Playgroups for Toddlers: Learning Through Play

How Kids’ Playgroups Can Benefit You and Your Baby. Playgroups for toddlers help with development and socialization. But they are also beneficial for mom!

Sue had her first two children at the same time most of her friends were having babies. She had a strong support system of friends and family with whom she could confide in, socialize, and sometimes commiserate with. But when Sue decided to have her third child a few years later, she found herself feeling lonely. Her other friends were dealing with toddlers, and she now had an infant.

Sue began taking daily walks with her 10-month-old daughter, Kristen, and met other moms along the way. Soon, these moms banded together and formed a weekly playgroup, which not only served as a support system for Sue, but was also a fun, social experience.

Extended Family for Moms

The first mom Sue met was Christine, whose daughter was about the same age. Together, the two participated in the weekly playgroup for over two and a half years.

“People don’t live near their families anymore,” says Christine, and playgroups can offer some of that constant support.

“When you’re a stay-at-home mom, you hardly get to socialize with other parents,” says Stephanie, a mother of three who has always participated in playgroups. “You get the chance to grow friendships with people who understand what you’re going through.”

Deb Wonnacott, an Early Childhood Consultant in Toronto, Ontario, agrees, “[Moms] need to see other adults to discuss concerns and share ideas about what worked and didn’t work [with their kids].” It also offers them a break, as group members can help each other out.

Playgroups can help mothers put their kids development and behavior into perspective, she says. Some children are developmentally delayed, and being in a playgroup can bring to light what skills a child is missing.

“If your kid is doing something weird, you can talk to other moms to find out what their kids are doing,” says Christine. She believes playgroups can appease worries you may be having.

How Kids Learn from Playgroups

But playgroups aren’t just support outlets for mothers; they also offer children the opportunity to develop their socialization and language skills, says Wonnacott. Through playgroups, children learn to share, take turns, and understand the importance of language and communication. At home, parents learn what their child wants and needs through body language, trial and error, and intuition. But in playgroups, kids are dealing with one another and must “tell each other what they want if they want their needs to be met,” she says.

“There are appropriate [social] behaviors we all learn through trial and error, peer interaction and home life,” explains Anita Kurti, a Speech Language Pathologist at New York City’s League School, “But no one sits us down and [formally] teaches us.”

Many of the socialization skills acquired in playgroups fall under the category of pragmatic language, she says. Through group playing kids learn “the way to use language (both verbal and nonverbal) and the social norms of communication, including eye contact, staying on topic, reading body language, and allowing personal body space,” Kurti adds.

Wonnacott expands the list of learned skills to include gross motor, sensory, cognitive, social, and self help. But she also believes that playgroups expand kids’ horizons, giving them exposure to things they may not see, or do, at home. For example, a child may never learn to use scissors in her own home where messes are discouraged, but can explore all kinds of art supplies in someone else’s home.

New Skills Through Observation

Sue believes Kristen is proof of how kids can evolve through playgroups. When they first joined their group, Kristen was nowhere near ready to walk. But three days later, after watching a little boy toddle past her, she began walking herself. “You could just see her looking at him and thinking, ‘Aha!’,” says Sue. Kristen also learned to be less shy. When she first joined the group, Kristen would not leave her mother’s lap, but three or four weeks later she became more and more comfortable walking away from mom. Sue feels that Kristen, now five years old, is far more social than her older siblings were at her age. She is not afraid of visiting new people’s homes, and Sue believes that is because their group rotated homes each week.

While playgroups are highly beneficial for many kids, they are not right for everyone, says Wonnacott. Playgroups are often unstructured – kids can do what they want and often have access to a variety of toys and activities. Some kids are lost without a routine, and these kids may be better suited for some sort of preschool or formal playgroup at a local community center.

Just as kids learn positive skills, they also pick up negative behaviors, so parents need to be attentive. It is important to investigate other parents’ beliefs and make sure you share common values with them.

Christine confesses that their group screened out potential candidates who had tantrums and were naughty. “We didn’t want grabbers or hitters who would throw our whole group into disarray.”

Playgroups offer a supportive environment where both moms and kids can learn, socialize, and play. Moms get the opportunity to get out and communicate with their peers. At the same time, kids have a safe environment in which to explore and make new friends. Christine describes how her daughter, Melanie, would cry at the end of each playgroup, as she didn’t want to leave her best pals.

“These kids knew each other so well,” she explains. “They were totally comfortable with each other, totally close. They hung out for a year and a half [(engaged in parallel play)] before they even started playing together. These kids are imprinted on each other’s brains.”

Starting Your Own Playgroup

Want to start your own playgroup? Here are some tips to get you going:

  • Location is Everything: Look for moms and kids in your own neighborhood. That way travel is easy, as is setting up playdates with your kids’ new friends.
  • Schedule: Find the best time for everyone. Try to avoid scheduling meetings at the end of the day when toddlers may be getting tired or hungry. Stick to your schedule as best you can; if it becomes flexible, confusion can set in and momentum may be lost.
  • Numbers: Try to form a group of about four to six kids. Remember that every kid comes with a parent, so five kids means 10 people will be at each meeting; too many people could be chaotic. Too few kids, on the other hand, can result in one-on-one play if the third child is unable to attend.
  • Mix it Up: Try to find a nice balance of boys and girls. Don’t be afraid to have kids of different ages join either. Younger kids will “play up” to their older friends.
  • Great Minds: Look for compatible parents who share your values and discipline style. Finding the right mix will help create a happy group of toddlers. You might want to set up a couple of trial sessions to get a feel for everyone’s chemistry.
  • Ground Rules: As a group, come up with a set of rules and guidelines. Rules for the group may include a clearly defined method of discipline and what type of behavior is considered off limits. You may want to insist that if any kids are sick, or even recovering from an illness, they cannot participate in that week’s playgroup.
  • Bad Days: Remember that everyone has off days. Don’t feel bad or embarrassed if your child is cranky or misbehaves on occasion. Everyone gets irritable once in a while, even you!
  • Take Turns: Just as your kids need to share and take turns, so do you. Make sure that the group rotates responsibilities. If you’re going to meet in people’s homes, make sure everyone hosts. Also make sure moms take turns supplying the snacks and drinks.

What if I don’t know any other moms? If you don’t know enough parents to form a group, you may want to try spending some time at your nearest park or play area; you’re bound to meet other parents there. Think about taking a mother and child class at a local community center, or through a company like Gymboree. You can also call your local hospital or community center for more information about free support groups for new moms.

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