I stood recently and watched one of our three-year-olds at playgroup. He’d spent the morning at preschool while his mum and younger sister came along to our Friday morning group, and then his mum had picked him up to spend the last half hour of our session with us. She’d reserved an iced bun for him and he sat intently looking at the cake, barely daring to touch it. He was going to savour every moment of this delicious treat.
‘My, how you’ve grown,’ I thought, then, ‘Well of course you have, we’ve known you your whole life!’ From the tiny baby with his nervous first-time mum to the now rough and tumble pre-schooler he’d become, we’d known this child his whole life! Of course, he is only three and has, God willing, a long and full life ahead of him but he has already experienced so much and we’ve had the privilege of being a part of the whole of it.
And what a privilege it is! Each of us who work with parents and carers, babies and toddlers in toddler groups have the wonderful opportunity to walk alongside families at the very point when they are forming their family life. We are invited to become participants in creating a community around these new human beings as they discover what life is all about.
Our welcome, and the community we create within our groups can have a big impact on these young children and their families. It is here that children often first encounter the life lessons of sharing and turn-taking, and early friendships are formed. Here that we celebrate together milestones in those children’s lives from the first full night’s sleep to the birth of a new sibling. Here that parents can receive support and wisdom from those who have walked this path before.
This raises two questions. First, how do we continue to be involved in the life of this young boy, his family and all those like him. From the time I was born until I reached the age of six, almost my entire world existed in a 200m stretch of road. My home, my grandad’s garden where Saturdays were spent, our school and the church. It was small, but it was the whole world to this infant. But as you grow, so does the world around you. This young boy will start ‘big school’ in September and experience a whole new community and world around him. What do we do as a church to continue to be a part of their lives?
Second, how do we continue to extend a welcome hand to those who find themselves outside of our groups? Are we constantly looking to invite others to join our group and to find their safe place with us?
Perhaps part of the answer lies in something I recently heard Lucy Moore, founder of Messy Church, say about there being a difference between relationship and friendship. Good relationships are found in many of our groups, and relational ministry is vital, but there is a nuanced subtlety in the language between friendship and relationship that can help us to check ourselves. In relationship, we can play a role, within a particular place and protect our own sphere. In friendship, we care deeply and sincerely, we openly share our own vulnerabilities and difficulties and who we are takes precedence over the role we play.
Lifelong friendships can be birthed at the play dough table and in the sand tray, over the mug of coffee and iced buns, in the eyes open to those who walk past our buildings and the invitation to get stuck in. They continue in the invitations to other church groups or activities, the remembered birthdays and the door that stays open to welcome families back at every stage of life.