I realise this is a slight departure for my blog and in no way am I a play expert but I have learned some things which weren't immediately obvious to me.
1. Don't feel obliged to go to baby or toddler groups. Go to none at all if you like. It's not the law. No-one will think of you as a bad parent if you chose not to attend them. They aren't everyones cup of tea and sometimes it just doesn't work out with naps etc.
2. There are loads of different types of baby and toddler groups. Some will suit you both; some won't. Some groups may not work now but will later. Don't rule one out after a single try. Also the groups and the organisers frequently change. A group which didn't work 6 months ago, might be much better now (I will talk about personal experience of this later.)
3. Don't spend a fortune. Well you can if you want to but if you're on statutory maternity pay, it's a bit grim financially so saving money is important. Some groups exist which tie you into 10 sessions or more at £5+ a time. Also remember you don't have to pay to get the best (see point one about not being a bad parent on this). In the UK there are loads of government funded surestart centres in England and also library groups nationwide. These are under threat from government cuts but where I live at least, they are well attended and still going at the moment. Use them or lose them. They tend to be more focussed on learning about play or literacy as well which is great for Mums like me where I was completely clueless at what to do in that time between sleeping, eating and pooing!
4. Go when your child is well rested and fed (or take a snack, drink or your boobs if you're breastfeeding.) I say this because it is frustrating spending a session desperately trying to cheer up a child when all they want is food or sleep, it doesn't work but read on.
5. Don't discount groups which are further away; this can help if your child is tired. Why not arrive a little while earlier and use the car journey or pram / buggy ride as an excuse for your child to nap? Especially if you're still on more than one nap a day, I see no harm in this. Why not take a book and enjoy a nice quiet sit until they wake up? 15 minutes was about our limit but that included a good few more groups.
6. Make it a trip out for you too. I used to think the group was my time out, now I know better. You don't have to wait for other mums to invite you, make it a trip out for you and your child. I have no idea why I didn't think of this earlier but now my son and I often go to a local cafe before or after a group. He gets a snack (I take something suitable with us normally) and I get a cup of tea or a cocoa. I've found some fantastic little cafes like this including one in a local ecological centre with a wood burning stove. Snuggly.
7. Don't get involved in the oneupmanship. Motherhood is the most vicious non contact sport there is or that's how it feels sometimes. Some of it is self inflicted, some of it is a natural desire for other mothers to boast about their child's achievements. When I think of the time I spent listening to other mothers talking about how their child was rolling. Trying to get their baby to crawl in front of other people so they could see it! Seems crazy now. As my son was a late crawler and a late walker, it did make me feel bad. For all I know though they may have been looking at my son who has always smiled readily and been jealous of his nature? Anyway. It just makes everyone feel bad. So keep those comments about "Little Julian has been sleeping through since 3 days old" to yourself. It doesn't help anyone (and trust me, it all evens out in the end.)
8. Try and talk to some of the other parents. I'm terrible at this. I tend to get stuck in with the singing or the playing, then look around and realise I'm the only parent on the floor doing "row, row, row your boat" or with glue in my hair.
9. Take some of the ideas home with you. I have done this with a few ideas but a great one was 'Discovery or Heuristic Play' where you take a selection of safe objects from around the home and leave your child to find ways to play with them. I kid you not, my son was engrossed for at least 40 minutes. Another success was building a den (see the top photo made out of chairs, some cushions and lots of "peepo" fun!
10. Don't be too hard on yourself. There will be a day (or many days) when your child decides they don't want to join in. It doesn't matter. My son will regularly join in with song actions at home but put him in front of a group of women doing "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" and he sits back for the entertainment! There will also be meltdown days. Also the rule is don't make other mummies feel bad when they have one of those days.