Finding the Right Playgroup for Your Toddler

Finding the Right Playgroup for Your ToddlerWhen my oldest daughter was nearly two, I remember sitting in her tumbling class, shocked at the expectation for the little ones to sit and hear the directions for the planned activity, and then wait in line for their turn at each station. I remember thinking, “Wow, this class seems strict for the intended age group!” and at the same time thanking my lucky stars (because it was pure luck) that my daughter handled the sitting and waiting part okay. 

Although we had our other challenges with her, she wasn’t a very busy natured kid.  I recall a few little ones who didn’t handle it so well, and my heart went out to the parents who, week after week, showed up and tried to get their children to abide to the “sitting” rules. When the session expired, they did not re-enroll.

Four years later, here I am with a strong willed 22-month-old who would NEVER sit for such a class. She is the youngest of three, and I am starting feel a bit guilty that she isn’t involved in as many groups and activities as my other two were at her age. Quite honestly, those groups began to intimidate me because I know my daughter. She is busy. She has a short attention span. If she sees an activity, she cannot wait to dive in. Highly structured classes wouldn’t work for her right now.  I wanted to get her involved in activities, but I didn’t want it to be a frustrating, unfulfilling experience. After all, it’s a playgroup; it’s supposed to be fun, right? Thankfully just as toddlers come in all “varieties,” so do play groups and classes, and I set out to find the right one for her.

I considered our local book store and library for “story hour” but upon looking at the description of the class, I knew she would not sit on my lap for half hour while read to by the librarian. She would want to move about and explore the room. However, our library offered a similar class, but it was a musical story hour in which the tots would be up singing songs along and shaking maracas with the weekly story. This class might work for her. I also sought out our local community recreational center and looked at their list of offerings. They had a few structured classes for her age groups. The running in a gym piece sounded up her alley, until I contacted the instructor to get a bit of information about the class, and learned that the children are expected to follow directions and stay with the group. Hmm, my toddler wasn’t there quite yet. There was, however, a class that was more of an open gym hour for moms with toddlers.  They put out tricycles and balls and hula hoops and allowed the kids free range of the gym while an instructor guided and supervised their play.

18-24 months is a great age to get your child involved in playgroups and classes.  It gives them opportunity for their play to move from parallel to interactive play, teaches them to share and other skills that are important for their social and emotional development. Classes and groups tend to lump kids together and indicate appropriateness of a class based on age. However, toddlers learn, grow and develop in different areas at different rates.  So just because the class indicates it’s intended for 18-24 month olds, don’t assume it’s a good fit for your child. Instead of signing your child up and hoping for the best, do your homework. Look into the group and find out what the expectation is and what exactly they will be doing. If there is a description of the class available to you, great, if not, ask. Ask the instructor, or ask other moms who have had experience with the group. You know your child best, so if the group doesn’t sound like a good fit, move on and look at others that will be a better fit for your child’s personality and current developmental level.

If your toddler is “spirited,” as I like to call my daughter, don’t cross playgroups and classes off of the list for her.  And also don’t feel like a failure if story hour won’t work for your child. Use it as an opportunity to help her grow in an area that you know she needs help with. Go to the library in the children’s area, and pick out a toddler friendly book.  Place her on your lap and have her sit for 5 minutes and be read to.  Another day make it 8 minutes, then 10.  Each time, reward her success by letting her up to play and eventually she will be there. Be patient, and remember that the child who is sitting quietly through story hour may be shy during gym classes, which may be equally frustrating to her mom, as was the case for me with my oldest child.

I speak most of the busy child as that is what’s on my plate right now, but for the more reserved/shy type, don’t permanently take busy gym type classes off her list forever.  Instead, expose her to open gym times for a little bit. Get there early before it gets too crowded, allow her to get comfortable in the environment in a casual way.  She will eventually warm-up. The point is, all kids have their things, and finding a group that fosters her current strengths, while giving her time to grow in other areas, is the key to her (and your) happiness and success with the group.

Michele Ogniewski is a mom of three young children who have provided her with a variety of experiences in the toddler years. She is also a part-time social worker with young children and families.

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