I started a playgroup, years ago, that met in a nursing home. Later, when I wrote an article offering six ways we can bypass today’s age-segregation to more fully involve children in their communities, I started the article with the tale of that playgroup. Readers keep asking for more details so they can organize something similar. Here’s my tale again, this time with some helpful hints.
Surely my baby was as good as a dog.
I’d read that nursing home residents benefited enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits these elders were more alert and happier. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?
Initially I’d thought about going room to room with my baby for one-on-one visits. But as I sat at a LeLeche meeting, it occurred to me that more babies might offer a bigger boost.
So I contacted a nursing home around the corner to ask. The administrator had never heard of such an idea but she was wildly enthusiastic. She referred me to the home’s activity director to start planning. That was the easiest part.
Then I starting talking friends with babies into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. It took a LOT of convincing on my part to get them to agree. They were afraid of germs, smells, and their baby’s reactions to people with obvious disabilities.
I wondered about those problems too, particularly the germs. I know that some pretty virulent infections can get passed around in such facilities. So I talked a local store into donating a large carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. It was a sort of “safe zone’ so parents felt their kids wouldn’t be exposed to germs or unwanted touching by the seniors.
I also told the staff that I’d call each day before a scheduled playgroup to ensure there weren’t any colds, flu, or other infections going around. And of course, asked that any individual residents who seemed ill would not attend. Parents also agreed to skip a session if they or their little ones seemed at all ill.
The first few playgroup sessions tested us. Not the nursing home residents, but the parents. There were, quite honestly, some seniors whose disabilities seemed a bit scary to us at first. But the babies didn’t care. Safely in a mom’s arms or in her lap they smiled, cooed, and waved to the residents with complete acceptance.
Parents brought a few toys each time and we all sat on the carpet with our babies. At first we felt a little like a zoo exhibit with a ring of wheelchairs around us, but that feeling went away. The elders were clearly delighted simply to see and hear babies.
There were certainly problems getting our group established. We started off with three mothers, one grandmother, and four babies. That’s actually a good number, although to keep the playgroup going we’d need enough people so that absences by one or two members wouldn’t whittle the session down too far.
Quite a few of the parents who initially said they’d attend just couldn’t bring themselves to show up. Only after they heard some glowing reports did a few of them give it a try. Honestly, such a playgroup isn’t for everyone. There’s a distinct pleasure in a playgroup itself, but parents who stayed committed also looked at our sessions as volunteer work.
We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. We held up picture books and read aloud to an audience old and young. We sang songs, played clapping games, and built block towers. Our babies grew into toddlers, elders and staff became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. One woman who had refused to eat, doing little more than cry since her stroke, started eating again after spending the morning with our playgroup.
We were awed that the simple presence of babies made a difference. Just sitting on the carpet playing with our children helped people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefited too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. We noticed how completely our toddlers accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace. And we gained a sense of connection across the generations, a sense that’s far too rare in a a disengaged culture.
I had a ready pool of potential parents in my Le Leche group, but you can post information about the idea to all sorts of places, from your food co-op to house of worship. Try a local parent group, start a playgroup Meetup, find a chapter of the Holistic Moms Network or Moms Club.
Don’t be afraid to start a playgroup with only a friend or two. It’ll grow. Once you’re comfortable and have established a routine, start sharing your experiences on social media. And don’t forget traditional media. Our local paper wrote a short piece about our nursing home-based playgroup and ran a great picture of a profoundly wrinkled lady smiling at a baby. After that ran we had up to 12 parents who came to our sessions (the carpet piece was barely big enough).
You may prefer to organize a playgroup at an assisted living facility or senior center rather than a nursing home. These elders are healthier and much more able to engage in conversation with the kids.
Don’t limit yourself to the concept of a baby/toddler playgroup. A nearby senior center or assisted living facility may agree to set up any number of programs. Here are a few ideas.
- I write in Free Range Learning about several initiatives such as a skills clinic where seniors offer workshops to kids, and Girlfriend Circle where a girls attend a monthly tea party with seniors.
- Set up co-learning events, where kids and seniors together learn something new to them like whittling, cartooning, or pot throwing.
- You might also start a program for preteens and teens to teach their elders tech skills, from downloading music to mastering a new smart phone.
- Right now a documentary about a preschool housed in a retirement home is in the works. Present Perfect is still raising funds on Kickstarter for post production.
- A senior retirement community not far from me offers a free apartment to music students who agree to offer concerts. It’s working beautifully.