Jo Jones, from Eagle’s Nest Church in Nottingham, looks at three ways we can create culture in our playgroups.

It was 20 minutes after our group had sung our goodbye songs, and we had nearly finished packing the equipment away, when we realised that there was still someone in the toilets.

A flustered mum with a baby and small child clattered out. Through frustrated tears the mother vented about how her children just weren’t at a stage to be able to access group situations, and how she wouldn’t be coming back until they were older.

We helped her out but were left with a sinking feeling that we’d missed an opportunity, saddened that we had not noticed her struggle and she’d left feeling alone, overwhelmed and stressed.

Since we began Fledglings baby and toddler group two years ago, we’ve certainly made some mistakes and learned some lessons along the way, particularly in the area of setting the culture.

When I was applying for funding to help set up Fledglings, I asked local parents and carers to complete a survey, which included a question on what their pet hates at playgroups were. The top five were:

  1. Cliques of people
  2. Expensive
  3. Dirty
  4. Other children’s behaviour
  5. Nobody talks to me

The results suggest that playgroups can be lonely, dirty and unruly places and that people can come and go and not feel valued or seen. It is important to be proactive and think: what kind of culture do we want to set? For us, we’ve learned the following lessons:

1. Saying goodbye is as important as saying hello

The lasting feeling our parents and carers are given is as important as the initial impression. So now we hold the door as they leave, help them out with buggies and bags and say we hope they will have a good week. We do these things because we want to let them know we have noticed them leaving, even if they are popping off before the session is finished.

2. Taking time to start conversations is as important as providing the coffee and cake

“So much to do, so little time!” That’s my thought every week as the five of us running Fledglings rush around. To host a busy group there are a lot of practical things that need doing throughout the morning and, with a relatively small group of volunteers, we don’t have time to sit around.

But we need to.

Modelling the culture of not being cliquey has to start with the team. We have learned to be intentional when it comes to introducing members of Fledlings to each other. Our team also looks out for people on their phones and we spot when people are sitting alone. Yes we recognise that sometimes people enjoy a five-minute break just to catch up on social media or send a text while their child is entertained, but we also know that scrolling can be a sign of loneliness. We don’t want anyone coming into our group to feel lonely.

3. Structure is good for those on the edges

 We have around 70 to 80 people coming to Fledglings each week. That’s a lot of people for a team of five to get around. So we incorporate structured, front-led activities early on in the session. These include: moments of entertainment with puppet shows and stories, conversation starters with our themed props and encouraged interaction that is as simple as holding up the parachute together.

Nothing bonds people more than making memories together, even if it is simply commenting on how the baby shark song just gets stuck in your head for the rest of the week!

We include more structured times than we used to, because we have found that people need a bit of help to kickstart conversations and friendships. Remember: free play can be lonely for the parents and carers.

4. Valued and seen

While our toddler groups are always full of exciting toys and interactions for the children, we always need to include the parents and carers too and ensure they feel catered for. If adults and children alike leave our group knowing that they have been valued and seen then we’ve done our job.

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