In a spacious basement nursery in a Capitol Hill church, a train of 2-year-olds pushed baby dolls in strollers, chasing one another around a colorful climbing gym, as three parents roamed the room.
“Let’s go to the park!” Chris Cummiskey, one of the parents, said to the group of 10 toddlers, ushering them to put on their jackets, shoes and matching yellow vests. “Are we going to sing songs on the way?”
It was a typical Tuesday morning for the Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School, a group of about 36 families who take turns watching a group of up to 12 toddlers at a time for three hours a day. The play group is a neighborhood tradition, used by families since the 1970s to provide toddlers and their parents with regular social interaction and a sense of community.
There are no teachers and no staff — just parents watching children play, for no pay. The families pay a fee at the beginning of the year of about $175, which covers supplies such as craft materials and tissues, and a donation to the Lutheran Church of the Reformation for using its nursery.
But since earlier this fall, the group’s existence has been under threat. In September, D.C. regulators showed up at the play group to investigate. They had received an anonymous tip that the cooperative might be running an illegal day care, said Lis Kidder, a parent in the cooperative who has become one of the play group’s most vocal leaders.
Representatives from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education told the families that they would have to become licensed as a day-care center, requiring the parents to hire a specialized day-care director and undergo criminal background checks and extensive training, Kidder said. If not, the play group would be forced to shutter.
The parents have since been thrust into the roles of advocates, testifying at committee hearings and lobbying their D.C. Council members to pass legislation that would exempt parent-led play cooperatives like theirs from meeting the requirements of licensed day-care facilities.
“It’s insulting to think that I wouldn’t want to put my child in a safe space,” said Mari-Scarlett Hirte, one of the parents in the play group. She said she has met many of her close friends in the group, which includes several stay-at-home parents like herself. “It builds community. To want to stifle that? It just doesn’t seem right.”
In October, the council passed emergency temporary legislation allowing parent play groups like the Capitol Hill cooperative to keep meeting for the next several months. Then, council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) introduced a bill that would create a permanent exemption for cooperative, parent-led play groups. Allen said he expects the bill to face a vote in the Committee on Education in the coming days.
He said he hopes the legislation strikes a balance between allowing OSSE to do its job and letting parents make the choices they think are best for their children.
“We just want to make sure that we don’t pretend there’s a one-size-fits-all,” Allen said.
At a Nov. 1 committee hearing, where dozens of parents showed up wearing matching red “Save Parent Playgroups” T-shirts, State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang expressed concern about the proposed language of the bill. Kang said the legislation should include requirements that parents conduct emergency drills, undergo criminal background checks and training in administering CPR and first aid on toddlers.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), the chairman of the Education Committee, showed a reluctance to support the bill, saying deregulating such groups could have “serious repercussions” for the city.
He argued that while play groups are often informal arrangements among parents, “some play groups may have become more organized, coordinated and regular than others.” As an example, Grosso pointed to how the Capitol Hill play group uses a lottery system to select new families and keeps families on a waiting list.
But to some members of the play group, Grosso’s criticism that the cooperative is too formal seems to punish parents for seeking ways to make the system safer for their kids.
“What they’re saying is nonsensical,” said Margaret McCulloch, who has a 2-year-old in the Capitol Hill play group. “The things that make us formal are what make it safe.”
Over the years, parents in the group have established safety and organization “bylaws,” Kidder said. For example, they’ve written up emergency plans and decided that the group should be nut-free in case of allergies.
But McCulloch said the play group’s fundamental structure has not changed much since the 1970s, when families from the church would take turns watching one another’s children in a similar way.
“This is not a new thing,” McCulloch said. “People have been doing this forever.”
Similar informal cooperative play groups exist throughout the District and the country, parents said, but most of them are so informal that they stay under the radar of state regulators. Kidder said she has learned of numerous states that offer certain exemptions for cooperative play groups, including California, Georgia, Oregon and Massachusetts.
Another parent-led D.C. play group, located in Petworth, also was recently asked by OSSE to comply with regulations for a formal day-care facility. To work around the requirements, the Petworth group relocated to a federal building, which is not subject to OSSE jurisdiction.
Parents in the Capitol Hill cooperative say the group provides their children with valuable social interaction with other toddlers in an environment the parents trust almost more than a traditional day-care center. Because the caregivers are parents, they have a “vested interest” in the group, said William Brammer, a self-employed Capitol Hill resident and a member of the cooperative.
Brammer said he has seen the benefit of the group on the development of his 2-year-old daughter.
“She’s basically teaching herself to go potty, because she’s emulating the other kids she’s around,” Brammer said. “You see a lot of growth in a short amount of time.”
When Thomas Nagle first became a stay-at-home father, he said he often felt isolated. He would go to the playground with his son and find himself surrounded by nannies. The Capitol Hill play group has given him a chance to meet fellow stay-at-home fathers in the neighborhood.
“I’m here because it’s good for me and it’s good for him,” Nagle said.