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updated: 4/18/2012 10:52 AM

ABCs of play dates for suburban parents

Play dates help children socialize and give parents some time with peers

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  • Travis Papievis, 6, tries to break through the line during a game of Red Rover.

      Travis Papievis, 6, tries to break through the line during a game of Red Rover.
    Mark Black

  • The kids play with Legos during a play date between the Howard, Gavin, Papievis and Pauli children at the home of Lisa Howard of Wheaton.

      The kids play with Legos during a play date between the Howard, Gavin, Papievis and Pauli children at the home of Lisa Howard of Wheaton.
    Mark Black

  • Jeremy Howard, 4, digs for some Legos.

      Jeremy Howard, 4, digs for some Legos.
    Mark Black

  • The kids playfully tackle Avery Papievis, 10, during a play date between the Howard, Gavin, Papievis and Pauli children at the home of Lisa Howard of Wheaton.

      The kids playfully tackle Avery Papievis, 10, during a play date between the Howard, Gavin, Papievis and Pauli children at the home of Lisa Howard of Wheaton.
    Mark Black

  • Colin Gavin, 8, and Jeremy Howard, 4, dig for some Legos.

      Colin Gavin, 8, and Jeremy Howard, 4, dig for some Legos.
    Mark Black

  • The Howard, Gavin, Papievis and Pauli children get together for a play date at the home of Lisa Howard of Wheaton.

      The Howard, Gavin, Papievis and Pauli children get together for a play date at the home of Lisa Howard of Wheaton.
    Mark Black

  • Nathan Howard, now 6, was 2 when his mother, Lisa Howard, started scheduling play dates. Howard suggest parents stick with people they know when scheduling play dates.

      Nathan Howard, now 6, was 2 when his mother, Lisa Howard, started scheduling play dates. Howard suggest parents stick with people they know when scheduling play dates.
    Mark Black

 
By Lisa Jones Townsel

You have a baby. You rock-a-baby. Stare at and feed a baby. Then what?

At some point, every parent comes to the realization that their child, the center of their world, needs more socialization than what they can provide.

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It is at that point that a growing number seek out other like-minded parents for play dates, an informal get-together for little ones to play, kick and roll and for adults to once again remember what it was like to chat with grown-ups.

That's what drew Misty Feiza of South Elgin to seek out mommy playgroups in her area.

"My sister told me about it," says Feiza, mother to a 15-month-old son. "I was a police officer before. Now, I stay at home with him. I was starting to get bored and wanted some adult interaction, too."

Feiza joined a toddler playgroup through Meetup.com. There are more than 50 members in her group, she said, but playgroups can only have five parents and their children at a time. She and her son have met members at museums and parks and they have participated in house-based play dates as well.

In fact, she is scheduled to host one soon, and the expectation she said is to have toys for the kids and snacks for the adults. Feiza says it's worth it.

"They set pretty high expectations in this group, but my son is an only child and he doesn't get to interact with other kids much," she says.

Lisa Howard of Wheaton is the mother of four, including boys ages 6, 4 and 7 weeks and a 2-year-old girl. She found connections with playgroups when her oldest son was age 2.

"When you have one child, you are constantly interacting with them. They rely on you for entertainment," she says, remembering her exasperation. "Play dates give you a break, and you get to socialize, too."

Howard's playgroup networks include family members with children and friends.

"The kids get a lot of joy out of playing with other kids, even if they're playing with kids that are younger than them."

Usually, Howard schedules play dates twice a month, choosing to meet at homes, at parks and even mall play areas.

Her advice for others? Stick with people you know well.

"I typically know everyone in my playgroup. They're from the neighborhood or are relatives." Also, look for someone with children about the age of your own.

"It's a lot easier if your kids are in sports or music classes through the park district," she says. "It makes it a lot easier to develop those relationships."

Lynne Firsel, assistant professor of early childhood education and special education at Roosevelt University, says parents should make the most of play dates.

"Typically, children don't acknowledge or play with other children until they're about 3 years old," Firsel says. "However, they watch other children and notice them."

The impact of such interaction can pay off in various ways.

"The children usually play independently, crawling, following a ball, shaking a rattle. It's always good for children to socialize because they learn by watching," she says. "If they're all in the same spaces playing, maybe one tries walking; you never know what the younger child might do."

There's no one time to pinpoint a playgroup.

"I have friends who have done it for 3- to 4-month-olds who are still in strollers," Firsel adds. "But it's definitely more fun with kids who can ambulate and sit up."

Heather Santiemmo, director of the Early Childhood Education Center in Schaumburg (a corporate child care facility for Zurich NA and Roosevelt University), says mothers of newborns can join Mommy & Me groups at most area hospitals. Such groups provide classes, support and networking for new parents. Many play dates often spawn from them, too.

Others make connections where child care is provided.

"Listen to your child and who they are interested in playing with," she says. "Then pick a central location to meet, although I would not initially recommend at a house. This is not baby-sitting. Both parents should be there. It's a time to socialize and engage in conversation."

Santiemmo mentions commercial spots like Monkey Joe's, and indoor play place, as cool meeting grounds. She also suggests finding key activities through local park districts.

"Play dates are important because they teach children how to interact with other children, and parents have the opportunity to talk to each other because many have the same questions," she says.

When the child is 4 or 5 years old, Santiemmo says, that may be the time to visit at someone's house, with or without the parent of the visiting child.

"Just remember to ask, 'Is it your preference that I stay?' and make sure that you're comfortable," she says. "Being conscious of who you are leaving your children with is very important. It's a big world."

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