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Can toddler groups be a life changing experience?

Ladies on a bench resizeSue Greene is one of the leaders of The Ark in Haddenham Baptist Church, Cambridgeshire. In this article she takes a look at some of the changes she has seen over the years.

When I started to run a parent and toddler group 26 years ago I had a six-month-old baby and was pregnant again. Back then these groups were quite a new thing. A lot of mums didn’t go out to work and toddler groups were seen as a bit of a haven from the daily chores at home. It was place where we and our children could make new friends – friends who would stay with us throughout the children’s school years and beyond.

I found that being able to watch other parents and leaders helped me learn how to be a good parent myself. That’s one reason why I have helped run the group all these years. When my husband and I started fostering teenagers, it came home to us very strongly how much parents need help when their children are little. Toddler groups can certainly provide some much-needed support for mums and dads when their children are young. We can be part of the process of sharing parenting skills and giving parents the tools to build a strong family life.

What’s changed over the years? Well most of the mums in the group now go out to work, arranging their hours so that they don’t miss the session! I’ve also noticed that the mums are considerably older than those who came a quarter of a century ago. And, do you know, I’m now seeing ‘children’ who were in my Sunday school class years ago, come to toddler group with their own offspring!

Because many more parents are out at work today, as well as being a welcome break from the household chores, the toddler group now plays an important role as a place where parents and children can make a connection with other families in their community. It’s somewhere they can socialise, unwind and be looked after for a while.

With more parents working, another change has been the number of grandparents who attend. It’s wonderful! They are special. We also have a large number of child-minders attending and have found that it’s good to make use of their expertise. In one of our groups a child-minder regularly leads the music time.

Although I had always believed that toddler groups were a valuable start to a child’s formal education at school, it wasn’t until I became a relief worker in the village pre-school that I saw clear proof of this for myself. When I went in to do a shift I found that 18 out of the 20 new pre-schoolers in the session were from our toddler group – and it wasn’t any of them who were giving the staff problems! They knew lots of other children when they arrived ,were used to sitting down and listening to stories, singing songs, sitting for snack time and being directed by someone who wasn’t in their family. I felt a real satisfaction watching them that day!

One way in which I don’t think our toddler groups have changed is in their being a gentle introduction to church and to hopefully seeing God’s love in action. Many churches since we began have also caught the vision and are reaping the rewards of serving the community in this way. And it is now easier than ever for a church to start a toddler group as there are several organisations supporting this special type of witness.

So along with me, be encouraged! Toddler groups may well not be a ‘new’ thing anymore in your church or community, but they are still important for thousands of children and their parents across the country, and for many they can literally be life-changing.