There comes a moment in every new parent's life when he or she looks at the baby and thinks, "What do I do now?"
For me, the moment came when my son, Ben, was three-months old. He was lying peacefully in my arms when it suddenly hit me that I was responsible for starting him on the path to educational and social success.
Fortunately, my husband and I didn't have to struggle for answers entirely on our own. I joined a local play group. While I had delayed at first (I thought, "He's too young to get anything out of it"), I've been surprised at how much the play group has done for both of us.
Clearly, when babies are very young, play groups are more of a social outing for parents. Later, as the babies become toddlers, the aspects of sharing, cooperation, and group dynamics kick in. But early on, our play group was about solidarity: I heard other new parents saying, "I can't get her to sleep through the night," "He spits up all the time," or "She cries every time I put her down," and I felt better knowing I wasn't alone.
Now, as Ben reaches 10 months, I'm learning about strategies that have helped other families through tough periods. For example, one mother has taught her pre-verbal one-year-old how to use simple gestures when she wants something, rather than crying. Another bonus is the confidence I'm gaining in my own parenting skills as I compare notes with others.
Parents grow too
"It's a development process for parents as well," says Marney Toole, a family-service coordinator for Martha's Vineyard Community Services, based in Vineyard Haven, Mass. "They explore their own feelings about parenting with other parents."
There's no set definition of a play group; it's a flexible concept that can be shaped to fit parents' needs and children's interests, (see story below). Play groups can meet in homes or community centers, be sponsored by religious, civic, or social organizations, or parents themselves. The activities can involve free play or structured projects. Generally, the groups meet regularly and have a core membership. Some groups charge a fee for art materials and snacks, most are free and run by parent volunteers.
Parents usually stay in the room with their children, although established play groups sometimes evolve into a co-op, in which several parents watch the kids and give the others time to relax or run errands.
Our Friday play group meets in members' homes on a rotating basis. It's a casual time, with the kids on the floor in the middle, three to four moms (and an occasional dad or two) munching on refreshments, chatting, and keeping one eye on the kids. We don't have an agenda, but there are plans to capitalize on parent talents - for example, having one mom who sings and plays piano share simple songs, and a Japanese mother teach some phrases.
Play groups are a boon for parents who have left their jobs to stay home with children full or parttime. Moms and dads may not know anyone in their neighborhood or be familiar with community resources. For them, play groups can be a lifeline, providing contact with other adults.
Tammie Koenig lives in Falls Church, Va., and cares for her two children, ages 5-1/2 and 3, at home full time. She began attending a play group four years ago at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in McLean, Va. She noticed right away that the group drew together women who otherwise might not have met: "We had a nice mix of stay-home moms and those who worked parttime, of moms in their mid-20s and in their 40s, all with kids under 2," Ms. Koenig says. "The fellowship was very important."
A few generations ago, neighborhood moms would have chatted about their children over the backyard fence, but in the overscheduled '90s, a play group often serves as a substitute for random encounters.
Let children be children
Ms. Toole, of Martha's Vineyard Community Services, however, warns against a play group - or any preschool program - being "product oriented." The implication is that parents accustomed to doing X, Y, and Z and achieving certain results, are unwittingly applying this formula to childrearing. They go into a situation expecting that children will learn certain prescribed skills.
"This isn't a quiz," Toole says. "Parenting is an art - it's developing a sensitivity to the signals our children are sending. We expose them to a lot of different things and let them explore. Parents need to relax and trust the relationship with their babies."
An experience with Ben bears this out. As I tuned in to his interests during play group, rather than just pushing toys at him willy-nilly, I noticed that he was fascinated by two things: wheels in motion and chiming sounds. So I was better able to provide opportunities for him to try out those kinds of items at home.
Marion Ross, a licensed social worker in suburban Boston, sounds a note of caution about play groups. "In the earliest months, the most important thing for babies is forming an attachment." Her view, which runs counter to that of some educators, is that preschool children don't necessarily need other kids for social development. "They learn by listening, watching, and being held. It's not necessary to pour more [stimulation] in."
Ms. Ross says the positive aspects to play groups are what they provide parents. "It's a good thing for mothers to see other children, to see how theirs differs or is similar."
Fathers, too, value opportunities to discuss parenting issues. Rick Colbath-Hess, a licensed social worker in private practice in Cambridge, Mass., started a play group for dads to combat the isolation he felt as part-time caregiver for his son. "Dads, especially, need reassurance from their peers that what they are doing is worthwhile," he says.
The men's play group has also made a difference in other areas of family life. "It's important for my son to see a group of men nurturing children," Mr. Colbath-Hess says. "And I think the men become better partners [to their spouses], because they are more emotionally available."
As Marney Toole puts it, "Play groups are important because they re-create the sense of an extended family."