I work part-time and, as I have a week-day free, have recently started to help with a toddler group in a small town in a semi-rural area of South Wales. The group is based at a Christian community centre and was started a couple of years ago to serve the parents and carers of toddlers in the town and surrounding area which has high unemployment and deprivation. Our heart for the group is that all who come will receive a friendly, caring welcome and find it a place of gladness and peace where they can be encouraged, get to know one another other, and have fun playing with their children. Most of all we want them to experience God’s love, and at Christmas and Easter we tell Bible stories and link the craft to the Bible story.
When our group started to get bigger, we found that a negative result was that sub-groups started to develop and people coming for the first time weren’t always being included. Welsh and English speakers come to the group and there are those with tiny babies and others with older toddlers so this is added potential for the group to become cliquey. I felt particularly worried as some mums joined who had recently moved into the area from a considerable distance away and I could see that they weren’t chatting to others.
We’re not alone in having this problem, of course. Some recent research found that a lot of mums didn’t return to early years’ groups after their first visit, or were scared of going to groups at all, because they didn’t know anyone else there or found it cliquey. This research has made me think a lot about how important it is to make the group a friendly place where everyone feels welcome, accepted, and not alone.
We were concerned about the situation and so prayed about it before and after group for a few weeks. It has been exciting to see that recently we have found that it hasn’t been so much of a problem. New parents have been relaxed and have got to know others, grandmas and mums have been chatting and sharing their experiences, dads have come and felt comfortable, and English and Welsh speakers have been playing with their babies together.
As well as prayer, there are practicalities which help parents stop sitting together in cliques. We lay the room out so that there are tables and chairs with different activities around the whole area. This means parents tend to follow their child to an activity and then get chatting with the other parents whose children are playing there. We also include each parent and child in the circle time by using a puppet to say hello to each one.
The group is not completely clique-free as there is still a tendency for those with babies and those with older children not to mix so much, but we’re still praying about it and thinking of ways which could help parents mingle together more. For example, we are going to try an active singing session where parents and their children move around the room with songs and actions. Hopefully this will be fun and also encourage parents to interact with those they wouldn’t usually.
I was encouraged today when one mum told me how valuable the group was to her. She said it ‘keeps me from insanity’ as it means she can go out of the house and socialise, her child can play with other children, and she can learn new craft ideas to use with her child at home. A grandma said that she found the group warm and welcoming, and enjoyed mixing with others and seeing the children play together. Sometimes, we might wonder whether our toddler groups are making any difference to people’s lives, but be reassured and encouraged – comments like these tell me for sure that they are.
 University of Bristol, School for Policy Studies, www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2011/8059.html