One of the best parts of living in Georgetown is the array of secret lives glimpsed through windows, down pathways, and even underground. In the basements of two churches on the east side of Georgetown bubbles a life of intense industry and social tumult, hurt feelings and life-long friendships. And that goes for the one-year-olds and their parents.
Open an ugly brown metal door and step into a world of bright floor mats, busy babies and equally engaged parents and caregivers. This is Blue Igloo, a playgroup for kids ranging from six months to three years.
The schedule here runs from “transportation toys and tumbling,” at 9 a.m., to “songs, bubbles, puppets,” an hour later. It all wraps up by lunch, after story time and clean up.
Blue Igloo was founded in 2000 in a rebuff to Georgetown’s other playgroup, the 35-year-old Intown. Like the papal schism, the creation of a new gathering place for the pre-pre-school sent waves through a certain section of Georgetown. Which one is better? Where are my friends going? Will all the cool people go to Intown while I am stuck at Blue Igloo? Or vice versa? But as the population that rides in strollers continues to boom, there are plenty of applicants for both playgroups, and, to the outsider, the two groups seem to be almost exactly the same.
Blue Igloo is now the morning home to 55 kids and their caregivers. It is mostly moms, though the occasional dad comes by for an hour or two. It is a French, Spanish, English and sign language immersion program, according to the director, Sabria Lounes. And the children learn key skills, even if they don’t necessarily learn them in French.
“The kids learn to sit, for snack they sit, and they get into a routine. I have to write recommendation letters for kids for the next schools, and these things matter,” says Lounes, who has been running Blue Igloo since its creation.
Gavin, who is two and a half, “gets to interact with other kids, he loves to come here, he loves the singing, he loves the snack most of all,” according to Myrtle Perry, Gavin’s nanny. She says she, too, loves Blue Igloo. “I talk to everybody, all the mothers and the nannies, I look forward to coming here every day.”
Two blocks away at Intown, the scene is much the same. One and 2-year-olds buzz around doing animal puzzles and playing with plastic cars. 45 families are enrolled at Intown and, like Blue Igloo, Intown often has a waiting list of families eager to get in. Get over the admissions hurdle and you get an emphasis on child-centered learning.
“We’re focused, right now, on sensory materials,” says Mandy Sheffer, Intown’s director. “Soft and hard, finger paints, there’s a lot that goes on behind what we do with the kids every day.”
“It is nice to come to a space where the play and structure is thought-out,” says Jacqueline Bourgeois, the mother of 15-month-old Ferdinand. “At home, I don’t know how to do that. I am learning as much as he is.”
And therein lies the real success of Georgetown’s busy playgroups. They are places for moms. Moms need the companionship and learning time offered by Intown and Blue Igloo as much as their kids do. They learn when should a kid quit using a pacifier and what other parents feed their kids. They find potty training tricks, tips for getting along with others, and how to create tight bonds. Nobody needs to get out of the house more than a new mother with a little kid. This is a place to go.
“I’ve made my closest friends here and it has been a wonderful place for us both to come and socialize,” Intown’s Elizabeth Taylor, the mother of Mac, 16 months, says.
“Parents get to talk to other parents,” agrees Annie Lou Berman at Blue Igloo. “We’ve made really great friends here,” she adds, as 2-year-old Teddy scuttles up to see her. “We’re all in the same life stage,” nods Karina Homme, mother of Sebastian, who is 20 months old.
There is a certain type of family called to these pre-pre-schools. One mother refers to her playgroup as “the cocktail party set.” Most are from Georgetown, though a few come from as far away as Alexandria. About half the moms work, though on a recent day the nannies outnumbered the parents at both places. The parents have to pony up between $3,000 and $4,000 for block building and snack eating. And Georgetown’s playgroups mostly funnel into the private pre-schools, and from there into the private elementary schools.
Of course, there are occasional storms in the world of the bouncy-bounce. Two-year-olds won’t share. Parents try to ditch their “duty days” (dates on which they are required to show up and help out) by sending their nannies instead. And the playgroup admission committees sometimes mess up by letting in imperious parents who can’t seem to get along with anyone, or parents who insist that their bodyguards accompany field trips, or the one child who bites: a serious no-no in little kid land.
And then there are the scary parents who really do seem to think Intown leads to Princeton. But they are few. For most of them, Georgetown’s playgroups lead to a sense of community, fast friends, and, most importantly, a place to go on a rainy October morning.