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How to Start a Playgroup

Betsy Stoeber created a playgroup in her South Orange, NJ, neighborhood to give 1-year-old Karsten a little company. But he's getting more than a new circle of pals: Playgroups can also help toddlers grow emotionally and intellectually.

To start a group that's fun for both you and your child:

Recruit members. Seek out other moms at the playground, or post a flyer at a local school, church, library, or doctor's office.

Meet the moms. Once you've found some candidates, arrange a get-together  -- sans kids  -- to see whether you hit it off. You should also discuss how you'll handle sensitive issues. Is someone's child allergic to pets? How will you deal with sharing, biting, and temper tantrums? Agreeing on a plan of action in advance will make sessions much more carefree.

Set the schedule. Keeping play sessions to under an hour will help keep toddlers from becoming overstimulated (but be ready to take yours home if he gets cranky). Once you've settled on a regular day and time to meet, plan to rotate houses, or choose another nearby spot, like a playground.

Plan the activities. Singing songs, dancing to CDs, or anything else involving music and movement are always surefire hits. Clay, large puzzles, and blocks are easy to share; from time to time, plan a special outing to a zoo, for example, or the library. Don't be surprised if your toddler doesn't initially seem interested in interacting with the other children  -- parallel play is completely normal at this age. But one thing the kids can do together is begin to learn how to help you clean up after the fun's over!

The perks of playgroups  -- for moms
• Emotional support (who better to lean on than other moms?)
• Inside information, from the best babysitters and DVDs to the worst preschools
• Gossip  -- er, serious intellectual discussion  -- with grown-ups (moms can't live on baby talk alone!)

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