Here are some of the things I have done in the past:
Library story times--we have been doing these since Miss O was a baby. Little Bean used to love them, though he never really made friends there as the groups were so big and it was new people each week. Miss O just recently started enjoying these, and ironically, Little Bean no longer likes them! I think he is bored with it all now! :(
Community Classes--Little Bean has been doing these since he was quite small. When Miss O was old enough, I started signing up for these mommy and me classes on a continuous basis. Both Miss O and Little Bean like these classes, but again, the kids are always new because the classes change on a six week basis, so they generally don't make lasting friends there (though they did make one friend who they really liked, but we lost touch). Also, unfortunately, our cities programs are not that great (just the general structure of the classes and the staff), so I think after having tried this for a few years we are moving on.
T-ball--Little Bean played T-ball last summer, with the hope that he'd make some new little friends. This too turned out to be a bust; he just wasn't very good at T-ball, there wasn't any time to socialize because the coaches had the kids doing a lot of drills, and for the most part, he just sort of stood in the outfield and daydreamed.
Playgroups--I joined a MOM'S Club in our area one year hoping they could make friends that way. Unfortunately, this particular group was really clique-y, and I just didn't get along with the other moms, so I never renewed after giving it a go for a year. The children we also all a bit older than my two, and didn't have much in common with them (they all went off to preschool just when my two were getting to know them!). Then, I joined another MOM's Club (different city), based on the recommendation of a friend we had met at a community class. But, I got laid up with some medical issues soon after that, and lost touch with that group. Finally, I decided to start my own group! Finally, something that worked. We now have a wonderful group of moms who meet weekly at my home or at the park, and who have been quite dedicated to the group. It's so exciting seeing Miss O and Little Bean make genuine and lasting friendships from this group!
Church--the kids certainly have plenty of chances to socialize at church each week, and they each enjoy their Sunday School classes, but to be frank, they'd rather be somewhere else, than dropped off at church for a couple of hours while mom and dad go to big church. And, the primary reason we go to church isn't to socialize; it's to worship God, to learn more about who He is, and how we can serve Him with our lives. They've certainly made friends there, but I was still looking for more ways to get them out and about, making friends and socializing with their peers.
Just recently, knowing that I wasn't planning on signing them up for another community class, I was curious and walked into a Gymboree Play and Music (http://www.gymboreeclasses.com/b2c/customer/home.jsp) nearby, and boy was I in for a treat. I don't know if any of you send your child to Gymboree, but after seeing it, I knew it was something I wanted Little Bean and Miss O to experience. The facility is clean, safe, has a small number of kids per class (they cap the classes at 12, but our class had only 5 kids total), there are two teachers per class, and the kids are generally the same each week, except for new kids (like Miss O and Little Bean). They have over 500 facilities all over the world, so there very well may be one near you. That first day that I walked in they set us up with a preview class for their age level, and we went to it just the other day. I was so pleased that I spoke with DH, reviewed out budget, and decided this was definitely something I wanted to invest in.
Little Bean and Miss O are very close in age (15 months apart), which is perfect for Gymboree because it means they can be in the same class together. They are both in Level 7, ages 3 to 5, and the class is actually a drop off class. I take them once a week for their primary play class and spend the first 15 minutes playing with them on the equipment. Then I leave, and they stay with the teachers for an hour and a half. During this time, they do different independent and teacher directed activities, from bubbles, hide and seek, arts and crafts, music, pattern blocks, letter review, parachutes, the list goes on and on. Fifteen minutes prior to the end of the class, I get to return and watch them enjoy the rest of the class time and have opportunity to see what they've done that day. For an extra $20 dollars a month, I can take them to all the primary classes at their level each week (there are 4) and also to a sports class on Saturdays and three open gym times, which are basically free play times where they have access to all the equipment (all this is optional of course; if they don't fee like going or I am busy, we certainly don't have to go to any classes other than the one day a week primary play class). There is a sibling discount, so basically the extra $20 for the bonus play times is free to me each month. Little Bean and Miss O just loved the preview class we went to, and Little Bean even asked if he could come again the next day (which for him means a lot). For us, enrolling two children in Gymboree, including the bonus pass, was actually a little less than sending just one child to a preschool in our area. And for us, it makes perfect sense. Little Bean and Miss O don't need to go to preschool because I am homeschooling them. They are learning or already know everything a preschool is ever going to teach them academically. But they do need that social outlet, a place to make and keep friends, a place to learn about authority figures other than mom and dad, a place to be active and have fun with others outside the family. I love that the class is a drop off, but they have the comfort of being together in the class so there is still that support between the two of them, even if I am gone. I'm so excited to see how they enjoy the classes and play times in the weeks to come! And for the record, no, I do not work for Gymboree in any way! ;)
What do you do to help your at-home preschooler or homeschooled child socialize?