I found my first playgroup in the Ladies’ Lounge at Nordstrom, after meeting a nice new mom who invited me to a moms’ group that was meeting the next day (thankfully, at a different location). At less than a month old, Ryan didn’t need a playgroup yet, but I needed a friend and I liked Anne, so I showed up. That playgroup ended up being nine first-time moms strong, with ten babies born within ten weeks of each other. We shared sleeping woes, feeding difficulties and our babies’ doctor visits with detail that would bore even the most attentive grandmas. We stopped meeting as a playgroup long ago (another 14 babies have arrived since we met, our first babies are all kindergarteners and first-graders now), but I count some of these moms as forever friends and whenever I run into any of them at the pool club, boot camp, the grocery store or — gasp — for a real planned night out – I cherish the time catching up with the women who have played such a pivotal role in my mothering.
I know not everyone is lucky enough to make lifelong friends in a department store, nor brave/desperate enough to show up for a playgroup with someone they met while breastfeeding in said department store’s bathroom. So when I heard that a mom in my community was launching a playgroup matching service for ages birth to three, I eagerly volunteered to host a trial playgroup. Matching new parents to playgroups seems like a naturally good idea, and its founder, Meredith Magee Donnelly had an additional twist for Homegrown Friends: using her background in early childhood education (Masters in Education from Bank Street), she suggests age-appropriate playgroup activities for her playgroup members through a weekly e-mail, along with an online community forum for parents.
Playgroup activities? I was almost too timid to suggest the trial to my current playgroup. Did we need a playgroup curriculum? Our playgroup worked fine without any real agenda for the kids. Right? Well, sort of – Noah and I just had different expectations. Mine: to take a break from play dough and Elmo’s World and talk to the other moms while Noah played. His: to play with me and the host family’s toys and have lots of muffins.
A few days before my trial playgroup, I received an e-mail from Homegrown Friends, with instructions on how to prepare for and run playgroup. After my usual playgroup rapid-fire “cleaning” to hide clutter from the toy room and kitchen, I spent a few extra minutes, thinking about how to set up a few different activity stations and activities. I had most of the materials we’d need in the house already and I kept snacks simple, kid-focused and healthy (cut up fruit, crackers and some Pirate’s booty).
As the weather cooperated, Noah and I set up our activity stations outside. He loved setting up the tables and chairs with me, and spoke excitedly about where his friends would play and have snack.
Guess what? We had a blast. Having a plan for playgroup worked beautifully. This trial customer (and my little entourage) completely sold on the Homegrown Friends curriculum.
There was nothing fussy about our playgroup activities. The kids were engaged; I felt like the preschool teacher I always wanted to be. I may have lost a few minutes socializing, but since the kids were so busy, the other moms may have actually had more time to enjoy talking. After our activities, we all cleaned up, then played some music and danced around, followed by snack time, and then a little free play.
Homegrown Friends launches on Monday, August 20th in select cities in Connecticut, Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. Founder Meredith Magee Donnelly answered my biggest questions:
LTM: Aside from age and location, what other factors will you use to match members?
I remember when my son was a baby how much finding mommy friends felt like dating. While it was important for our children to be similar ages it was equally important that we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. Homegrown Friends attempts to take the guess work out of making friends by pre-screening all members. Parents fill out a form rating a list of topics from very important to not at all important. Examples of topics include breastfeeding, exercise, book discussions and organic food. The goal is to match parents with similar interests.
LTM: How will families benefit from Homegrown Friends’ curriculum?
Sharing the joy of parenting is at the heart of the Homegrown Friends’ mission. In designing the curriculum my goal was to highlight the strengths of each developmental age group. Children are constantly changing and it is often hard to keep up. Parenting can feel overwhelming and isolating at times. Knowing that there are activities that are perfect for your child delivered straight to your inbox each week makes parenting fun. The curriculum contains weekly activities that explore all areas of your child’s development including the intellectual, emotional and social development as well as nutrition. Being able to share this curriculum with other parents and children only enhances the experience for all.
LTM: Will parents still have time to chat/socialize or is the whole focus on an educational experience for the kids?
Designing a curriculum with a playgroup in mind is a balancing act. While the main focus of a Homegrown Friends’ playgroup is the purposeful play of the children, the social experience of the parents is also important. Parents nurturing and supporting each other makes everyone better at their jobs. With that said this is definitely not a playgroup model where the parents are sitting in one area and the kids are playing in another. The goal is for the children to be fully engaged in the prepared activities while the parents oversee the activities. When children are having fun and are engaged this gives parents the opportunity to socialize and be present at the same time.
LTM: Like traditional playgroups, I imagine that stay at home parents will be the primary users of Homegrown Friends, but it seems ideal for working parents to do together on the weekends as well?
During the initial stages of creating Homegrown Friends I surveyed parents across the country about what they were looking for in a playgroup. From this survey it became clear that a large percentage of parents who work outside the home were looking for social opportunities on the weekends and were struggling to find them. Homegrown Friends gives parents the opportunity to create weekend playgroups. All parents deserve to benefit from a fun, supportive group of parents and children.
LTM: Is it possible for existing playgroups to join Homegrown Friends as a unit so that they can enjoy the curriculum?
During our initial launch on August 20th, Homegrown Friends will only be offering the curriculum as part of the matching service. As we grow, it is possible that we may offer the curriculum for purchase on its own.
LTM: Well, I’m going to keep asking you for that one. And for a curriculum for 4 -6 year olds too.
To win a free year’s membership of Homegrown Friends (a $50 value), please share below what you think you would enjoy the most about being part of a Homegrown Friends playgroup. Contest ends Friday, August 24th.