It might seem a bit of a daunting prospect, but Ellie Wilson has some useful pointers to consider before you begin.
Toddler groups are a hidden gem in most churches. The friendship, support, fun and time spent together is invaluable. My children made good friends with children they met at toddler group. They have maintained those friendships throughout the years and remain friends even now they are at different schools.
For me, toddler group was an opportunity to get out of the house, meet others and have a hot drink. It was also a link to the church and an opportunity to ask questions and explore things spiritually. I believe it is important for there to be a relationship to the church because of the possibilities it provides for spiritually nurturing both adults and children.
Starting a toddler group is really exciting, though it can be very daunting when you begin to look at what is entailed. Remember, each journey starts with one step, so it really helps to break the task down into smaller steps and to think about each one separately.
Step 1 – Is there a need?
Before you do anything it is important to think about whether there is a need for a group and what can you offer. For example, do you want to run a toddler group, toddler praise, or a group just for dads? Find out what groups already exist in the local area and talk to people who you think may be interested in coming along. Approach local professionals like child minders, health visitors and local schools, and circulate a questionnaire seeking opinions and determining need.
Step 2 – What support do you have?
Next you must think about the team – who is going to help you. A group of people to help prayerfully, practically and financially is essential. Teamwork is crucial if the group is going to be sustainable.
Step 3 – Aims
Once you have established your team, it is important to determine the aims of the group. Whatever your aims are, they need to be clear; this will help you focus your preparations. To enable the team to work together, it is essential to share these aims with everyone involved in the group and with the wider church community so you are all clear about what you are doing. Your aims need to be reviewed regularly, at least annually, to ensure they are still appropriate and relevant.
Step 4 – Decide when to meet
It is best to hold a toddler group midweek when older children are at school. It also helps if starting and finishing times can coincide with local school times, as people are more likely to come if they are dropping off older children at school or collecting them. You will also need to decide whether the group meets weekly, fortnightly, monthly, termly, or, maybe for a dads group, on Saturday mornings.
Step 5 – Decide what to do
The session should be no more than two hours long, for example, 9.30 a.m. to 11.30 a.m. or 1.p.m. to 3 p.m. Activities could include free play, craft, story, music and singing, prayer or refreshments. To help you decide what you are going to do during the sessions, it might be useful to consider the environment in which you will meet: is it a church, a hall, a single big room or several smaller ones. If space is an issue, you will want to avoid physical activities using toys like bikes and slides. However, be creative with the space and make the most of it; don’t let it prevent you from doing things.
Decide to adopt a theme for a season or a term or half-term as this will help you to plan activities. The church year with all its festivals is a rich source of ideas. You can reflect the theme through play, craft, story, music, prayer and even the refreshments!
It is important to provide a variety of types of toys covering different ages and abilities. An increasing number of toys based on Bible stories is becoming available. Provide an area with toys in to enable the children to explore the theme or story for themselves. Again, be creative and include items to inspire imagination and creativity. This could include natural items and pieces of fabric for the children to dress up in or build dens with. Ensure there are tactile and sensory items available too for the children to explore.
Giving children and adults the opportunity to pray is essential. This could be done as a group at a particular time or by providing a creative prayer area where people can go.
Step 6 – Who will do what?
It is crucial to work as a team. Start by creating a list of what needs doing – for example, advertising, administration, finances, preparation, cleaning, health and safety, play, refreshments, craft, story and music. Each person will have different gifts and talents, but remember that some may have several gifts and not want to be tied to one role. Review roles and responsibilities regularly.
Don’t forget that the adults who attend the group may have valuable skills as well, so encourage them to become involved. This will reduce the “them and us” feeling and help create a sense of belonging, rather than a feeling of “being done to”.
Each area of responsibility needs to have its own to-do list, but health and safety is a particularly important area to cover. Questions like insurance, DBS requirements, risk assessments and child protection policies all need to be explored in detail and will be personal to your group and your premises.
There is more detailed guidance about health and safety on the 1277 website (www.1277.org.uk) which has been set up to provide support and a network for faith based toddler groups. Contents include resources and leader training, session planning, craft, music, play, prayers, and providing for children with additional needs.
Ellie Wilson, Under 5’s Children’s Adviser, Resourcing Children, Youth and Families Team, Diocese of Wakefield