In Part 1 of How to Start a Babysitting Co-op, I talked about defining the boundaries of your group, picking a co-leader and a name, deciding who can join, and selecting your system of tracking points.
Once you’ve figured out some of these nuts and bolts, you can move on to publicizing your group and choosing an important element of the glue that will hold your group together: gatherings, meetings, and parties.
Getting the Word Out
If you are creating a group within a group as I mention in Part 1, it should be fairly easy to publicize your new babysitting co-op via established routes of communication: email lists, newsletters, playdates, or websites.
Some groups only allow new members to be referred by current members.
If you’d like to cast the net further, here are some other ways to make your group known:
- Contact your neighborhood association or attend a meeting where you can ask for advice about how to reach community members.
- Post flyers at places parents might gather: the local playground, community center, pool, preschool, coffee shop or toy store.
- Join a parenting email group and announce your group there. (To find one in your area or to start your own for free, see Yahoo Groups or Google Groups.)
- Ask the local preschool and elementary school for help in spreading the word. Most have newsletters, message boards, backpack flyers or bulletin boards where you could post your announcement.
Hold an Opening Event
Invite people to find out more about your new group at a playground, church room, school gym, or someone’s living room. This is a great way to involve interested families in the starting-up process and to begin getting comfortable with the idea of watching one another’s children.
If you don’t have set ideas or clear preferences, you may also decide to let these interested families help you decide how to organize your group — in terms of leadership, tracking points, and meetings.
How to Get the Fire Going
“A babysitting co-op is like a campfire. Sometimes you have to blow a bit to get it started,” says Arlington MOMS club president, Allegra Jabo, who helped me start a babysitting co-op within our co-operative preschool. For a brand-new co-op, in other words, it can help get things moving when a few core members start requesting and filling sits right away.
If the co-op concept is new to many of your members, they might need some encouragement to jump in and give it a try. If they see others taking the plunge and being active, it will help warm everyone up.
Organize Regular Gatherings
Another great way of keeping the fire going in a babysitting co-op is creating lots of ways for members to meet and get comfortable with each other.
Getting together on a regular basis will also help maintain a sense of cohesiveness in your group. It’s natural for members to come and go: people move, kids age out, new people join. This constantly-changing nature of babysitting co-ops makes face-to-face meetings even more important.
There are several ways I’ve seen this done, and the creative solutions you can come up with are endless.
The neighborhood babysitting co-op I joined held four meetings per year: April, July, October, and December. Members had to attend three out of four to stay in the co-op. Although this rule wasn’t strictly adhered to, it sends the message that each member’s presence is important.
The summer meeting was an ice-cream social, where the coordintors brought individual ice cream cups to the local playground, and the winter meeting was a Christmas party (scheduled on the same night Santa toured the neighborhood on a fire truck).
Otherwise the meetings were usually held in the community center, and were more business-like affairs: new members were welcomed and any issues were brought up and discussed. It also gave members the opportunity to “pay” the two coordinators (who were compensated for their one-quarter duty with a card worth one hour of babysitting from each member).
When the community center was closed for renovations, members offered to host the meetings. Snacks were provided (paid for by $5 annual co-op dues) and the coordinators often organized a craft activity for the kids (painting pumpkins in October, for example).
Not everyone brought their children to these weekday evening meetings, so the chaos factor was not too high, with kids often playing together in the basement or in the host-child’s room.
Quarterly Meetings plus Seasonal Playdates
Our current parent organization babysitting co-op has four required meeting/parties per year, as well as optional playdates in the warmer months. We all live in small apartments, so we have held our meetings in one of the apartment buildings’ playrooms.
We also invite the general membership of our parents organization so that prospective members can meet us and get more information about the babysitting co-op. Sometimes families who didn’t even know about the meeting come in to use the playroom, which becomes a great opportunity to let more people know about the group.
At these quarterly meetings (we also allow members to miss only one per year), we provide snacks and drinks (paid for by our umbrella organization) and pass out name tags. At about the halfway point of the one-hour meeting, we gather in a circle and introduce ourselves.
We try to play a game to help us remember each other’s names. For example, when you introduce yourself and your children you also share something personal (like a funny thing your kid did or said, or what you are looking forward to doing over the summer) and then you repeat all the names of the people who have gone before you.
Optional Playdates Only
Allegra’s babysitting co-op — which is part of a MOMS Club — neither holds meetings nor requires attendance at their monthly playdates. However they have an ingenious way of organizing the playdates.
The coordinator randomly assigns two members to host each playdate. As Allegra explains, “Since you might be paired with someone you don’t know, co-hosting is a great way to get to know someone. This also shakes up the attendees to meet new people too (as opposed to the same person organizing and the same people coming each time).”
Playdates are held the third week of the month and hosts are assigned six months in advance via their Yahoo email listserv. If a member can’t host on her assigned day, it is her responsibility to find someone to trade with. Locations and times are completely up to the hostesses. As Allegra notes, “this keeps it from being the same time every time, since some people can do mornings, some afternoons, etc.”
In warmer months, hosts often choose playgrounds or local events as locations. In winter, playdates are held at people’s homes, libraries, soft play areas, or at indoor events.
Even though only about 20% of babysitting co-op members attend the playdates (which are filled out with general MOMS Club members wanting to learn more about the co-op), this co-op is very active. The success of this kind of babysitting co-op could be attributed to various factors, including: its inclusion within a dynamic, well-organized parenting group, the frequency and variety of the playdates, and the way hosts alternate each month which makes everyone accountable and creates ever-changing opportunities for social interaction among the members.
Potluck Dinners or Picnics
Smaller co-ops will probably find this is a comfortable and casual way of getting members together every once in a while. With only four to six member families, it’s easier to have dinners at people’s houses. Home-based parties create a warm, family-like atmosphere, which is exactly what you want in a babysitting co-op.
My neighborhood co-op had great success with a warm weather potluck picnic as a quarterly meeting, held outdoors in a grassy field near a small playground.
Potlucks can be made even more low-maintenance when you leave it up to each family as to what to bring. I’ve found that this hands-off approach somehow manages to achieve a balance among main dishes, fruit and veggies, sides and desserts. Paper products and drinks could be provided by pooling money or by asking each person to bring some.
Other Event Ideas that Increase Unity and Fill a Need
One babysitting co-op I was involved with used to hold an annual yard sale. Neighborhood residents really looked forward to this sale, where they could find used toys, clothing, and equipment at great prices.
The co-op would announce the sale in the village newsletter and with signs around the neighborhood. The sale was held on the basketball court, with items simply displayed on tables or blankets. Co-op members were responsible for transporting, pricing, and selling their own goods.
Organizing one or two special events like this can be great for bringing co-op members together in a more involved way, as well as providing another useful way for members to save money.
Other ideas? Babysitting co-ops would be perfect venues for a clothing swap. Around the holidays, how about a gift swap (where each person brings a few new or un-used items and gets to take a few home), a $5 Secret Santa party, or a cookie exchange?
Groups could also organize trips to go apple picking, kite flying, or ice skating. To keep things simple, just set up a time and place to meet up, with each family providing their own admission and transportation.
More Tips for Holding Successful Events
Send Frequent Reminders
People are busy. I’ve found that frequent communication about upcoming events increases participation. Remind members what they need to bring, where and what time they need to be there, and give them plenty of advance notice.
Ask for RSVPs
From experience, I’ve also learned it’s important to ask for RSVPs when organizing events that you expect everyone to attend, such as quarterly meetings. Personal contacts and accountability are key.
For example, when we simply announced the quarterly meeting/party through our online co-op manager, our turn-out was low (even though the meetings are obligatory). In contrast, when we asked people to let us know if they were coming or not, and sent personalized follow-up emails, many more people attended. Not only did we achieve higher attendance, but the one-to-one emails also opened up the lines of communication with inactive members.
Touch Base with Quiet Members
In the above-mentioned communications about events, sometimes inactive members confessed that the co-op was not going to work for them (usually due to time and scheduling issues), but were reluctant to say anything. As a result, we lost some members (who were not using the co-op anyway), but we also gained some members (by announcing the meeting to the public). Most importantly, we cemented the ties between the members in the co-op who really wanted to be involved.
Try Getting-to-Know-You Games
At our parent group co-op’s February/Valentine’s meeting, we played Pass the Present. While each family was introducing themselves, their child was unwrapping one layer of the present. At the end, one child unwrapped the final layer and a bunch of Hershey’s kisses flew out for all the kids to gather.
Name games and activities are perfect for babysitting co-ops. As I mentioned before, membership groups are always in flux — people drop out, others join in — so it’s important to keep a warm feeling and sense of family among current members. After all, we are trusting each other with our own children — you can’t get more precious than that.
In the final part 3 of this series, you can find lots of resources to download and edit for your group, such as guidelines, brochures, and sign-up sheets.