Q&A Tuesday: What are the ingredients of a successful playgroup?

Reader Aimee writes, “I am planning to head up a playgroup in my area but am rather unqualified to do so. Well, I have the children (ages 3 and 1) and am a SAHM, but have never done the playgroup scene.

“Now that my son has blossomed into a social butterfly, and the long cold winters make it difficult for lengthy periods of outdoor play, I can see the benefits of a steady playgroup for the children (and me too!).

“So I have the location – my church basement, which comes well-equipped; however, my question is this:  how does one manage a successful play group that can benefit both mothers and children?”

Readers, I don’t have a lot of experience with playgroups.  I was in one when my oldest was a baby, but it’s been awhile.  Therefore, I’d like to default any answer to you guys!  Help me out with Aimee’s question:

How does one manage a successful play group that can benefit both mothers and children?

She also adds these questions – feel free to answer any of them as well:

  • Can you suggest any rules I should have in place before getting started?
  • Is structured play a better idea?
  • How do I deal with unruly children or negligent parents?

Alright, take it away, readers!

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. I have held playgroup sessions in my place and been to some at friends house. It does work better when there is a schedule to it whereby different parents could take turn to do the following
    – read a story book
    – do some art & craft
    – Sing songs n do dances
    I do schedule in some free time for the kids to play around /warm up.

    Do get the opinions of the other parents 1st towards disciplining of unruly kids- for us it is we will let the parent discipline his own kid . If the parent is not pro-active we may not invite him/her for subsequent playgroup sessions.

    Dominique´s last blog post…Many Faces of Roy

  2. I’ve been a part of two really successful playgroups. The mothers I’ve met through my playgroups have been integral to my sanity as a mother! Kudos to you, Aimee, for taking the initiative to start your own.

    The playgroups I’ve been a part of have been quite small and very laid-back. One was just a small group of women who lived in my neighborhood, and the one that I’m in now is comprised of women I met in a breastfeeding support group.

    Other than the fact that our personalities seem to click (and that’s just a gamble, you never know until you actually start hanging out together!), I think the biggest reason for our success was keeping the ages of our children very close together. I know that’s a little harder when you have 2 children vs. 1. I would think that having it in a space other than your home would help overcome part of that hurdle – maybe you could come up with separate play spaces for the toddlers vs. the preschoolers.

    We haven’t done structured playtime. It’s always been more of letting the kids burn off steam while we attempt to get some adult conversation in. It’s always worked well, but that may be a function of the personalities and the small group size.

    I hope that helps a bit and that your playgroup ends up being a bright spot in the week for you and your children!

  3. In Australia we have organised playgroups that are run by mums who volunteer for positions. I co-ordinated one year and found the best way to run it was to have a bit of structure and some rules from the outset.
    Our structure went like this:
    9.30-9.45am – arrivals and free play
    9.45am-10.20am – craft
    10.20-10.45am – morning tea
    10.45-11.15am – games
    11.15-11.30am – storytime and finish
    We did up a roster for craft, morning tea, games and storytime so that everyone took turns and shared the organisation.
    You could hold a meeting to draw up and agree on the rules of your playgroup. That way everyone can have input.
    Best of luck and the biggest thing to remember is to have fun!

    Sandra´s last blog post…The pitter patter of little green feet

  4. Our town has a playgroup very much like the one Sandra described. It is open to anyone in the city. There is a $3 drop-in fee or $40 for the year, to cover coffee, rental and craft supplies. I ran it last year.

    We wrote up a little introductory sheet (half a page) to give to moms who are new, because we were having trouble with moms letting their children run wild. It basically said that parents were responsible for watching their own children and making sure the space was well cared for.

    We have two women volunteer a week — one to bring a snack and set up the room, and one to plan a craft and clean up (wash cups, etc). The group runs from 9:45 – 11:15. We have coffee brewing for the moms and start with free play and time for moms to drink coffee. Then the kids do a simple craft, then have a snack, then there is about 15 min. left before clean up time. All the kids help clean up the toys, and the volunteer for the week washes the cups and cleans out the coffee maker.

    As for unruly kids, for a while we had to just watch our own kids closely so they didn’t get hurt. Usually one or two moms would stay with the toddlers and try to gently intervene when the older rough kids got rowdy, since their moms didn’t deal with it. With new moms, I would just go over and mention quietly, “Your child is doing such and such — just thought I’d tip you off.” It doesn’t embarass the mom, and it gives them the idea that their child’s behavior is not appropriate. Since I’ve been running it this has usually been enough.

    jill´s last blog post…Super Stash Sunday

  5. Philosophically speaking….
    Before you start, I’d just think through what your goals for the playgroup are. Mine are often to give my children social opportunities, to have them learn from other adults, and for me to have some adult-like conversation (hopefully about something other than the children for at least 2 minutes!).

    Practically speaking…
    In my short experience with playgroups, I’ve found that a mix of structure and free play is best. If the group is large enough, it’s great to ask one or two of the parents to plan a little activity for the group. While they’re leading the other parents can assist or just have a sip of coffee and take a load off.

    A good recipe I’ve seen is:
    -Initial free play to start
    -Small activity like a craft or art project
    -Some more free play
    -A little snack to steer clear of low blood sugar
    -A dance, a song, a follow the leader-something a little wild that gets everybody moving-together
    -Some more free play
    -Clean up time

    When I’m not trying to organize a play group, I’m blogging about philosophical and practical things at http://burningbushes.org/

  6. I’m part of a laid-back play group too. Our play-group is invitation-only, not to say that we’re exclusive, but we aren’t open to the public. We each take a turn hosting in our home. We get together from 10 a.m. until about 11:30 a.m. The moms have coffee and chat and the kids have snacks and play.

    The purpose of our group is to give support to each other and play time for the kids. Like Nicole said, you really need to define your purpose before you begin. Good luck!

    Nicki at Domestic Cents´s last blog post…Things I Say To Kids, But Never Adults

  7. I agree with the other mamas that a little bit of structure and a LOT of flexibility are key ingredients. The best playgroup we have been a part of allowed for free play time as mamas and kiddos were arriving, then transitioned into some kind of very easy, very low-key craft type activity, a little snack time (everyone brought their own and usually ended up sharing all around), and then more free time for the kiddos as the parents (dads and grandparents were involved, too!) chit-chatted and cleaned up. We met in a church gym, so there was lots of run around time.

    I love playgroups and have been trying to help one get off the ground here. Just embrace what comes along and stay flexible!

    Megan@SortaCrunchy´s last blog post…evidently , things are tough all over

  8. I have been part of two playgroups. The first was a horrible experience, which led me to start my own — which has been great. We are a laid back playgroup. Membership is by invitation only. While, as others said we are not exclusive, we just didn’t want the drama that sometimes comes with opening up to the public. When members meet a mom they click with who has a child the right age, they invite her. We also had a cap on size to seven moms (we meet in each other’s homes most of the time) and an age range for the member children. Many of us now have multiple children in the group who are all welcome, but the activities are always planned for the age the group was created for. We mostly have free play, but each week the hosting mom also plans an activity. This can be songs, games, craft, etc. She also provides a dessert item and everyone brown-bags lunch. We do have written guidelines but have found that due to being invite-only they are largely unneeded.

    Pam´s last blog post…Menu Plan Monday

  9. Thanks everyone for your helpful insight. I’m gleaning some great ideas and hope to get this off the ground next week.
    I like the idea of handing out a welcome/introductory letter to every new parent that comes. The letter would outline the guidelines of the group, state the goals, and notify parents of the opportunity to get involved by leading a circle time or providing a snack.

    This is exciting!

    Aimee´s last blog post…Orange Madeleines and a Holiday Relapse Recap

  10. Jennifer B says:

    Sounds silly, but set up some guidelines in advance regarding things like new members, tagalong kids, visitors (Dads and grandparents for example), food and snacks.

    I was in a playgroup with my daughter when she was younger and we ran into these problems with one member who just didn’t get it. So here are some specific questions to keep in mind:

    1. How do you want to handle new members? Can a regular just invite new people to show up without advising/getting permission in advance?

    2. Can a parent bring along children that aren’t their own (regular attendees of the playgroup, or other kids who they happen to be watching that day)? How do you feel about school aged kids coming on school holidays?

    3. What’s the policy on visitors? What if Mom is sick and Dad wants to bring the child(ren) to the playgroup? What if grandparents are visiting and want to watch their darling grandkids at play?

    4. Figure out how you are handling food and snacks – will they be allowed, provided by parents or provided by one group member each week? Are you willing/able to work around food allergies? Are there any rules about where food/drinks must be eaten?

    Good luck and have fun! I made some incredible friends from my daughter’s playgroup and wish I still had something similar even though she’s 7.5 years old now!

  11. Wow! See, I knew you guys would have better advice than I could give. I’m impressed with all your playgroup savvyness. 🙂

    Simple Mom´s last blog post…Q&A Tuesday: What Are The Ingredients of a Successful Playgroup?

  12. Keep it small.
    Go to an indoor play area, the library, or other public play space, if you do not feel comfortable in homes. (I learned my home is too small for a playgroup). Outside is great too.
    Plan a scheduled time.

    Sara´s last blog post…Meal Planning for Moms

  13. I wrote up a post about it at The Homeschool Classroom complete with the timeline that our playgroup used:


    Angie @ Many Little Blessings´s last blog post…Project 365: One Year Documented in Photographs

  14. I have attended a community sourced playgroup with ECE workers. The moms/dads, get a coffee and can chat, the kids ages birth to 6 move around the centers (playdough and dinosaurs, craft for the season, puzzels) and then an area of toys that are taken off the shelf and played with. It starts at 9:15, around 10:30 clean up song is sung and everyone pitches in and then tables are joined and parents provide the snack for their children. After snack the coordinator calls kids and parents to circle time until 11:15. A SAHM styled one where each week one mom brings a snack for all and one brings a craft for all. There is no circle time, just craft and snack and play. These both have been life savers for me and helped me get to know other moms in the community (which is rural), and even a couple of stay at home dads – which can give conversations a new twist.

  15. Aimee,

    Lots of great ideas here – but just a couple of ideas for the sake of organizing yourselves. I have 2 kids myself and life on a usual basis is busy enough that I try my best to make the “communication aspect” as simple as possible …
    – Create a facebook group and set up events (this is free)
    – Create a by invitation only meetup (http://www.meetup.com) group (this might have a cost involved)

    We do a theme based (on values) play group – a story, a related little song and activity and then free play. We do not have formal rules as such – but parents are very good about keeping the kids quiet and involved during the activities. I think that some level of commitment is required from the parents if you decide on activities.
    – I would outline some very lose guidelines for parents.
    – Also have posters on the walls with simple rules laid out in a very friendly manner (child friendly font ) which say – “All backsides should touch the floor during storytimes. Thank you !” Hopefully parents will follow along as well !

    All the best!

    Maya´s last blog post…Preparing to Believe in Yourself: The Science of Ditchiness

  16. I go to 2 public playgroups that I love. Both are free-play with various activity stations/play areas. However, there is snack time, which people take it in turn to bring (at one there is coffee and, if possible, a snack for the carers). At one, the facilitator reads a story. For clean-up, kids help or, more usually, are directed outside to play on the slide and climbing frame. The other space is much, much smaller – one room inside. There, the “teacher” blows bubbles while carers put the toys away. Both then finish with a circle time for songs.

    In the both, theoretically, carers should be within arms length of their child. This doesn’t actually happen, but it makes it clear that the carer is responsible for their kid.

  17. Our playgroup is very much like Angie’s and Nicki’s. Not so much organized for the kids as much as getting together as the adults to talk and have conversation. We’ve been together for 3 years and started out from a breastfeeding/new mom’s group. Our kids have grown up together. It’s evolved as we’ve evolved as mothers and friends and as our kids have grown. It’s been a life saver for most of us at time of great stress.

    I think this group can be anything you want. I agree with using the computer as a way to communicate. We use Yahoo Groups. If it’s truly for the kids then yes, some structure might be nice but if it’s for the adults to communicate then maybe more free-time might be nice.

    Good luck and have fun with it. That’s the point.

  18. It’s been awhile since my kids were in playgroups, but I do remember that having well-defined “ground rules.” In one group, all of the moms sat down together in an initial meeting to come up with the guidelines for participation, so that everyone had input and expectations were clear.

  19. All great ideas! The only other thing I would add is a wellness policy agreement (perhaps even in writing) for the moms. I have been involved in groups where some moms would bring their child with a cold, runny nose, etc. and other moms would then worry about their child getting sick. It just seems to make it easier if everyone is on the same page as far as what degree of “sick” is acceptable across the board.

    Ann´s last blog post…This Couldn’t Possibly Be Swedish Lutheran Prophecy…

  20. How do you find such a playgroup/other parents to join your playgroup. My son is 8 months old, but we don’t have friends/neighbors with children about his age. He’s not in daycare, but at home with his parents- which is wonderful, but we’re not meeting parents this way.

    Now, at 8 month’s I’m not sure he needs to be interacting with other kids – but soon he will. And it would be nice to have other parents to bounce ideas off of. (I’ve got friends with older kids, who are great for giving helpful suggestions, but their kids aren’t going to be in a playgroup with my kid.)

  21. Thanks ladies for all the pointers!

    I am leaning toward more of an open door, big playgroup in hopes that it will help my boys prepare for their entrance into preschool/kindergarten. I think the right environment could be created to help the children adapt to school life with a balance of structured activities and play time.
    Since it will be a community church playgroup, I can’t very well be exclusive and invite only the parents/tots I click with! I can’t choose who my son will go to kindergarten with either, so he may as well learn now, with me by his side, that kids can be rough and even mean.

    Maya- good idea about the signs
    Ann- love the wellness tip. I never even thought about sick kids!

    I’ll be providing all the snacks at the beginning, at least until we get a core group. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love to bake, so this won’t be a burden. You can follow along with my cooking adventures on my food blog http://www.underthehighchair.com

    Aimee´s last blog post…Orange Madeleines and a Holiday Relapse Recap

  22. I was part of a playgroup that was within our MOMS club. We only did them in the summer (we are in Arizona and it gets hot in the summer so we organized playgroups by age so we could have activities in the summer at someone’s home instead of at parks or other outdoor areas. Most people would have them in the winter when it’s too cold to be outdoors.) I was always happy with the playgroups. I think having them based on age helped – within 18 mos or so. We weren’t really all that structured although some weeks we would have a craft or other structured activity. One mom was in charge of orgainzing the activities and getting the location as well as having someone bring snacks and drinks for the kids. I think the key is finding a group that have things in common and moms that can work together – compatible personalities always help. We had guidelines as to behavior – what happens if there are any issues. It might take some tweeking to get things right but if you are flexible you will find a system that works for your group. One more thing, keep the number of members to a comfortable amount. Too big is not usually a good thing

    Debra´s last blog post…Simple Salsa…

  23. My favourite playgroup that we’ve been to would get other baby groups to do talks/sample sessions every 2 or 3 weeks (things like baby signing, swimming, health visitors coming in, first aid talks, libraries talking about their offerings, tumble tots, baby massage etc.). So as well as the play for the babies and the socialising you got to find out what else was going on and available in the local area. I found it invaluable as I was a new mum.

    There was a rota for people to volunteer to set up, put away or make tea and coffee. The fee was about £2.00 a session to cover costs. There were quite a few parents (I’d guess around 30) and it was split into 2 areas babies and toddlers.

  24. Set the rules from the get go. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to make up rules as you go along because some people will violate common courtesy rules you would think they wouldn’t. Like helping themselves to your fridge.

    Have people take turns hosting playgroup. I’m in a playgroup and only 2 of us have people over – each of us once a week. There are about 9 people in the playgroup. I think for those who can and have a house well enough to host a playgroup, should host it.

    Set a time limit to your playgroup. Such as come anytime between 9-12, or 10-12 or 1-3. Otherwise people will stay all day…and then when you set a time limit for one reason or another, they get annoyed.

    Tell people to bring their own food, snacks and drinks…if your children need more to drink, you will gladly make a pitcher of something to drink. I would even tell them to bring their own sippy cups if their children are drinking out of them. Otherwise you may go to get a sippy cup for your little one (because many people are using your sippy cups) and find there are no clean ones for you to use. You don’t want to be out worse than when you started…meaning having lots of dirty dishes. It’s not fair to the host. Have paper plates if someone needs one.

    Instruct in the invite e-mail that you would like everyone to help clean up the tornado, I mean toys before they leave. Another thing you shouldn’t really have to say, but not everyone will help pick up if you don’t say anything.

  25. Aimee – I will say that you should tell everyone to bring their own snacks, etc. from the getgo. People will come to expect you to provide the snacks for them – and if one day you decide you don’t want to do it for one reason or another, it will annoy them. I think if you love to bake, bake something for them, but still require them to bring their own items. Otherwise they will come to expect you to provide for them. And if you no longer want to provide for everyone – it may just turn into playgroup drama.

  26. I have been organising playgroups and was also part of a few in the past few years. So I learnt a few great pointers when it comes to organising successful playgroups that make kids and parents happy.

    1. Keep it small. Generally I prefer even number of kids between 4 and 6.
    2. I usually do structured playgroup that starts off with a 20min unstructured play. Every child brings a toy and host may provide more if possible. This encourages the concept of sharing and exchanging toys and teaches kids to learn negotiating. A little structure which introduces activities like crafts, music and movement and storytelling usually are welcomed by kids and mums alike. 🙂
    3. Rules are set and mentioned to kids by their own caregivers. Rules like no hitting, play nicely, take turns etc.. and parents know they must supervise their own children and ensure proper hygiene, not to bring sick kids to playgroups etc.

    Domesticgoddess´s last blog post…Bento #31 – Doggie Bento

  27. Full Disclosure: I am not a huge fan of the organized playdate or large groups of toddlers attempting to share.

    For my children, a playdate usually inolved me setting up a date and time with a like-minded friend who happened to have children. With little ones (4 and under) and large playgroups, I always found the need to monitor my children or other children who, well, were just acting their age. In time, I learned that the smaller, more controlled, playdates worked for me and my bambinos. We tend to be big on playing in the neighborhood or simply heading to the playground for a change of pace.

    I decided to let preschool be the major introduction into structured group play for my children and it worked out just fine. It’s different strokes for different folks. I know plenty of moms who LOVED and cherished their organized playgroups.

    Kimberly´s last blog post…Fancy Food Show, San Francisco

  28. Beth,
    Just start asking! When my son was first born, I really needed some mommy friends. For a month, I started asking every stranger I saw with a baby if they were interested in joining “our” mom’s group. I discovered that most women were just like me and were really excited to be invited to join a group. We set up a regular meeting time, and a year later, I have an amazing group of mom friends that I wouldn’t trade for the world. Some places I met other moms were:
    – Baby and Me class at the gym
    – Doctor waiting room
    – Children’s area of the library
    – La Leche League meeting
    – Birth class
    – Playground/Park
    Plus, ask every mom you meet to invite a friend to your group.

    Good luck!

  29. One more thing that needs to be mentioned from the getgo…excluding. Once excluding starts in a group, the group will spiral down and have all sorts of problems. There are ways to deal with a smaller crowd if that is what you are in the mood for…e-mail everyone and say “I can only handle X amount of moms for this event. The first X to RSVP can come” So everyone knows about it and no one is excluded.

    In our group, a few would invite the majority, but leave a few out. This has caused a diversion in the group as a whole.

    There are times that people will want to go to something with one or two people and that is fine, but if you invite 5 people over and there are 7 in the group…that’s just not cool in my book. So I know it’s sad to have to use it as rule, but if you say ‘no excluding’ in the beginning – everyone will be up front. You never know who an excluder will be if you don’t know them.

    Having a yahoo! group or meetup group can solve this. Yahoo! you just e-mail the group. You don’t have to remember everyone’s e-mail, but just one to e-mail the group. This way people can’t ‘accidentally’ forget to invite someone.

  30. I like your blog and I just subscribed.

    Here is a post I wrote about things I have learned over the years, through participating in cooperative playgroups and summer camps:

    mother in israel´s last blog post…Link for list of injured soldiers and civilians who need prayers

  31. I noticed you mentioned that you were able to get the church basement. You may want to look into MOPS Mothers of PreSchoolers, meaning mothers of children under school age. http://www.mops.org. It is a bit differnt than an average playgroup but is a great time to for moms to get together and have adult conversations while their children learn to interact with one another. You can make it as big or small as you want to. My kids are out of the preschool age but when they were small, going to MOPS saved my sanity and helped my children interact with other people than just mommy. :))

    Kirsten´s last blog post…Picture, Picture, Pictures!!

  32. My daughter is still a young baby, so I haven’t myself considered joining or organizing a playgroup. However, if I were going to organize a group and particularly if I were going to provide food, I would consider what kind of personal legal liability I might be taking on. I’m a regulatory compliance specialist, not a legal expert or insurance provider, so I might be bringing a little too much of my “anal-retentiveness” to this. However, it might be a good idea to bring it up with your church administration to see if your group would be covered by their insurance in the event of an accident, especially if you allow children to attend as guests of other children without their parents present.