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Wednesday, February 21 News

Playdates celebrating 20 years of nurturing toddlers

So much has changed for toddlers in 20 years -- they clamor for their parents' iPads, their meals are more Whole Foods than frozen and their photos are instantly posted on social media.

For Maureen Bloom's Playdates, the at-home playschool program that is celebrating its 20th anniversary, not much has changed since the program first launched in 1994. Playdates has maintained its focus on socialization and communication while introducing children to their first preschool experience. Fifteen classes take place in Darien, New Canaan and Rowayton, and soon Greenwich.

Maureen Bloom's Playdates creates a natural transition for toddlers from being at home to being in a traditional preschool. Each class is composed of two trained teachers with six to eight students aged 18 to 36 months. Classes rotate among the children's homes on a biweekly or monthly basis, and meet two or three times per week.

"Families love that Playdates has this magical combination of consistency in classmates and teachers," Bloom said, "and variety with a rotating cycle of homes. There are always new toys, creative experiences and outdoor adventures to explore."

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In fact, flexibility is a large part of Playdates's appeal. "We take advantage of the unique characteristics of each property, whether it has an apple orchard, is near a beach or is a short walk from a nature sanctuary. If the family has unusual pets, they get worked into the curriculum, too," Bloom said.

Playdates launched in 1994 with three teachers and two classes.

Kate Motley, whose three sons have been through Playdates, explains the program's attraction: "A drop-off program is a huge asset, and since it is home-based, it provides a cozy and gentle transition to the school environment. My oldest son's experience was so nurturing, I never considered any other option for the next two. Plus the teachers are phenomenal."

Bloom was awarded the Darien YWCA "Women of Distinction" honor in recognition of her service and value to the community. According to Bloom, Playdates' teachers are a big reason that the number of classes has greatly expanded.

"All of our teachers are mothers with impressive college educations, but they also have a special quality of earning the children's and parents' trust. Our teachers stay with us for many years and share my devotion to early education, family, and service. We work together as partners with the Playdates's families," she said.

For example, when the teachers for Motley's youngest child noticed that by March their students could handle a longer day, they offered to extend the class' hours. Motley said, "It was unbelievable. Most program directors wouldn't be this flexible, but Playdates recognized the kids were ready."

Along with focusing on people skills like talking, exploring and getting along with others, Bloom has expanded Playdates to include drop-off Spanish classes and a relationship with Junior Art and Music. The "Small World" Spanish program was developed along with early education foreign language advocate Karen Christiansen in response to parents' request for a world language option.

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When the opportunity to offer Playdates classes with Dre Towey at JAM came along, Bloom jumped at it. "We are always looking for ways to combine socialization with creative outlets. JAM let's us explore music, art and storytelling in the most imaginative and festive ways," Bloom said.

Learning to get along carries a huge role at Playdates. Jeanne M. Marconi, a pediatrician and managing partner at The Center for Advanced Pediatrics and a former Playdates parent, said, "Playdates' intimate home setting captures the warmth and spiritedness that makes very young children comfortable, and which is often lost in our super-structured, high-tech world. The informal structure encourages the creative mind to expand and children to bond with one another."

Bloom thinks back to some sage advice she was given when Playdates was first starting out: May you be modern enough to change with the times, and traditional enough to last forever. Puzzles, books, story time, building blocks, trains, dress-up, dolls, play kitchens and workbenches and baking remain hugely popular with 2-year-olds despite the proliferation of electronic toys in the marketplace.

Bloom looks forward to what the future will bring.

"We are really excited about sticking to our fundamentals and also adding new components. Every year brings new children, new homes to explore, and new opportunities to be imaginative."

Classes are specially designed for children aged 18 to 36 months. The school year runs from September through May. Playdates' offices are at 80 Raymond St. in Darien.

For information, visit www.mbloomplaydates.com or call 203-505-0502.