How to Start and Run a Successful Playgroup

Toddler PlaygroupThree years ago, Amy Ritthaler Gilmour stood on the cusp of one of life’s biggest transitions. An English professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, Gilmour—then 29 years old and pregnant with her first child—was about to become a stay-at-home mom. The problem was that she didn’t have any women with whom to share the experience.

“Most of my colleagues at work had grown children, and none of my friends were even married,” Gilmour says. “I yearned for companionship with other pregnant women and moms.”

Gilmour noticed two other pregnant women who lived in her neighborhood. “I got the nerve up to knock on their doors and introduce myself. Within a week, we met for lunch, and then, within the month, all of us had our babies,” she says. From there, the lunch bunch developed into a playgroup.

Six months later, the playgroup grew to include six mothers and their babies. Today, the group is still going strong with a core of about 10 moms (five of whom are pregnant with their second child). They are friends that Gilmour treasures.

“We meet at each other’s houses on a rotating basis. The moms relax, nurse their babies, and talk about everything from potty training to time outs and the kids run around like crazy,” Gilmour says. “We all support each other and put a lot of value on being a mother. It puts us in a good mood, and that, in turn, trickles down to our children.”

Gilmour may have used some old-fashioned gumption to jump start her playgroup, but today’s new moms have technology on their side. Thanks to the Internet and a burgeoning group of playgroup experts—there now are Web sites, books and guides—all with ideas and resources to help parents create their own playgroups.

Carren Joye, a mother of four and the author of A Stay-at-Home Mom's Complete Guide to Playgroups (Writers’ Club Press, 2000), says parents form their own playgroups for one of several reasons:

  • they are new to an area and don’t know anyone,
  • they can’t find a playgroup they like, or
  • they want the playgroup limited to a specific contingency (older moms, moms of twins, babies, etc.).

“The beauty of starting your own playgroup is that you can decide what kind of group you want it to be,” Joye says. “You can control the size, the frequency of the meetings and the overall tone.”

7 Steps to Starting a Group

To get started, Joye offers seven easy steps to form a playgroup:

1. Decide if you want a children’s playgroup, a mother’s group, or a combination.  Some groups provide babysitting while only the moms meet; others gather together with both parents and children.

2. Determine the desired age-range for children. Only infants, or just toddlers or preschoolers?

3. Consider the preferable number of participants. Most playgroups range from five to 10 parents.

4. Decide what you want to do with your group. Will it be playtime for the children, will it offer structured activities or will it be a series of field trips?

5. Choose a day and time most convenient to you. Of course, you will need to consider the other parents, but that will come later.

6. Select a location. Will you meet in each other’s homes or is there a central location that is more convenient?

7. Find other moms and dads who want the same thing from a playgroup as you do.

To get the word out, Joye suggests putting up flyers in your neighborhood. “You can simply walk up and down streets looking for yards that have bikes or toys, and place the flyer on the mailbox (federal law prohibits placing solicitation items inside a mailbox). You can also try posting them in your pediatrician’s office, the library, the park or the mall,” she says

When people start responding, set a time and a date for the first meeting. While some groups plan elaborate field trips and activities, both Joye and Gilmour agree that the simplest—and often most effective—playgroups are those held in participants’ homes. The children romp in a designated play area (the back yard, a child’s room, etc.) while the parents talk within earshot. The playgroup hostess provides a small snack.

Some playgroups—like Jennifer Pellow’s in New Carlile, Ind.—meet from 10 a.m. to noon once a week. For the first 30 minutes, the children play. Then the hostess reads a story and provides a craft relating to the theme of the book. Then there is a snack and clean-up time.

“We get our books from the library and find craft ideas from books and magazines,” Pellow says.

Pellow started her playgroup by putting up flyers four years ago when her daughter was 6 months old. The group started with 10 moms and is now down to a comfortable six.

“It is so exciting at first that a big group seems so fun” Pellow says. “But, in time, a large number can be overwhelming because then hostessing becomes a chore. 

Share the Work

Indeed, it is important to delegate playgroup duties, such as planning, hostessing and telephone calling, to all parents involved in the playgroup. Online message boards in playgroup Web sites are filled with messages from frustrated playgroup coordinators who all echo the same sentiment as one mom from Alabama who wrote: “Everyone wanted to go to playgroup, but they didn’t want to volunteer to host it.”

To avoid hostess burnout, try rotating the playgroup meeting from house to house based on an alphabetical phone list. The parent who is hosting for the week is responsible for making reminder calls and alerting other members if the meeting has to be cancelled. Some playgroups have a designated backup location (a park, the zoo, etc.) in case the hosting parent has sick children.

Above all, author Joye advises parents to have fun. Don’t sweat attendance numbers, they will fluctuate no matter how well-organized you are. And, most importantly, a seasoned playgroup pro, says “If you’re the playgroup hostess, don’t serve [cheese curls] as the snack: You’ll have orange fingerprints everywhere!”

From United Parenting Publications