My mother laughs because I never follow a recipe 100%. My favorite dishes never turn out the same twice. I often substitute because I'm out of a particular ingredient and I hate making last-minute trips to the store. So I use what I have and make do. No buttermilk for the biscuits? No problem - just put a dash of vinegar in some milk and 5 minutes later you have sour milk ready to whip up fluffiest biscuits you can imagine. Frequently my substitutions are better than the original recipe and turn into new favorites.
I'm the same way with other aspects of my life too. I love to use what I have and make do. Making do means creatively making the best of the circumstances you're in. If it's raining, you can't change the weather, but you can make do by using old things in the basement to come up with new games for your kids. If you want to expose your kids to nature but you live in the city, don't pine away for a house in the country. You can make do with a birdfeeder, and window box full of wildflowers, and regular trips to the park.
Now take this strategy one step further.
Are you concerned that you're the only source of German for your bilingual children? Are you many miles from the nearest German Saturday school? Not to worry - why not make do and form your own Spielgruppe (playgroup)?
Playgroups are fun. Playgroups with other German speakers are fun with a purpose.
Playgroups can run the gamut from quite structured with a theme, agenda, crafts, and such, to completely unstructured where kids just play and parents chat. If you don't have a large extended German-speaking family nearby, a German playgroup can fill in as your major support system. You know how important a support system is, don't you?
When you meet weekly with other German speakers, you build relationships that may even last a lifetime.
Parents with older kids can give advice on language challenges younger families are facing. You can share or trade German books and CDs. Parenting advice will surely be freely exchanged. And, perhaps most importantly, your kids will see that there are others who speak German, too - not just Mom and Dad.
Why are German playgroups so helpful?
For a lot of us, the lack of a local German-speaking community is the greatest challenge we face in raising bilingual kids. It doesn't take much to have a productive group - even 3 families meeting weekly will provide motivation and support for parents and bilingual playmates for the kids. Sure, the Internet is great for support, but it still doesn't take the place of real life friendships.
Starting your own playgroup.
You may be lucky enough to find a group already established in your area. But more likely, you'll have to make do and form a new group yourself. It's really not that hard and the rewards are tremendous. Here are a few things to consider when forming a playgroup:
1. What is the maximum group size? Once the group gets too big, you can split it into subgroups.
2. Where and how often will we meet? (group members homes, nearby park, library).
3. How much time do I want to invest in forming and maintaining the group?
4. Will it be structured or unstructured? What kind of activities should we do?
5. Are beginners welcome or should we require one of the parents to be fluent? If all the parents are beginning German speakers, you may find it too difficult to maintain any conversation in German.
Once you've answered these questions, spread the word. Tell your friends and neighbors. Create some flyers and hang them up at the library, post office and school. You might be surprised at how quickly you gain a few members. If no one responds at first, keep trying for a few months. It may take time for the word to get around.
Anticipate problems with bilingual playgroups
Besides the typical problems you might expect when kids play, you might find that the children don't speak German to each other. Especially if the children aren't confident with German, they may find it much easier to speak English. You can choose to not worry about this or to encourage more German from the children. Another potential problem is if a parent isn't committed to speaking German, she may sidetrack the goal of the group.
As the group grows, it's important to make sure the burden of the group doesn't rest on just one person.
To help share the load, you can pass around a sign-up sheet for people to bring snack or host the group or have a group leader position that rotates every few months or so.
How do I encourage the kids to speak German to each other?
You could start the group off with a song or a story to set the mood and establish the group as a German time. If you have activities and a theme, parents can prepare a bit beforehand by familiarizing their children with vocabulary. For instance, if you have a pirate day, you can learn a bunch of pirate words and do pirate crafts.
The Seattle Kinderstube
Some ambitious parents in Washington state wanted a German community for the kids and formed the Seattle Kinderstube. Their membership now numbers over 300 families! Can you imagine having that kind of network for your budding bilinguals? Your playgroup may not reach that level but you are sure to learn and grow by participating in a group.
So I encourage you to take stock of your needs. If you're feeling the need for a German-speaking community, don't fret that you don't live near the Kinderstube in Seattle! Make do with what you have - form a German playgroup! You may discover new friends you didn't know you were missing and find that the reward of organizing a group is far greater than the effort needed.