5 Tips for Typical Playgroups
by Heather Kirn Lanier
When I told a friend that I attended typical playgroups with my kid, she was surprised. Both of us have two-year-old children with rare chromosomal disorders—neither of our kids walk or talk—and she hadn’t yet ventured to a playgroup with her son and wasn’t planning to any time soon.
I understand why. It takes a certain vulnerability to plunk oneself and one’s kid in the middle of that multi-colored carpet, with all those typically developing toddlers stacking blocks and forming words, and claim that you and your child belong.
Although I was hesitant at first, I started going to public playgroups and library hours because I was desperate. When my daughter was 16 months old, my family and I moved to a new state for my husband’s work. I didn’t have a job, and I knew Fiona and I couldn’t stare at each other in our living room all day long. We needed friends. Playgroups and library times seemed like the obvious choice.
On the first day that I pushed the stroller toward the door, I definitely gripped the handle tighter. And after going for a few weeks, there were instances when, once there and surrounded by all the chatting moms and squawking kids, I thought I could only handle thirty minutes. But gradually, playgroups became one of the more rewarding times of my week.
Here are some tips for making playgroups with your child rewarding:
1. Suss It Out
If you feel you need to, you can always contact the leader of the playgroup—the librarian, the children’s storeowner, whomever—and introduce yourself. “Hi, I’m interested in your playgroup, my child has….” and then see how he or she responds. What you’re gauging here is not whether or not your child is “allowed” to be there—of course he or she is—but whether you will be welcomed as a rich and diverse addition to the group. Most likely you will be, and if it’s a playgroup worth joining, you definitely should be.
2. Bring a friend
Although I was brand new to town, I knew one other person who attended those first playgroups. Not well, but I knew her. That familiar face was a great comfort, someone I could immediately connect with, and someone who knew about my child’s disorder and had responded positively to her.
I have experimented with various ways of telling people about my daughter’s condition, but I always found this to be true: there’s a huge difference between “before I tell them” and “after I tell them.” Before I tell a group of new people, my chest feels constricted as I gauge their response to my kid. I’m breathing shallowly. I scan their faces to see how they react to my child’s smallness or closed-mouth sounds. But at some point in our early interactions, I let them know—“she has a rare syndrome” or “she has a genetic deletion” or whatever—and when they usually nod and listen, my chest softens. It’s like something in the air between us lifts. Now we can connect.
People are generally great in response. They are intrigued, or they are unfazed, or they ask follow-up questions and mean well by them, and they smile and talk to my daughter, who smiles and makes mmm sounds back.
Whatever your child’s disability, give people the knowledge so that they can learn to interact successfully with your kid.
4. Don’t Compare
This is easier said than done, but the surest way to make playgroups suck is to start comparing your kid to the typical ones around you, to see in those other able-bodied children the very child you thought you’d be having back when you were pregnant. You know what I’m talking about, right? The whole “If my child didn’t have X, she would do Y.” For me, it’s “If my child didn’t have a missing chunk of chromosome four, she could stack blocks/drink from a sippy cup/tell me something funny/walk.”
As soon as you find yourself wallowing in what-ifs, drop it. You can’t connect with these moms and kids while doing the comparison dance. If you need to, you can do that later, when you’re in the solitude of your own home. For now, smile, laugh, applaud, cheer, enjoy the everyday miracles of the able-bodied kids just as you enjoy the miracles of your own child.
5. Go Back
The first time I went to our town’s library hour, I had to choke back a few tears. The librarian invited the group into several rounds of Ring-Around-the-Rosy, and every other kid my child’s age was able to walk. I had to carry my child.
Library time was thirty minutes long, and when I came home that day, I felt like I’d endured many, many hours. It took me about a month to get my daughter and me back to the library. The next time, the initial shock of my child’s difference had worn off quite a bit, and I could spend my energy observing my daughter rather than choking back Niagara Falls. And guess what. She was having a blast. She loved watching everyone sing itsy-bitsy spider. She loved the librarian’s animated voice. She loved getting jostled around during the songs and dances. A sometimes stoic kid, she was squealing and clapping at the scene.
If the first time, or two, or three, at a group activity doesn’t go great—for whatever reason—go back. When you’re ready to brave the scene again, give it another try. By the late spring, I was genuinely sad to see library time shut down for the summer, and I looked forward to when my daughter and I could return.
Again, it can take both vulnerability and bravery to claim that you and your child belong at such events. But you do belong. And, in fact, your attendance has the power to enrich not just your child’s experience but the experiences of the other parents and kids, as you’ll teach people that children with special needs are not to be closeted into special rooms, but included, and celebrated, just as with any other child.
About the Author
Heather Kirn Lanier is the author of the memoir Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach For America (U of Missouri) and the poetry chapbook The Story You Tell Yourself (Kent State). Her work has appeared in dozens of places, including Salon and The Sun. Heather blogs about her daughter at starinhereye.wordpress.com.