Unlike Instant Whip there’s no step-by-step recipe for creating a friendly, welcoming toddler group. People are individuals and different things make them feel at home. The best welcome is always one that is real, prayerful and rooted in love. However, there are some practical things we can do that will help us give people the warm welcome we want them to have.
First impressions really do count because if people don’t feel welcomed during their first session, or worse still, feel excluded by cliques, then they are unlikely to come back. It’s worth thinking carefully about how you can make that first experience as friendly and helpful as possible.
The easiest time to identify newcomers is when they come to register, and many groups make it the responsibility of the person taking the register to check if someone has been before. When they identify a newcomer then they can take their contact details and provide them with a ‘Welcome Pack’. (If your toddler group doesn’t have a Welcome Pack, do think about putting one together). This will not only tell the newcomer everything they need to know about your group, but has the added bonus of giving them something to look at if they should find themselves alone for a while. Include some information about the group, what you do during the session, and any rules that you have.
Ask the person taking the register to introduce new people to someone with the time to show them around. They can make sure they know where the toilets are, tell them what to expect – for example, any special arrangements for song or craft time, and introduce them to someone else in the group. This could be another leader or one of the friendlier parents, and ideally will be someone that they have something in common with so that they can sit and chat for a while. When you create a culture of being a ‘friendly’ group this will hopefully be something that the ‘regulars’ value and welcoming newcomers will become a natural part of the way that the group functions.
If one of your team is particularly gifted at remembering names and faces try to relieve them of other duties and nominate them to be your ‘welcomer’. Ask them to identify any newcomers, greet people by name and spot any mums who are looking lonely or in need of a little TLC. If the welcomer stand just outside the door and the person taking the register is just inside, then people will have been greeted by at least two people before they even sit down!
With larger groups it’s impossible for each leader to build deep friendships with every family. Arrange with your team to befriend and pray for just a few of the families each – make sure that everyone is ‘adopted’ by someone.. Try to share their joys and sorrows, make time to listen, remember birthdays (adults as well as children), and celebrate special occasions, such as the birth of a baby, together.
A key component of providing a warm welcome is to focus on the children – although it seems obvious, amidst the busyness it can be easy to greet the adults and overlook the children. Parents and carers love it when someone takes the time to greet their children and help them with activities – getting into the dressing-up clothes, for example.
Perhaps another obvious point is to make sure that you are equipped for the babies and toddlers who are coming to the group. This includes, for example, somewhere to park the pushchairs, a breastfeeding area, a bottle-warmer, changing facilities, a potty and a small step by the sink (or, if possible, even a children’s height toilet and wash basin).
Parents and carers with nappies to change and children to potty train can spend a lot of time in the toilets. It goes without saying that they need to be clean, but consider going a step further and trying to combat the smell of dirty nappies with a nappy disposal unit and an industrial air-freshener? Adding a few special touches will make the toilets really welcoming – nice soap, hand-cream and some tissues, for example. And keep a few nappies and wipes in, as well as some spare pants and trousers so that no child needs to go home simply because of an ‘accident’.
Most parents and carers are grateful for a cup of hot coffee and a rich tea biscuit, but some groups make them feel really welcome by offering a filter coffee and a slice of homemade cake. Other groups have listened to parental concerns about squash and now offer diluted fruit juice, milk or water as alternatives for the children. And lots of groups are showing that they care for the children by offering healthy snacks instead of biscuits.
People will feel much more at ease if they know your name – if you are embarrassed to approach someone without knowing their name, then they probably are too! Even if you hate wearing a name badge, remind yourself that it does make you far more approachable. Some toddler groups have even had T-shirts printed with the leaders’ names on so that they can be picked out easily. (This also helps with safeguarding issues).
A smile is understood by all nationalities! Who wouldn’t want to be known as the ‘smiley lady’ from toddler group?
Visit another group
Speak to other toddler group leaders and parents and carers about their experiences and arrange to visit another group. This can give you real insights into understanding the hurdles that have to be overcome for someone to come to your group for the first time. They may have suggestions about how to eliminate or reduce the size of the obstacles, and give you some great ideas that you can ‘steal’ for your own group.