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Playgroups Sandy Pockets and Jelly Kisses

Alisa Ikeda


Face facts: your little one can tire of your mug. Don't get me wrong-you're beautiful and charming and the center of his world, but he surely wouldn't scoff at a change of scenery now and again. And there's no shame in craving a little help entertaining the wee fellow! A playgroup might suit your-and his-needs perfectly.

Parent Perks

What could be better than the companionship of people as smitten with their babies as you are with yours? Laugh and cry with other moms and dads as bleary-eyed and delirious as yourself. Welcome the diversion from everyday routine and the chance to focus on nothing but having fun with your child-without distraction from the phone, email, work deadlines, chores, and errands. Ease the strain of being far from extended family by developing what may well turn into lasting friendships. And swap tips on kid-friendly hotspots, shopping deals, movies and restaurants for twosome time, and even babysitter referrals.

Kid Kinship
If your child isn't in daycare or preschool, playgroup offers him the chance to meet playmates his own age and become comfortable interacting with other adults. And if he's in daycare or preschool, it's a great way for him to get some dedicated time with you-nothin' but play. Playgroup friends will learn sharing, compassion, negotiation, and compromise. If your little one has older siblings, playgroup will give her that much-needed one-on-one time with you and the companionship of other kids who don't see her as "the baby" of the bunch. Playgroups foster friendships, self-esteem, and creativity-and they're fun for all!

Ready, Set, Go!
Don't delay because you think your baby may be too young to get anything out of the experience. It's as much for you as for her. Similarly, don't hesitate because you think you've waited too long. Toddlers make friends easily, and parents do, too. There's a playgroup just for you (you're not out of the circuit if you work, Moms and Dads; read on!)-and if there isn't, start your own! For advice on finding or starting a playgroup, click here.

Mind Your Manners
Playdate etiquette isn't rocket science. Playgroup should never be about which mom has regained her figure the soonest, who has the best stroller, or whose baby is sitting/crawling/walking/reciting Shakespeare. Surround yourselves with people who are supportive and warm and friendly, and whose parenting styles are compatible with or complementary to your own. Remember, these fellow parents serve as role models for your children, as you do for theirs.

You're not expected to totally babyproof your home to host a playgroup there, but do alert the other parents to potential dangers and try to make the dedicated play area as safe as possible; everyone will be more relaxed. If you have a dog liable to scare the little ones or a cat who's skittish around children, you might want to lock him up-for the kids' sake and the pet's! Offer drinks-water is fine-to the other adults. Some groups opt to collect a small fee to cover simple snacks like bagels.

If your playgroup includes a wide range of ages, reserve a safe, babies-only floor space that's clearly off limits to the more rambunctious older kids.Playdate toys are for sharing, whether at home or out and about. Put away/keep at home your child's favorite toys if she isn't prepared to share them. Watch your child closely; other parents don't want to be in the awkward position of trying to discipline your child. Greet all children with a warm smile, and speak to them one-on-one whenever the opportunity arises-even those not yet talking will appreciate the special attention. Before you leave, help the children tidy up. It teaches courtesy and thoughtfulness-and makes the host most appreciative. We parents are overextended by definition; take turns organizing and planning so that no one becomes resentful. The golden rule: no sick children allowed, under any circumstances.

Keep these few playgroup essentials up your sleeve: First-aid kit (Murphy's Law-if you have it, you won't need it), kid-friendly music, snacks, and drinks. Group on the go? You won't miss a trick with these in your trunk: sunscreen, tarp and blanket (no more wet bottoms from a freshly watered lawn!), bubbles, sidewalk chalk (wrap one end in masking tape-no more stained fingers!), sand toys (buckets, shovels, cookie cutters, Jell-o molds, funnels, and containers), and sanitizing gel for those filthy little hands (yours included!). Child's Play Kids don't need much help in the play department, but try these simple and inexpensive, age-appropriate activities for a change of pace. 0-6 months Infant Massage: Check out the numerous books, videos, and articles on the subject, and give it a whirl (a knead?!).

Host a Speaker:
Young babies won't mind if you host a guest speaker periodically-maybe a massage therapist, a nurse, an infant CPR instructor, a lactation consultant. Many will offer their services free of charge for such a gathering.

6-12 months

Ball Roll: Get beach balls large enough and sturdy enough to hold the weight of your little ones. Gently support the babies, belly down, onto the ball and begin slowly rolling it.

Mirror Magic: Babies delight in seeing their-and your-reflection. Take some lipstick to a handheld mirror and draw some silly glasses and a hat. Hold the wee ones to just the right position, and you've got yourself a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

12-18 months

Strike Up the Band: Not for the faint of heart Gather pots, pans, cans, bowls, and boxes, along with wooden spoons, whisks, chopsticks, spatulas, and combs, and you've got the makin's for a blarin' good time!

Window Wonders: A sliding glass door and some paper plates of tempera paint and your little Monets are set to go. Cleanup's a cinch with a garden hose.

18 months-2 years

Felt Board: Mount a big piece of felt (buy it off the bolt at your local fabric or craft store) onto cardboard. Cut colorful shapes of felt (circles, squares, triangles, hearts, clouds, trees, boats, bears-use your cookie cutters for inspiration). Let your sweeties create simple, ever-changing masterpieces by placing the shapes on the board. No fuss, no muss!

Toy Swap: Have each child bring one toy for sharing at playtime. When the music stops, have them swap (do allow a fair amount of time for each child to play, and the same amount of time each "session," so as to avoid hard feelings). 3 years Body Trace: Have your little ones lie down on a giant piece of craft or butcher paper, and trace their bodies with a big marker. Armed with colorful markers, let the budding fashion designers emerge.

Music Freeze: Play music while the kids dance ("Like an elephant! This time like a mouse! Now like your dad!") and have them freeze when the music unexpectedly stops. 4 years Sponge Toss: In a kiddy pool or big bucket-even your bathtub-float an aluminum pie tin or plastic ring and have the kids take turns tossing sponges. He who hits the target wins. Don't forget prizes (coloring books, balls, a certificate for an ice-cream cone).

Potato Stamps: You don't have to be Martha, and you get to play with your food! Slice potatoes in two and let your little ones draw simple shapes (hearts are easy and cute) onto it with a marker. Cut away the potato surrounding the shape about 1/4 inch deep, leaving the image raised. Let your little ones dip the stamp in finger paints or ink pads and go to town on paper. Or use fabric paint and have them decorate canvas bags or aprons. Kids from 1 to 92

Amateur Photos: With all these adorable little people at play, take the opportunity to hone your photography skills. Load your camera and snap away!

Above and Beyond

Every now and again, you may want to schedule an extra-special playdate (shucks-you're worth it!). Make it an outing to the zoo, the aquarium, or a children's museum, or have a theme day (Sesame Street, Bear in the Big Blue House, or even just a favorite color). Perhaps you want to batch birthdays (or un-birthdays!) and bash it up with pizza-making or ice-cream-sundae-building. And, of course, holidays offer great opportunities for festivity. Have a cookie party around Valentine's Day, take in a Fourth of July parade, or visit a tree farm to ring in the holiday season. The sky-and your imagination-is the limit!

Sandy Pockets and Jelly Kisses

There's nothing as infectious as the laughter of children, and nothing as rewarding as creating joyful memories with your favorite little folks. Join a playgroup and you'll discover just what I mean.

Alisa Ikeda is a writer and editor in Marin County, California, with a B.A. in sociology and a background in book publishing. She loves the sweet--and wild--ride of motherhood and is utterly smitten with the two most charming men in her life: her April 1999 baby Sawyer and her husband Mike. A work-at-home mom, Alisa is a member of Mothers & More (previously known as FEMALE) and her community mothers' club. When not writing or chasing her giggling little bundle of mischief around the house, she dabbles in web design, amateur photography, gardening, and gourmet cooking.

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