6 easy steps to start your bilingual playgroup

When we found ourselves faced with the decision of wether to bring up our children in 3 languages for us the decision was easy – of course, yes! Now one of the main obstacles we had to overcome was the fact that we had one Spanish native speaker and one English native speaker, so, what were we going to do with French!

I speak fluent French, although not natively, and I haven’t lived in a French-speaking country for any considerable length of time. So, besides my French-speaking input, we felt that the girls would benefit from social interaction in French. So, building a local social network became one of the main priorities.

It varies from country to country, depending on how much parents work and how much childcare time the kids have, but in England the ‘playgroup culture’ is very popular. Playgroups in the UK are generally run by volunteers in church halls or community settings. They are big rooms with toys, where parents can chat and meet other parents and have a cup of tea or coffee while the children play. There is usually a nursery rhyme and story time session at the end.

Foreigners and people with special interests have quickly caught up to the idea of running a playgroup and have seen the advantages of doing so to expose their children to more language. In most British cities and large towns you will find at least one foreign language playgroup. However, it’s relatively simple to start your own playgroup if there isn´t one already. Here you will find some pointers:

1. The first concern when starting a new playgroup is financing. Many playgroups are run by volunteers at churches and the church takes responsibility for the running costs like electricity, water, coffee, tea, snacks, Xmas parties, etc. However, if you want to run a private playgroup, you will have to rent a room or find a public space that is suitable and free to use, like a public library.

When I started our French playgroup, Les Petites Grenouilles, they let me use the space in the children’s area in the Bristol Central Library for an hour on Saturday mornings. The location was ideal as it was in the centre of town and I didn’t have to pay any money, which was good as the French group consisted of one person at that moment, me. Later on, when we had a few people, we moved to cafés and play-cafés where they would let us use the space for free, but parents had a drink at the café. At the moment we are at that stage and the group is thriving. An older group I also belong to, which was started back in the 1980s by a group of Spanish mums – La Casita – rents a hall on a regular basis. However, they have had time in 30 years to build a regular base so there is always enough money to cover the rent of the hall.

Renting your own hall with space to store toys and books is the ideal any playgroup should aspire to. However, let’s walk before running – just start small and take it from there. There is no point in stressing about not having enough money to cover the rent, which the organiser would have to cover.

So, look for a nice family friendly space in your area and ask them if it´s okay to do a session. Generally, parents who are really invested in their children’s bilingualism would prefer having a small playgroup/meetup in a café than nothing at all. You can’t always please everybody, and many of the parents who would complain about having a playgroup in a café would not come to a playgroup in a hall either, in any case.

Juguetes-en-la-Casita

La Casita is a playgroup for Spanish speaking people in Bristol, England. It started as a group of mums meeting in their sitting room and 30 years on the group is still alive and renting a hall every week, term-time.

2. Build your numbers little by little, and don’t expect a big turnout at the beginning. Although there are possibly many parents out there with your predicament, reaching them may be difficult initially. But don’t give up!

At the first meeting of Les Petites Grenouilles there was just me and another French lady. Now for each meeting we have at least five families and over 80 people on our mailing list. It has taken over three years to reach this point but if I had given up after the first few months when it was just me and maybe one or two other mums, then we would not have a thriving playgroup now with parents volunteering to write for our blog, our Twitter account, and organise events like the Easter Egg Hunt.

So, start small but keep to regular sessions. For instance, start with once a month, keep contact details of all attendees, especially email, and maintain a mailing list. Just print some black and white home-made flyers in your printer at home and leave them at other playgroups, libraries and areas where there may be people with your language. Use online ads (in the UK Gumtree is very popular and works well). Email local free magazines that cater for families, etc. But, do keep in touch through the mailing list, even if a family can’t come now, if you keep in touch they are likely to attend one of the sessions when they are free. Also, they will tell other parents about the sessions. Once you have a regular base you can increase your sessions to two a month, and so on. From one Saturday a month we increased to two a month, and just this month we have started weekly sessions on Friday mornings.

3. Don’t turn down help. Be open about accepting help and support from other parents. Quite often they will want to help and participate but they may be shy to ask – or they may think that as you are the “main organiser” and it was “your idea” and, so, you would´t want help. Of course, you want help, and you want other parents to participate, this is the only way for the group to become an organic entity that grows with its needs.

However don’t expect help to be forthcoming. You will probably find that it takes quite a few sessions to find those special people who really want to take part in the group and help. They will be the “regulars” who will come with rain, snow or thunder. Be patient, just build the playgroup and they will come!

4. Have at least one special event a year. Depending where you come from or what part of the world you’re living in, you will be celebrating different festivities. In our case, given our background and the country we are living in, England, our main event is the Xmas party. Even on the first year when you may not have many people on your mailing list, it is important to celebrate that special event. This will not only bring the regulars together and strengthen budding friendships, but you’re likely to attract interest from people who may not be able to come to regular meetings.

Our first Xmas party was quite big considering that our regulars weren’t that many. Lots of new parents attended and some of them have stayed and have turned into regulars.

Don’t go overboard with preparations, especially if the money is tight. Rent a special place, this time it is important that it is your space and not a café or a public space that you have to share. Shop around, find a nice church hall that can be rented out for events. Three hours should be enough, leaving half an hour for arrival and preparation, and half an hour at the end to pack up and clean.

5. Keep a structured but flexible approachAll people like structure to a certain extent, and especially this help in playgroups, where people will be able to remember the “activities” they have taken part in and if they enjoy them they will be happy to return and participate. However, the group is not there to teach children language – this is something parents should be doing at home. The group is to reinforce the language and the culture, as well as create bonds with other people who share the same language. This bond or relationship is not just for the children but also for the parents. So, make sure there is plenty of time for parents to socialise and chat, and that children are allowed enough time for child-led play.

A structure that is common for may playgroups and has worked for us is:

- Arrival, greetings, people get drink/coffee, settle down, chat.
- Introduction song (pick up a song that you repeat each session to help people remember names). We sing:

Screenshot 2014-04-13 21.55.49I have a surname, a name

I have a surname, a name,
Two eyes,
A nose,
A chin,
Quickly, tell me your name,
To continue the song!

Your name is…
Hello…

- We continue with some nursery rhymes.
- Followed by an easy craft. Here children are free to join or play. Parents will help their children or talk to other parents.
- We end the session with a couple of stories.

10155528_10151949852961626_4479425653560321804_n

This is from our last session.

6. Money matters. Money, as we all know, doesn’t bring happiness but certainly helps to buy stuff to organise a playgroup. If you start small, there is no need to start talking money at the beginning. Start in a café or a free meeting area, once you have enough people to start preparing more structured-organised activities, you can ask for a small fee that you can save to pay for rent and materials for your Xmas party. The aim is not to make money from the group, but to have some money saved so you don’t have to stress about covering costs for special events.

For the first couple of events I organised for Les Petites Grenouilles I had to cover the costs up front. This is not an ideal situation and a bit stressful. So, to avoid it, we set a fee per session, as they do in all playgroups. Now, we can cover the costs of hall rental and materials upfront and if there is any money left save it for the next event, or any materials we need to buy.

It would be great to hear from any of you who is thinking of setting up a playgroup, or who has done so already successfully. Please, share with us your success stories, comment on the post, or email as on:

bilingualparenting

Comments

  1. Hi Lidia, love your article on the bilingual playgroup. There is really much to think about. I read that kids who learn a foreign language in early childhood demonstrate certain cognitive advantages over children who do not. I guess the more languages the better, as it will open many doors for our kids later.

  2. Thank you so much for your post! I speak intermediate level French and would like my 16-month old to start learning French as well. I am hesitant to speak to her primarily in French at home because I am not a native speaker, nor am I fluent. My husband also has no knowledge of French. However, we have an increasing French-speaking West African population in my town and I know many of these immigrants want to learn English. I was considering starting a bilingual play group and alternating which language is spoken during our meetings so children have exposure to both English and French. What are your thoughts on this idea? Also, you mentioned that the purpose of the playgroup is not to learn the language, but reinforce it. This makes sense. How do you recommend that we teach our daughter the foreign language if we are not fluent ourselves? Would the playgroup be a sufficient start? Or, do you think this will result in confusion and frustration?

    • Hi Sarah,
      Thanks for your comment and for reading our blog.

      As your daughter is still fairly young, she will not mind that you start speaking to her in another language. At this stage she already understand English and she will hear the difference, she will know you’re speaking “differently”. However, she won’t care, as long as she can communicate with you. She won’t be embarrassed or feel different because her mum is speaking something “new”. She will just learn that a chair also a chaise and a plate is also use assiette. So, personally, I would just speak to her in French. You don’t have to speak to her all the time, if you don’t feel comfortable, but pick a situation, a moment in your routine, or do French when reading French stories… or just decide to do French for the whole day for a couple of days a week… see what you feel comfortable with.
      But, no, she won’t just learn conversational – conversational French attending one playgroup once a week for a couple of hours a week. She will learn things, however, she will learn the songs, and basic things like colours, etc if you do repetitive structured activities using those, the same as she would in a French class for toddlers. But, since, (I know this from my own bilingual playgroups) even though parents may be speaking French in French playgroup, children will often speak the local language, in your case English. For instance, my daughter has a very good friend who is also half Spanish, with each other they speak English, but then they turn to me or her mum and they speak to us in Spanish. However, a lot of the social interaction with their peers is in English.
      Personally, I would not advice to mix English and French in the playgroup. It is either an English playgroup or a French playgroup. Otherwise, it would be too confusing even for parents and very difficult to keep to one language for a bit and then change. It would be interesting as a “conversation exchange” playgroup, where children will play with each other, while parents improve their French and English with each other, but that is a totally different type of playgroup. If you want to help children work on their French, then you need a 100% French speaking playgroup.
      I think the playgroup, a 100% French speaking playgroup, would be a great start. For one, it will give you the chance to meet native French speakers and improve your French, thus, gaining confidence and that will give you the skills and confidence in yourself to speak it more at home with your daughter. You will make friends with kids of a similar age who speak French at home, therefore, having more and more interaction with “real” French speaking situations.
      You are still the key to French learning at home. Even if you describe your French as intermediate, it is much better than a person who can’t speak any, and you are the person who spends the most time with your daughter in real situations and real life, which puts you in a much better position to help your daughter than a teacher in a school who will see her twice a week for 45 minutes.
      So:
      1. Decide on a schedule for French speaking at home. (story-time, Mondays and Wednesdays? Tuesdays and Thursdays?, mornings?, afternoons? etc.
      2. Use cartoons, books, radio and any other materials available in French, like nursery rhymes.
      3. Set up your playgroup.
      4. Maybe find one of the local mums who wants to improve her English and teach her English in exchange of her and her children playing with your daughter in French every week for a couple of hours or so.
      5. Improve your own French through conversation exchange, playgroup, etc.
      6. The most important thing in learning a language is hearing, hearing, hearing and speaking, speaking, speaking… so, yes, even though you’re not fluent, just by speaking French to your daughter she will learn much more than in a class… so don’t let that stop you!

  3. Hi Lidia,

    I am a french mum leaving in NZ. We just moved to a new city where there is no french playgroup. I am thinking of starting one.
    First, I am not quite sure how to start. As you wrote above, they might not be lots of kids first so I might just do the first sessions at home and see how we go. I can see how it could be stressful to do it at home. I’ll have to make sure my house is tidy before people arrive. Any thoughts on this?
    What do you write on the flyer? I don’t want to specify age or level but i don’t want lots of non french people to turn out or kids too old to interact between them either.

    Thanks
    Regards

    • Hi Audrey,
      First of all, thanks for reading our blog! And well done for planning to start your own playgroup.

      You have to have very clear what you want your playgroup to be and its objective and stick with those. One size doesn’t fit all, so you will find people who don’t come to the playgroup because it’s not their cup of tea, or it doesn’t offer what they’re looking for. That’s fine. It’s difficult to keep everybody happy. Just make sure you are clear about what your playgroup is, and you’re firm but polite. For instance, in my experience in both playgroups, Spanish and French, we get many enquiries from people who want their children to learn Spanish or French, but they don’t speak it at home, they don’t have any links with the language, and they think that passive listening once a week will suffice. This is not really what our groups are for. So, we make very clear on our flyers and websites that it’s for people already speaking those languages with their kids, and that it’s not a foreign language class.

      You can use some indirect techniques so filter through the families interested before they come to you. For instance, publish your information only in French, this way you make sure only parents proficient in French will be interested. Make sure you open the group to all French speakers independently of nationality. Say very clearly that it’s for francophone families who SPEAK French at home with their kids. Make it clear that the sessions are run ONLY in French and that you need at least an upper intermediate – fluent level of French to interact freely.

      Regarding the age, it depends on your situation and needs. For instance, when I started my French one, my oldest daughter was a baby, so I marketed the group as a “preschooler” group, 0-5. Most people starting had babies and it worked fine for me, now we have kids from 0 to 5 y.o. The age of the group is growing with the children. So, if your kids are under 5, I would also say 0 to 5. If somebody has a 6 year old and are really interested they will probably still contact you and ask you if it’s okay to come. So, you don’t really shut the door to somebody who may be happy in the group.

      With regards to the venue, I know people who have started the group in their houses. Our Spanish group in Bristol started like that over 20 years ago. However, some people may not be comfortable with going to somebody’s house. It depends a lot of the local culture and the space. In England it may be a bit more difficult because houses are quite small compared to houses in the US and NZ, on the other hand some people are used to doing groups in people’s houses, but other people from different cultural backgrounds may not be so comfortable, especially if they don’t know the other people.

      If you do it in your house, at least you don’t have to worry about money matters. Just make sure people can get to your house easily. Is it accessible by road/public transport, easy to park…
      Don’t worry too much about tidying. You need one room which with a size suited to the need. I think for children under 5 you need the space as clear of breakable clutter as possible, with not a lot of furniture so there is space for the little ones to run/move around, and have some toys around.
      If you’re not comfortable with your house, then look for a suitable café or soft-play space in your area. Something child friendly, not too expensive, where they let you do a few songs and stories.

      I will send you an email from our petitesgrenouillesbristol account with some of our old flyers, so you can see what we do. But be polite but firm, don’t say “the group is NOT for A, B and C”, say “the group is for FRENCH SPEAKERS WHO SPEAK FRENCH AT HOME WITH THEIR KIDS… “, people who aren’t comfortable with French will filter themselves out!

      • Also, in my experience people with young children tend to feel more comfortable in houses that are a bit “untidy” (but clean) than in houses that look like a model house from a style magazine. So, don’t fret too much about tidying!

      • Dear Lidia,

        Could you please send me the flyers as well for the French play group?. I’ve read your blog and the response you sent to Audrary and would like to take these ideas and start a French Play Group in Bryn Mawr, PA.
        I really appreicate you pointing out some of the pitfalls of starting a bilingual play group.

  4. Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your next write ups
    thanks once again.

  5. Hey there! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a group
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  7. Thank you very much for such a detailed infortmation! It sounds very real to organise a playgroup.

  8. Benedicta Emovuon says:

    Hello,

    I have two toddlers ages 3 and 1, and I want them to learn french. I speak french but not fluently. I have a nanny who speaks french but not fluently as well. I want to start a play group to encourage my kids to learn more but we live in an anglophone country. Any tips for the start-up?

    • Hi Benedicta,
      Sorry for the delay in answering.
      Firstly, I think you have to decide what type of playgroup you want. Children will not learn a second language just because they are exposed once a week for a couple of hours. Especially, since most children, even bilingual ones, will tend to speak the local language between themselves during free play.
      You may want to create a safe space for the promotion of French, where you meet other like-minded parents and their children, to learn a few nursery rhymes and a few words in French. You have to make clear to other parents that this playgroup is not a class, it is a playgroup where you will promote French language and culture and hopefully nurture an interest for the language in the little ones. However, I would not have high expectations in the sense of “bilingual kids” or “learning French”. Kids will learn some French, mainly vocabulary and little phrases, but that is not functional French. It will be a positive activity, you will meet other people, network, and hopefully develop a group that may want to take it to the next level in future.

      On the other hand, if you want to create a playgroup for children that “will learn” more functional French, you need to speak French with your kids at home, and you need to promote your playgroup as a group for people who speak French to their kids at home, and make it clear that it is not a “class”. This is very important, as from my own experience running playgroups, it is quite common to have monolingual children with not possibility of language input at home that come with their parents, who naively expect their children to just “pick it up”. This is a negative experience both for the monolingual child and the bilingual children. The bilingual children will just not feel encouraged to speak the minority language and the monolingual child will feel out of place, and will not really understand why he is being spoken to in a strange language by strange people.
      I think once you decide what type of group you would like to promote, then go on to the planning stage!

  9. Does anybody know a playgroup for Spanish kids in Ealing ?

Trackbacks

  1. […] playgroups in your town and city. Our children go to a Spanish-speaking playgroup most weeks and a French family meet-up too. If you can’t find anything going on locally, why not start something with likeminded individuals […]

  2. […] are resources all over the web on how to go about starting a bilingual playgroup. The website Bilingual Parenting has put together some very useful guidelines to help you start your own local group, including some […]

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