other, babysit, share clothes and carpool to preschool.

“A successful playgroup will have moms that ultimately become friends and are there for each other,” says Ward, who coordinates playgroups for the Durham Mother’s Club. “It’s a support network in an area where you might not always have a lot of family.”

The following 10 tips, culled from local parents and playgroup organizers, can help you develop your dream playgroup. For more on playgroups, search the Parent Groups directory on the Carolina Parent Web site.

1. Consider a group based on age

Many playgroups in the area are put together by larger member organizations, and each has its own approach to organizing playgroups. But almost all are organized by age, so both the parents and the children can relate to one another.

For example, the Durham Mother’s Club aims to match newborns within two to three months of each other because there are so many changes that arise in the first year, from sitting up to walking and talking. The age range gets larger as the kids get older.

Triangle Mommies organizes groups based on kindergarten start dates, says Lindsay Rouse, site administrator and mom to a 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. Rouse’s children are in the K-10 and K-12 groups. Her son will start kindergarten in 2010, and her daughter will start in 2012. The group also sponsors pregnant mom playgroups, elementary-age playgroups and all-ages playgroups.

Rouse usually alternates between her children’s age groups, although she favors all-ages playgroups the most. “There’s always a child that my son or daughter will click with,” she says.

2. Choose a location that works best for most

Playgroups can meet almost anywhere, from a home to a coffee shop, playground or museum like Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh or Kidzu in Chapel Hill. It’s important for parents to discuss what works best for them and their kids. A playgroup of active boys might want to meet at a park, whereas playgroups with infants might prefer someone’s house so moms can feel comfortable nursing. Many playgroups share hosting responsibilities by rotating among member’s homes or places of choice.

Two factors that can make or break playgroups are cost and driving times. Triangle Mommies encourages their members to keep play dates free or low-cost because some members have disposable income, but others don’t, Rouse says.

If parents have to drive a long way to get to a playgroup, they’re less likely to make the commitment. The Durham Mother’s Club aims to match up families that live no further than 15 minutes away, but in more rural areas, 30 minutes is often more realistic, says Daphne Stam, Durham Mother’s Club officer and mother of two.

Especially with younger ones, it’s important to be close by so children don’t fall asleep in the car.

3. Be flexible with your meeting schedule

As children get older, nap times change, parents may go back to work, preschool starts and children become more involved in activities. While it may be nice to have a set weekly meeting time, it’s not always realistic, Ward says. She suggests alternating days and times so everyone has a chance to play.

Another option is to split the group into two smaller playgroups when you can no longer find a common meeting time, says Erin Levy, first-time mother to 1-year-old daughter, Hazel. Friendships form after a group has been together for a while. Levy now calls and makes individual play dates with those whose schedule no longer fits with the group.

4. Discuss common goals

When Melinda Harder’s playgroup first met, she sat down with other moms and discussed what they wanted to get out of a playgroup for their 1-year-olds. One of the mothers in her playgroup wanted to expose her daughter to new foods, so the group decided to provide a new snack each time.

“We are encouraging our kids to try different foods that their friends are eating,” Harder says.

5. Build supportive relationships

It’s important to find that common bond, whether it’s similar interests, career paths, kids the same age or stay-at-home-parent joys and frustrations. In the end, playgroups usually gel or fall apart based on the chemistry among the adults, says Stam, who has been with her playgroup for seven years.

You never know when that perfect group will come together or fall apart, she says. You just have to be accepting and keep away from things that might lead to offensive or discriminatory behavior, like talking politics.

“I don’t know how they voted in the last election, because we don’t talk about it,” she says. “But if my power went out, I would call them to see if I could stay at their house.”

6. Avoid taking a sick child

Nothing breaks the trust of other moms more than showing up to play with a sick child. It’s often a hard call to make when playgroup is the only time for both parents and children to get out of the house and socialize with others.

“Some parents are worried about missing a play date for a runny nose, and other parents don’t want their kids to get sick,” Rouse says. “You try to gauge what’s an illness and what’s not, so you don’t miss out on a good time.”

Rouse’s group, Triangle Mommies, posts guidelines about illness and club events. They ask parents to keep children at home if they have colored nasal discharge, cough and fever. Once children are symptom-free for 24 hours, they’re welcome to play again.

7. Respect one another’s parenting style

When a playgroup meets on a regular basis, you see parents and their kids at their best and at their “not so best,” Rouse says. Children will act out with biting or hitting, and you’ll see parents respond with their own style of discipline.

Situations can get dicey when a child acts out against your own, and the parent doesn’t see it. It’s important not to discipline other people’s kids unless you feel like your child is in danger. Stam often asks the children what happened instead of accusing them. It’s less awkward than telling someone else’s child what to do, and it brings the situation to everyone’s attention without any blame.

“Mutual respect comes from everybody taking responsibility for their own child,” Stam says. “In the playgroups I have found to be successful, I don’t ever have to tell someone else’s kid not to do something because the other mom is right there.”

8. Provide advance notice if your plans change

Using common courtesies are important in playgroups. Call or e-mail if you can’t make a meeting so the group is neither worried nor waiting for you. Clear it with your group if someone else will be taking your child to a play date, Ward says. A nursing mother might be uncomfortable if a dad came, and group members might feel awkward hanging out with a grandparent or babysitter that they don’t know.

9. Speak up if the group stops working for you and your child

A playgroup may be running fine, but it just doesn’t work for you as a participant, whether it’s a scheduling conflict, personality clash or parenting style conflict. E-mail is one way to speak up if there is a problem and offer suggestions in a non-confrontational manner. And it’s OK to change your mind if a playgroup no longer seems like a good fit, Ward says.

“You have to be honest with yourself as to whether a group is going to work for you,” she says. “Sometimes people don’t get along. Sometimes it’s nice to try a different group to see if it’s a better fit.”

10. Follow your child’s lead and have fun

Playgroups are almost always exciting and entertaining for the little ones. They love new places, new toys and new people. It’s the parents who are more apprehensive, at least at first.

“Being a stay-at-home mom is isolating,” Rouse says, “and the play dates are as much for me as they are for my child. The biggest reward of play dates is meeting moms. I’ve met these wonderful people from just going out to play.”

Levy joined her Durham Mother’s Club playgroup when her daughter was 4 months old. Before joining the group, she didn’t know any other stay-at-home moms. In the beginning, the group served as a way to get out of the house, get advice, try classes together and explore new places. The playgroup ended up being the gateway to a large group of friends.

“I made true friends through my playgroup,” Levy says, “and I am happy to say that I enjoy mom’s night out as much as getting together with the kids.”