Baboes playgroups offer fun for children and parents alike


The network of free playgroups in Brussels provides a safe place where kids can play and parents can mix

‘Diverse, like Brussels’

Children in Brussels have 300 outdoor playgrounds to explore – but spare a thought for the parents. “You always have to run after them and make sure they don’t fall, hurt themselves or run away,” says Ariella de Gennaro, Italian mum to Milo who turns two this month. “Here, I find it relaxing,” she adds, referring to Baboes, a free, multilingual and multicultural drop-in playgroup for any Brussels child four and under.

Baboes was born eight years ago, after a study by the Flemish Community Commission (VGC) found full-time parents often felt lonely, living in apartments and with relatives too far away to help. The aim was to provide a safe place where kids can play and parents can mix.

“We hear stories about parents who didn’t know anybody in Brussels, and, thanks to Baboes, they made their first friends,” says Gwendoline Vanmanshoven, one of seven supervisors.

The non-profit Opvoeden in Brussel opened the first Baboes on Vlaamsesteenweg in 2009, after researching similar schemes in France and Italy. The central Brussels playgroup has since moved near Madou, opposite the Flemish parliament, with branches in Schaarbeek, Laken and, recently, Anderlecht.

An open house

“We hear a lot of parents saying it would be nice to have a Baboes in every commune,” says Vanmanshoven. Each playgroup is open three or four half-days a week, including the summer holidays.

“It’s an open house,” says Taïs Gomes de Santana, a Baboes supervisor for almost three years. “People should feel welcome and feel that they can just be themselves.”

We reach different nationalities but also different social origins, from a refugee mum to a local doctor

- Taïs Gomes de Santana

Baboes, she continues, “reaches different nationalities but also different social origins, from a refugee mum to a local doctor and everyone in between. We bring them together with what they all have in common, which is parenting. That’s really our strength – that it’s so diverse, just like Brussels.”

Parents use Baboes in different ways, she says. Some like to talk to fellow parents and share experiences over coffee while their children explore. Others appreciate having the space to play with their child by themselves.

“We only ask for the child’s name and age,” says Vanmanshoven, pointing to a chalkboard where 10-month-old Otto is playing alongside four-year-old Ewen. “We talk to babies from one week old – a person is a person. But otherwise we don’t ask for the parent’s name or where they’re from. You give and say what you want.”

Parenting school

American Shawn Moss is playing ukulele with his 21-month-old Estonian-born son Kai. “This is one of the best things in Brussels for kids,” he says. “It’s free, tonnes of fun, super-educational, interactive and social. I learn a lot watching other parents interact with their children – how they correct, how they teach, how they deal with them when they’re upset. It’s like a school for me.”

He carries around flyers to spread the word to fellow parents – and he is not alone. “We often hear that they are proud to introduce Baboes from one parent to another,” says Vanmanshoven. “There’s a kind of solidarity. Parents want to help each other out.”

It’s kind of a mini-society here. I see parents doing their best

- Gwendoline Vanmanshoven

Meanwhile, Milo loves the play kitchen, the musical instruments and hurtling down the slide into the ball pond. “You never really have time to play with everything,” his mum adds. “For the moment he doesn’t really interact with the other kids – but the parents do.”

“It’s kind of a mini-society here,” adds Vanmanshoven. “I see parents doing their best. We might not be changing the world, but, on a modest level, we’re doing something. It’s a nice feeling.”

Baboes has recently become part of the Brussels branch of the Huis van het Kind network, which brings together organisations providing support and information for parents. “We try to create a place where people feel safe,” says de Santana. “Parents tell us that they get a lot from this place, and that makes me happy.”

Photo: Paul McNally