Do you remember the first 1,277 days – or three-and-a-half years, roughly – of your child’s life? For many of us, it was a whirlwind of weekly weigh-ins, carrot purée and meticulously scheduled coffee mornings with other new parents. For Jo Gordon, it was an opportunity to meet a need in her community, as well as in her own life.
“There were no toddler groups in our area. I felt lonely and isolated as all my friends were at work. I didn’t really know my neighbours either, as I’d been working full-time,” she explains. “We briefly explored the idea of moving back up North, where there was a tight-knit community, but eventually we felt compelled to make a difference where we lived.” So, in 1996, Jo helped to set up Daniel’s Den – a parent and toddler organisation in Brent, North London.
“We now meet in four different venues (two churches and two schools), working with 250 families in 45 nationalities!” Jo’s motivation is simple: “Toddler groups can provide a safe, supportive place for people of all ages and backgrounds to come and build relationships that matter,” she says. “The cup of tea, friendly welcome and unconditional love help people to feel like they’re part of the local community and not just a statistic.
“One of the families at Daniel’s Den lives in hugely challenging circumstances. Mum, dad and five children live in one room, with a shared kitchen and bathroom. Dad works, but life is tough. One of our toddler groups heard about this and donated lots of clothes. Mum was overjoyed, especially with the crocodile wellies for her daughter.
“Another dad brought his daughter along – she’s an only child and rules the roost at home! He’s overjoyed that his daughter concentrates and joins in the activities that we’ve planned. He works full-time but has rearranged his shifts so he can bring her and spend time with her.” Stories like these – of crocodile wellies, families connecting and friendships formed – are plentiful.
Jo frequently hears the phrase ‘You are my lifeline’ when parents and carers speak of Daniel’s Den. “I love watching new people tentatively come through the door, knowing no-one, and then leave having shared conversations and phone numbers with a group of people they eventually come to call friends.”
Toddler groups have a positive impact on family life, but running one can be challenging. That’s why over ten years ago Care for the Family launched Playtime – an initiative to resource church toddler group leaders. Over the years it has been instrumental in shaping toddler groups like Jo’s.
Helen Lock, Playtime Coordinator, says: “Playtime is about empowering and supporting these groups to be the best they can be for the families they serve.
“Whether through the national annual conference, regular newsletters, being on the end of the phone or visiting toddler groups, we hope to encourage and aid groups to network together so they don’t feel alone or isolated.”
So far it has been a success. Care for the Family also provides The Good Practice Guide for Parent and Toddler Groups, in association with The Salvation Army and Mothers’ Union.
Our annual Playtime conferences regularly sell out and more than 7,000 toddler group organisers have attended over the years. “I’ve been to many Playtime conferences and each one came at a significant time in the life of Daniel’s Den,” says Jo. “There were lots of inspiring talks and workshops.
We started a monthly Dad’s Zone as a result. “They’re such a great way to make toddler group leaders realise that what they do is important, and that the’re part of a much bigger picture.”