Wonnacott expands the list of learned skills to include gross motor, sensory, cognitive, social, and self help. But she also believes that playgroups expand kids' horizons, giving them exposure to things they may not see, or do, at home. For example, a child may never learn to use scissors in her own home where messes are discouraged, but can explore all kinds of art supplies in someone else's home.
New Skills Through Observation
Sue believes Kristen is proof of how kids can evolve through playgroups. When they first joined their group, Kristen was nowhere near ready to walk. But three days later, after watching a little boy toddle past her, she began walking herself. "You could just see her looking at him and thinking, 'Aha!'," says Sue. Kristen also learned to be less shy. When she first joined the group, Kristen would not leave her mother's lap, but three or four weeks later she became more and more comfortable walking away from mom. Sue feels that Kristen, now five years old, is far more social than her older siblings were at her age. She is not afraid of visiting new people's homes, and Sue believes that is because their group rotated homes each week.
While playgroups are highly beneficial for many kids, they are not right for everyone, says Wonnacott. Playgroups are often unstructured -- kids can do what they want and often have access to a variety of toys and activities. Some kids are lost without a routine, and these kids may be better suited for some sort of preschool or formal playgroup at a local community center.
Just as kids learn positive skills, they also pick up negative behaviors, so parents need to be attentive. It is important to investigate other parents' beliefs and make sure you share common values with them.
Christine confesses that their group screened out potential candidates who had tantrums and were naughty. "We didn't want grabbers or hitters who would throw our whole group into disarray."
Playgroups offer a supportive environment where both moms and kids can learn, socialize, and play. Moms get the opportunity to get out and communicate with their peers. At the same time, kids have a safe environment in which to explore and make new friends. Christine describes how her daughter, Melanie, would cry at the end of each playgroup, as she didn't want to leave her best pals.
"These kids knew each other so well," she explains. "They were totally comfortable with each other, totally close. They hung out for a year and a half [(engaged in parallel play)] before they even started playing together. These kids are imprinted on each other's brains."