If "it takes a village to raise a child," then in the absence of old-fashioned villages today's families must establish meaningful forms of connection. One way that parents are reinventing community bonds for themselves and their children is in the form of the modern play group.

This year a play group that has met weekly since my daughter was 4 months old will celebrate its 10th anniversary. In the absence of both a nearby extended family and a "Leave it to Beaver" neighborhood, this group has been a source of love and support for me and my children. Over the years our five families have shared laughter, tears, and enough spaghetti to fill a swimming pool.

The census doesn't have a play group category, so it would be difficult to assess how many exist in the Washington area. An informal survey tells me many parents have made the effort to seek out other parents of same-aged children with whom they gather weekly (or more often) so the children can play and the parents can talk and/or exchange baby-sitting.

Many of these groups disband once the children enter preschool, but in our case we continued to meet regularly. When second and third babies came along, they were absorbed into the fold and the children now resemble a group of cousins and get along nearly flawlessly.

Why did we gather originally? Fellow play group mom Liz Wedam puts it best. "I needed it," she says. "I did it purely for myself. I was desperate."

Most of our play group mothers (Liz being the exception) waited until we were in our thirties to have babies, and we all had enjoyed a certain amount of worldly success, as well as the stimulation of working with others. Although we had decided to stay home with our babies prior to their births, none of us was prepared for the gripping sense of isolation that came with the territory.

Four of our original mother-baby duos met in a postnatal exercise class, but Jeanne Mackey and I met in the Safeway check-out line, a meeting that was the equivalent of two lonely souls connecting in a bar. She was holding her baby, Christopher, and I was holding my Sophie. As the babies smiled at each other and kicked their feet, we talked. When I learned that Jeanne lived 10 miles away from me I said, "We're practically neighbors. We'll have to get together."

Geography never was on our side. Our group is scattered across Montgomery County, and since the Snyder family moved to the Front Royal area seven years ago, our idea of community has been stretched to the limit. Colleen Snyder and her children are no longer weekly members but they join us whenever they can.

Our gatherings are raucous, house-trashing affairs, but the shrieks almost always are shrieks of glee. For years when the children were younger we planned craft projects for them. Now we simply let them run wild and have a glorious time while we sit around each other's kitchen tables catching up on news.

Colleen is the only one still chasing a toddler. The rest of us are basking in the parental grace period between diapers and driver's licenses. On a recent Sunday afternoon we prevailed on the dads to take the kids to the park while we five women went out to celebrate Colleen's 40th birthday. Over Thai food we grew reflective. What was it about this group that had filled such a deep need in all of us and in our children?

Jeanne talked about the sense of belonging, how the play group was an invitation to "join the dance." She said that for her son, an only child, the other children are like siblings. She also feels the boy-girl mix has been healthy. "This group taught our kids flexibility and respect," she noted. "The five of us are almost like five mothers to the children. Chris learned that Liz's way may be different from mine and that's okay."

Colleen has appreciated the continuity, even though her location has meant a part-time status. "It's easy to discard people because they're just friends." Liz adds: "But when you don't, that's what makes it so good. You learn a lot and that's why you keep coming back."

When our oldest children were babies, two mothers would care for them at our weekly gatherings while the other three got a few precious moments of independence. We also had regular baby-sitting exchanges between pairs of moms until second siblings arrived. But Ronni Harvith spoke for all of us when she said, "I always felt togetherness was more important to us than baby-sitting."

Each week we rotate the group to a different home. Colleen believes this has kept us in balance. Ronni also appreciates having an honest look at how other parents cope with their households. Seeing another family's unvacuumed rugs and bathtub rings can be a real pick-me-up when you feel your own home is out of control.

The group has provided a source of strength in times of sorrow and joy. During the decade, Jeanne's father died and Ronni's mother's health has declined. Colleen's second son, Alexander, was diagnosed with a brain tumor just before his first birthday and she has seen him through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. He soon will celebrate his seventh birthday and we all rejoice in his life and buoyant disposition. When Colleen became pregnant with a baby girl there wasn't a dry eye in the group.

During births of subsequent babies, we have cared for each other's children and welcomed newborns into the world. I have a picture of my son Jesse when he was about an hour old. The clock on the wall reads five past midnight. Liz is holding him up, with Ronni and Jeannie next to them, and they are all dazzling despite the hour. I titled this photo: "Jesse's fairy godmothers."

One of the rewards of staying with a group such as ours is witnessing evolution among people. Watching the children's lives unfold is a constant source of wonderment but we have also seen each other grow. Our generation of women is a pioneering one, and the ways we struggle to balance family and career are endlessly instructive.

Core identity issues can rise to the surface when one goes from being a solid citizen of the world to a mother at home. When Ronni's daughter Elena was an infant, Ronni ran into a former colleague on the street during a rare solo outing. "Oh," she heard herself say, "I'd give you my business card but I don't have my diaper bag with me."

Looking back I'm amazed at what the five of us have accomplished while raising children. Liz got her teaching accreditation and is teaching part-time. Ronni completed a master's degree, received foot reflexology certification (we all served as foot massage guinea pigs), and she teaches music, and substitutes in elementary schools.

Jeannie has been assistant-teaching in a kindergarten class. This year she built a beach house. I've been struggling along with my writing and naturalist studies while Colleen has been a Fuller Brush saleswoman, knitting teacher, La Leche League leader and college English instructor.

As for what this has meant to our children, in my daughter Sophie's words: "When we get together it brings back all the memories that flood through your mind. It's good to have such close friends. You look back at old pictures of yourselves and you see how you've changed."

Sophie can't remember a time when she didn't know her play group friends and I can barely remember when I didn't know mine. Bonds between friends can be like that. In the absence of nearby kin they can be the most sustaining ones of all. CAPTION: Play group kids at their annual Outer Banks beach outing, from left: Danny Harvith, Jordan Scott, Sophia Choukas-Bradley and Chris Mackey. CAPTION: The play group, with moms and dads, gathers to celebrate Colleen Snyder's 40th and Chris Mackey's 10th birhtdays. CAPTION: Wren Marie Snyder, youngest member of the play group, finishes off her mother's birthday cake.