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Tips for Starting a Play Group

Find other parents. Places include the public library (see if yours has story time for babies or toddlers), church or temple, community center, pediatrician's office, YMCA or YWCA, toy store, childbirth or parenting class, and neighborhood strolls.

Aim for similar-aged children. Educators and play-group facilitators say children function best in a play group where the age gap is no more than three or four months, or their skills will diverge too widely.

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Keep numbers small. Especially if you meet at someone's house, start with four to six children.

Keep time short. For the first meeting, an hour is probably enough. For small babies, 1-1/2 to 2 hours is plenty. Older children who can be engaged in projects can last longer. Schedule meetings away from children's nap and meal times so they'll be in a more sociable frame of mind.

Discuss expectations. What do parents want from the play group: Entertainment and stimulation for their child? An opportunity to socialize and talk about parenting issues? A place to connect with the community? A cooperative babysitting arrangement?

Broach subjects. Will each parent be responsible for disciplining his or her own child? Who will provide snacks? Who can supervise cleanup? Will a fee be charged if art materials are involved?

Meet consistently. While play groups are flexible entities, it helps to have a regular meeting time with a core group of children who come each week. If the schedule gets too loose, parents may drop out.

Decide how to handle toy sharing. This can be awkward if the group meets in homes. Parents may want to put away certain larger toys that can't be easily shared. The book, "What to Expect in the Toddler Years" (Workman Publishing, 1994) recommends toys that foster cooperation, such as a bucket of blocks, dress-up items, a sand box, kitchen utensils, or a toy train.

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