By Liz Bruckner
From the print edition, September 2012
Samantha Giardino had just moved to Calgary when she decided to take her then 10-month-old son, Luke, and four-year-old daughter, Ally, to a local playgroup. “I didn’t know anyone in the area and wanted my kids to have the kind of social interaction they were used to before we moved, so we packed up and headed to the first playgroup I could find.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t make a great first impression. “The kids were all screaming and running around the room amid toys of all sorts. Beyond that, there was a definite division between the nannies amassed on one side, the regularly attending moms in their own area, and me, the lone new mom,” she says. Despite all that, she decided to give the group a second go. “I came back because I was new to the city and didn’t know of any others.”
Kathy Lynn, a Vancouver-based parenting expert says playgroups are generally great for making parents and children feel welcome, “and chances are good for new attendees to hit it off with regulars, especially when a group leader gets involved,” she adds. Still, moms shouldn’t go in expecting that they or their child will land a new BFF on the first visit, she says. “Sometimes it takes a few attempts before you find a good group and personality fit. The key is not to give up too easily.” Here’s how to better your chance of developing playgroup relationships that blossom rather than wither.
The best playgroup for you is the one you enjoy attending. Poll friends who have kids about their favourite playgroups, and check out offerings at community centres, places of worship or your local library branch. Also, don’t be afraid to look beyond the traditional playgroup setup. Fitness- and music-based groups are a great way to interact with other moms and kids, and they also present a great opportunity to expose your child to these pastimes from an early age. Parents of multiples may even find playgroups with programs geared toward their needs.
Know what to look for
Beyond clean, bright facilities and safe activities for babies and kids, the main components of a good playgroup include being welcomed by the organizer/leader, a comfortable group size and friendly, approachable parents. Other things to consider include your feelings on the guidelines or rules, expectations for setup and cleanup, the frequency of meetings and the fees, if any. “I always tell moms that if you can look back at a playgroup experience and feel like you want to go back, that’s a good sign,” says Karen Woolley, founder and facilitator of Music for Moppets, a music-based playgroup with locations near Peterborough, Ont.
Even if you don’t immediately hit it off with other parents in a new playgroup, if the location, facilities and activities are to your liking, try to commit yourself to another visit, says Woolley. “It could be that maybe it was an off day, the regulars may not have all been there or the dynamic wasn’t quite right.”
Keep an open mind
“It’s almost impossible to find a group in which every mom’s approach to parenting will completely line up with your own,” says Lynn. Expect to encounter a variety of parenting philosophies—among them, bottle-feeding versus breastfeeding, co-sleeping or cry-it-out, or cloth diapers versus disposables. “Still, for the basic important values of child raising, you want to feel in sync with the group,” advises Lynn.
Should issues arise, Wooley suggests discussing it with the playgroup leader to find out what the group has done in the past or to help you resolve the conflict. Lynn says you can also state your point of view as concisely as possible, including your reasoning and experience, and then listen to what the other parent has to say. “From there, simply say something like, ‘It looks like we are going to have to agree to disagree,’ and then be prepared to move forward and avoid the topic with the other person,” she says. “Of course if the situation becomes toxic, just leave.”
Be a trailblazer
When all else fails, start your own baby group. After meeting another mom with two kids on a flight, Giardino did just that. “The friendship we began on that journey has blossomed into us hosting our own playgroup, which is slowly growing. When it’s all said and done, I think it makes the meeting-up-with-kids process less chaotic and more enjoyable.”