The Joys of the Neighbourhood Playgroup

Filed under: Activities: Babies, Amazing Parents, Cabin Fever

It's 9:30 on a Wednesday morning, and the older children have made their way to school. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee wafts through our house. A loaf of banana bread, baked and frozen last week, has been thawed and sliced, and sits on a plate beside a bowl of raisins and dried cranberries.

"When are they coming?" The four-year-old's nose presses against the front window.

"Any minute now." I scramble to wipe the counter of its breakfast debris, to find the sugar bowl, and to set out half a dozen mugs from our motley collection.

Welcome to the calm before the storm. Within minutes, neighbourhood friends will begin to trickle in. Strollers will collect on the porch, the front hallway will fill up with boots and coats, there will be preschoolers conspiring in the playroom upstairs, babies propped beside a box of chewable toys in the living-room, and moms in the kitchen expressing gratitude for the warmth and the coffee.

Welcome to my neighbourhood playgroup.
Before giving birth, I'd heard the term "playgroup," but its meaning wasn't entirely clear to me. Secretly, I thought it sounded a bit infantile. Besides which, I'm not a group person by nature. Why would I want to get together with a bunch of moms so that we could talk about sleepless nights and breastfeeding issues while playing the the floor with a pile of kids?

Then I gave birth. Why indeed.

Suddenly, I needed to talk to other moms.

We were living in a new city. None of my friends had yet become mothers. I craved companionship during the quiet days spent at home with a new baby, and then, when his sister arrived 17 months later, with two. I wanted advice from people who had forged a path before me. And not just advice, but those best elements of friendship: commiseration and understanding.

The weekly neighbourhood playgroup filled that space for me. What a gift to spend a morning with adults who weren't bothered by the noise my children were making, or the fact that my shirt was covered in crumbs (or worse), or offended when a conversation ended abruptly--"Mama! I have to pee!"

Like many informal playgroups, ours is highly localized. We live within walking distance of each other's homes, which is important, because we take turns hosting. Over the years, the numbers have risen and fallen as new mothers (and, occasionally, dads) have joined, and others have graduated out (as maternity leaves end, or job opportunities beckon, or the youngest child heads off to full-day school). The flux has given each year's group a slightly different flavour--our infants of last year have become walking, talking toddlers this year--but the key to any playgroup's long-term survival is a willingness to bring in new families.

Playgroup works best when hosting isn't a competitive sport. If you have a box of rice crackers, offer those. If you've baked a strawberry loaf, awesome. I've hosted last-minute on an empty cupboard, and other moms generously arrived with back-up supplies. And I vacuum after hosting, not before: trust me, there will be crumbs. Our only hard and fast rule is: there must be coffee.

Ideally, your group will honour a variety of parenting styles (or you will find a group with parenting styles similar to your own). When I was a newbie, I remember gratefully taking to heart the advice of one playgroup mom: Every family is different, and every child within every family is different.

How does one hook up with an informal playgroup? Good question. In my case, an acquaintance directed me to an already established group in my new neighbourhood. I swallowed my nerves and shyness and knocked on a stranger's door. We were invited in, and never looked back.

So, ask. Be brave. Reach out. Talk to other parents you meet at the park or the library. Maybe your neighbourhood doesn't have a playgroup yet--consider starting one. Maybe you've noticed another mom pushing a stroller around the block at 9:30 in the morning. Say hello. If you're hesitant about inviting complete strangers into your home, meet at a nearby park. Get to know each other.

The friendships you (and your children) forge will carry you many miles, through teething, potty training, night terrors, first-day-of-school, and onward. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and let the conversation begin.


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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.