Toddler Groups Are Terrific

Rebecca Paveley finds out how a good parent and toddler group can be a lifeline for isolated mums, dads and carers

‘Going into my first ever mums and toddlers group was really scary, it felt like going for an interview!’ remembers Rachel. ‘My son was only six weeks old but I’d been in full-time at work before, and I was already desperate for adult company. I knew the names of a couple of mums there and decided to try it. Everyone came up to see the new baby; it was great.’

For first-time mums and dads, parent and toddler groups can be a lifeline. At home with a demanding baby or toddler, often alone for most of the day, they offer the opportunity to share experiences and, importantly, a reason to get dressed and get out of the house.

Chatting about bad nights, local schools, the best washing powder to use – groups are the equivalent of the online forum mumsnet with real company and a cup of tea you don’t have to make yourself! Often they are linked to a church and meet in a church hall, or perhaps a local primary school.

Building networks

Trish has been running her church’s toddler group in Kilmington, Devon, for nearly ten years. She has three children of her own, the youngest of whom is now nine, but she doesn’t plan to give up and fits her work schedule around her commitment to the group.

‘I really enjoy doing it; it’s not a chore for me. I love bringing people together so mums start building networks and nannies get together. I do it because I know how isolated it can be for young parents with children, especially for mums who may have been working full-time before and are suddenly at home with no other adults around, or just the dad for a few hours a day.

‘Before I took this on, I went to another toddler group to observe as a kind of experiment. I deliberately didn’t speak to anyone and no-one attempted to speak to me, it was dreadful. This made me realise how important it is to welcome everyone by name.’

Trish asks everyone coming to her group to write their names down on a list – for fire regulations but also so she can put names to faces and welcome everyone properly. And her efforts work. ‘One mum said it was the friendliest group she knows. In the last four months we have had 20 different mums, one dad, three nannies, five grandmas and 33 babies and toddlers! We usually get about 15 mums and 20 children a session, which is just as well as that’s all the building will hold!’

In her decade as organiser, she says such groups have become more important not less, as couples tend to live further away from their own parents and extended family, and partners often work away for long hours of the day. Her own mum also helps out at the weekly group, making drinks and serving biscuits.

Emily, who has four children under eight herself, and her mother, also run a group together which meets in a primary school near Axminster. ‘We didn’t have anything around in our village to fill the gap between home and pre-school and some of us mums were meeting informally, and I thought it would be good to get a group together. We have some organised activities, and a story, and parents really like having this organised for them. It gives them a bit of time-out.’

Her mum, Jenny, worked as a playgroup leader and though now retired still loves toddlers, and is obviously loved by them, too. She organises the craft activities. This joint approach has helped ensure that older carers, such as grandparents, feel comfortable coming to the group.

Dad Richard takes his two toddlers to his church playgroup in Oxford. ‘I went because my wife used to go before she had to go back to work. She was keen for me to keep going. The boys love it and often I’m not the only dad there. I’ve found the mums there friendly and not at all cliquey. I’ve noticed too that the other children like having a dad around too and I end up playing a lot, which is great.’

Grandparents and older members of church congregations are often crucial to toddler groups. They often have a bit more time, and enjoy helping out with the children. One helper, Eleanor, loves to get involved with the children as her own grandchildren live overseas.

Serving the community

Toddler groups are also an important form of Christian outreach; a way of serving the local community and providing an open door into Church.

Justine is a mum of three boys who isn’t a church-goer but she has taken all her boys to a toddler group at a nearby church in Newton Abbott. ‘I love it because after being up all night with a baby there is nothing better than being welcomed with a smile and handed a cup of tea and a biscuit by the older ladies who are members of the church, before sitting down to talk with a fellow mum about the trials and tribulations of it all while our children play. Often we can swap solutions and help each other out, too.’

Joanna, an occasional church-goer, appreciates the fact her children get to learn some Bible stories and celebrate the Christian festivals from her local group in Cambridge. ‘You can opt out of the Bible stories, and a few people do, but we don’t and I like the fact the children are getting to know some basic Bible stories and understand the festivals.’

As someone who works part-time from home, it has been really good for her to get out and meet people, she says. ‘The ladies who run it are lovely and they are always willing to chat and listen, lending an ear if you have problems. And it’s lovely just to be with your own children and play with them, without worrying about the washing up or the ironing or other stuff.’

Caroline goes to her church toddler group in Lyme Regis, Dorset, and has also started going to a women’s Bible study. She says both have been ‘lifelines’ for her as she struggled with being a mum. ‘The people who run them genuinely seem to care about all of us, so even through they are not on our doorstep we still go every week. I feel really supported by them.’

Thinking of starting a group? Download the free Good Practice Guide for Parent and Toddler Groups compiled by Mothers’ Union, Care for the Family and the Salvation Army.

What makes a good group?

  • It has to be genuinely welcoming – greet parents and carers and children by name and offer tea or coffee
  • Offer to introduce people, to help with networking and making friends
  • Offer advice if it is asked for, or to put carers in touch with people who can help
  • Spot those who aren’t mixing and make an effort to talk to them
  • Good biscuits – ‘People say we definitely have the best biscuits and I’m sure it makes a difference’ says Trish, who runs a thriving group
  • Keep it as cheap as possible for parents and carers, or ask for a donation
  • Take time to listen and get to know parents and carers – be nurturing and interested in them
  • Build a good team of people who are willing to help with serving, listening and craft activities as well as mucking in and playing
  • Have a structure – free play, craft activity, tidy up, snack time and outside play, before story and songs works well. Children love these routines
  • Get some good quality, sturdy toys, they don’t need to be flashy or high-tech. Ask for donations and you’ll probably be flooded with them
  • Every group is different, sometimes mums and carers may have to try out a few before finding one they like
  • Keep trying out new ideas and new ways of serving. Joanna’s church group has a clothes swap table. ‘It’s brilliant – so many of my children’s clothes have come or gone through it’ she says