Aliya Porter shares how the pandemic has helped her team to reassess what was important to their group ‘Monday Monkeys’.

Monday Monkeys has been running for years. In fact, a mum once told me that she had come as a toddler herself. 

Established groups are great because word of mouth means people come from far and wide, but surprisingly that isn’t always a good thing. Pre COVID-19, with a capacity of forty, we used to have people queuing to get a place on a Monday morning. By the time we opened we would have fifty in the queue. But many of the people on our books (about one hundred in total) were not local.

We also discovered that those who travelled some distance came because they knew another person. This created little groups during the sessions, which were harder for new people to break into.

The pandemic and lockdown forced us to reassess whether our group was actually achieving our vision. As a ministry led by introverts, we found the sessions had become quite overwhelming and they weren’t achieving our aim of building community and sharing our lives, and therefore Jesus with families.

We began to be purposeful in what we were offering our families and ran online six-week small group sessions for new parents. We arranged the groups so that they were hyperlocal, which meant parents could comply with the Manchester COVID-19 restrictions and meet other local parents for one-to-one walks. These groups were literally a godsend for families, as they fed back that they didn’t know any other parents locally and this had helped them connect with others.

As helpers, we also found we were able to build relationships with the local parents at a far deeper level than the relationships we’d been able to build with our attendees before the pandemic. This was because we found ourselves bumping into the parents during the week, connecting over shared local experiences or easily arranging to meet up with parents between sessions.

Once restrictions lifted, we decided not to go back to normal but to make some significant changes. We now have a booking system and not a queue. This is not without its own issues but it does allow us to restrict by postcode (within 1.5 miles of the church we meet at). We still have twice as many children as we have space for but there is more consistency with families and this has allowed us to build deeper relationships.

We are fortunate enough to have a good group of volunteers but building relationships and trust takes time. We need time to share our own experiences as parents, carers and grandparents and for families to feel ready to talk to us. Sometimes it needs that extra connection with the local community to be able to reach parents at their level and allow the conversation to flow. And sometimes it takes meeting up outside the group, which isn’t always possible, but so much easier to do if families are local.

We don’t just want our families to connect with us as leaders, we also want our families to connect with and support each other. One of the great things we have noticed over the years, is that when families connect locally they often continue to be friends through nursery and into primary school. This just doesn’t work in the same way if people are travelling miles to access the group.

The 1.5 mile rule has met some resistance. At the moment, it feels even harder to turn people away as there aren’t the same number of groups (particularly affordable ones) and people are desperate for their children to mix. Parents often tell us that they want to come to our group because of the welcome, the sense of community and the fact that they feel noticed. But, we’ve realised we can’t create the same level of community with people who are spread far and wide. It has been a challenge to turn people away, when we want every family to have a toddler group they can access for support. But we’ve started sign posting families to other groups in their locality and hopefully they too will find a deeper sense of community with other parents who live near them.

This is what families have said:

Having a local playgroup has been invaluable. The group was initially virtual, but following lockdown being lifted, it's helped our daughter's development through in- person interactions with the other children. It has allowed us to meet other parents, who are always happy to share advice and ideas on activities we can do as a family. Being new to the area, it has been incredibly reassuring to have such a great space to meet other parents, develop friendships, and feel part of the local community.

Andy (Dad)

As a newcomer to the area, I have very much appreciated seeing familiar faces from Monday Monkeys out and about and to be able to chat while the children play together. It is lovely at the group, with great provision for toddlers, lots of space and a good variety of toys and activities, (my grandson loves it) and the opportunity to meet local parents and carers. Thank you to all the hardworking organisers and helpers!

Frances (Grandma)

Note about the author: Aliya Porter has three children, is a freelance registered Nutritionist and has been helping run Monday Monkeys in Manchester since 2011. She goes to Grace Church Manchester.

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