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Playgroups—An Alternative to Preschool or Child Care
Many parents do not want their young children to be in group programs—either preschool or child care—that keep the children away from home for long hours, perhaps 20 to 40 hours a week. They worry that so much time away from the mother and father will dilute the impact of parental teaching and draw the children away from parental values. (Actually, there is very little evidence that any such thing happens, as almost all the research on child care shows that its influence on the development of children is minimal compared to the influence of the parents.) At the same time, they read and hear that the early years are critical for brain growth and for the development of pre-literacy skills, and fear they cannot provide the full array of learning opportunities found in a high-quality educare program. This raises their anxiety level about whether they can give their children the ingredients needed for development and still keep them at home most of the time.

Fortunately it doesn't have to be either/or, preschool or home. There is a middle ground which can happily meet parental needs for keeping their children at home most of the time and, at the same time, fulfill the children's needs to spend time with their peers and learn to function effectively in a group setting. This middle ground is usually referred to as the Playgroup Movement, and the groups established within it are called simply Playgroups.

What are Playgroups?

There is no one formula for a playgroup, and you may want either to find or found one to meet your needs. In general, they can be defined as follows: Playgroups are relatively informal groups of young children (close to one another in age) and their mothers (or fathers) who meet on a regular basis to allow the children to socialize with one another, to have a good time, and to learn through play. They may meet once a week, two-five times a week, or maybe only once or twice a month. Parents may be required to remain with the children, or they may take advantage of the playgroup period to do activities of their own choosing. Sometimes, parent discussion groups take place while the children are active in the playgroup. The groups may meet in the homes of participants on a rotating basis, or they may meet in a public place such as a church or a YWCA building. The participating parents may take turns as group leaders, or they may hire a professional to play and lead the activities. If the latter, you will have to arrange for an appropriate fee for the person you hire, and someone will have to handle checks for payment and possibly tax and Social Security withholding. If parents take turns supervising and conducting the group, the only expense may be for juice and cookies and toy purchase and replacement.

What Do You Need for a Playgroup?

You need at least four things:

1. A group of like-minded mothers or fathers with children of similar ages to your own.

2. A place to meet that has a good-size playroom, plus outdoor space for active play.

3. A pretty good idea of the developmental needs and skills of children of the ages that will be in your group.

4. An assortment of toys and learning materials that will interest and stimulate the children. Before you try to start a group on your own, check around to find out if one is already in operation near you. Check the bulletin boards at your local grocery story; ask at your church. Contact the Resource and Referral for child care in your area; they are concerned with playgroups as well as with full-day programs. You will be surprised to learn just how many varieties of playgroups there are—some for children with disabilities, for immigrant children who do not speak English, for children with special interests such as music or art. There is a lot of information available on the net. Start with the "All About Playgroups" section of this web site, www.fisher-price.com. It covers all the basics, including how to find or found a playgroup, the benefits to you and your child, and has lots of ideas for fun activities, updated weekly. Also visit Playgroup.org or mah.org. 'Mah' stands for 'Mothers At Home,' and this group stands ready and eager to help any mother who wants to find a way to support her belief in the importance of having mothers remain at home during their children's precious early years without depriving their children of opportunities to acquire needed social and cognitive skills.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education