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Lessons from Abroad

Wednesday, May 1, 1996

In 1961, a mother in London wrote a letter to the Manchester Guardian that resonated with families all over Britain. Belle Tutaev related her predicament as a working mother of limited means who wanted to spend more time with her young daughter and also wanted a safe learning environment for her child while she was at work. She described how she and her friends had set up a "playgroup" in her neighborhood, in which mothers working part-time took turns supervising and providing a structure of educational games for each other's children.

          Tutaev's letter inspired an overwhelming response from mothers wanting to know how to set up similar playgroups. So, after borrowing a typewriter and setting up a duplicator in her garage, Tutaev created an educational charity to give practical guidance to British mothers. Today the Pre-school Learning Alliance helps organize 20,000 playgroups for 800,000 British children ages three to five, including more than 40 percent of the country's three- and four-year-olds.

          The typical British playgroup has 40 children, with a supervisor (usually paid) and two or three volunteer mothers (or other relatives) at all times. Parents usually serve in rotation for half a day every week. Most children attend playgroups for two or three half-day sessions per week, though a growing number of playgroups offer extended hours for working mothers. The typical playgroup rents space from a neighborhood church or other community institution within walking distance of the childrens' homes.

          The active participation of volunteer mothers keeps costs low. Fees per child typically run less than half the cost of nursery schools. But the real benefit of parental involvement is educational. "Our evidence," says Lady Plowden, a former president of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, shows that "it is generally undesirable to separate mother and child for a whole day in the nursery." According to the Alliance's official literature:

          "Children learn better when their parents are involved. Seeing their own families validated and powerful gives them a secure base from which to progress, and parents are in a better position to reinforce at home the learning which has occurred in the group . . . becom[ing] confident partners in the world of education rather than mere consumers."

          The Netherlands and Ireland also have strong playgroup movements, and the idea is beginning to catch on in America. What is most distinctive about the British movement is the nationwide dissemination of practical information and curricula, so that parents forming a new group do not have to reinvent the wheel.

          The Pre-school Learning Alliance puts out a monthly magazine, Under Five Contact, for member groups and parents, and has produced three television series on the organization and operation of playgroups. Its catalogue of publications includes session outlines, suggested rules, course materials, and workbooks for such "learning through play" activities as gluing, woodwork, wordplay, finger exercises, math, language, science, and music. Courses on playgroups are offered not only to group leaders but also to parents; 40,000 parents each year take them.

          Like many British charities, the playgroup association has the imprimatur of the Crown. Diana, Princess of Wales, is the official patron of the Pre-school Learning Alliance. But the playgroup movement is otherwise a model of voluntary activity independent of the state. Individual playgroups raise their own money, mostly from fees from parents. And though playgroups in London are granted substantial subsidies from that city's government, British playgroups overall have received less than 5 percent of their revenue from taxpayers. All playgroups must register with government authorities, and meet certain regulatory standards under the Official Children Act. However, the standards of the Alliance are even higher than those of the government.

          Britain's Parliament is now considering pre-school vouchers for four-year-olds that could be used either at a playgroup or at a nursery school. But since parents would decide which playgroup to attend, the playgroups could still maintain their independence from government control.

          The British playgroup movement is an attractive model for American parents looking for an alternative both to institutionalized day care and to nursery school for three- and four-year-olds. One of the most important attractions is the opportunity for parents to be more involved with their children and with friends in the neighborhood. In addition, the British model also offers a wealth of experience and model practices, so that parents can learn from the successes and mistakes of those who have gone before.