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Impacting local communities through church-based toddler groups

Church-based toddler groups are providing for their communities and Mothers’ Union is supporting them

01 May 2016

Every week throughout the country approximately two million babies and toddlers attend groups facilitated by around 27,000 local churches. In fact, figures from the Family Matters Institute show that 52% of children under four years old access some sort of church-based parent and toddler group. Along with their parents, grandparents and carers that can mean up to six million people a week entering churches because of these groups. What an amazing opportunity!*

OPEN DOORS TO FAMILIES

As a church leader, I am part of a constant conversation about how best to attract local families into our church. Indeed, our own toddler group has just been launched as a result and we were overwhelmed to see how many families attended on that first week – and have continued to do so. The group leader, Vanessa Henegan, explains: ‘Opening our church to 60 new families since the launch a month ago has been fantastic. It’s great to be offering a group that local people obviously want. The majority of those who’ve tried out Highfield playgroup have returned. We ask for feedback every week to reinforce that we want the local families attending to “own” their group.’

In a society in which Sundays are very often now seen as extended children’s activities and family relaxation time, it means that churches often aren’t able to reach the very communities they are in through their Sunday services. Jane Lax, who attends All Saints Whiteparish, spoke to me about how her experience of setting up a toddler group was born out of this very realisation: ‘Our village church is typical of many in Wiltshire today, being one of 10 churches in a large rural team. We are very fortunate that we have a flourishing Church of England primary school and lots of young families in the village. The church is full to bursting at Christmas with the Christingle Crib service on Christmas Eve and at the children’s school services each term.

‘However we realised that family life today is very different, often with both parents working full or part time, so the last thing they really want to be doing on a Sunday is going to church. We asked ourselves why we were expecting the families to come to us on a Sunday morning instead of thinking of ways we could serve them and show them God’s love in a practical way. So the idea of holding a toddler group in church was born.’

PROVIDING A LIFELINE

Such groups rely on a team of willing volunteers in order to provide that safe, fun and inviting environment for families. Jane explains: ‘Our ethos is to love and to serve; this means a team of usually four to five people, not just providing refreshments but to play with the children and sit down and listen to their parents. They can relax and tell us their worries and problems.

‘For some mums the toddler group has been a lifeline, being the only time when they get out of the house in the week. We have had children with life-threatening illnesses and the prayers of the group have been immensely comforting to all the family. Many mums tell us their child is beseeching them to hurry up and get to church on a Monday morning!’

MAKING CHURCH MORE ACCESSIBLE

When families enter a church building to attend a toddler group, it can be the first time they have been into a church. Going to such a relaxed event can help break down any barriers they may have had about being in a stuffy church! Indeed, Jane told me that ‘there are many positive outcomes from the toddler group; primarily we can discuss baptism in a relaxed informal way. It also means when the children attend their siblings’ or friends’ baptisms they are quite familiar with their surroundings and are not bored or unhappy. ‘One particular time a couple got married in the church with their two small children with them. The situation could have become difficult with the toddler, as the bridal couple processed up to the altar steps to be blessed, but the children were quite confident with the sanctuary and walked beside their parents and knelt with them. It was a very special moment.’

THE 1277 INITIATIVE

‘1277: make them count’ is a national alliance of churches and other organisations, including Mothers’ Union, which seeks to ‘develop and implement a National Strategy to support church-based toddler groups and their associated activities’. The name is taken from the fact that, on average, a child in the UK has just 1277 days between birth and starting some sort of education and the alliance wants to make those days count. The vision is ‘to see universal access to excellent, safe, Christian toddler groups which are demonstrating God’s love at the heart of their communities’.

1277 provides all sorts of resources to aid good practise within toddler groups, support confident parenting skills and for developing faith in both toddlers and their parents/carers – see www.1277.org.uk/resources. Within this list of resources is a link to The Good Practise Guide for Parent and Toddler Groups, which is a joint publication by Mothers’ Union, Care for the Family and The Salvation Army. This guide helps all involved in running toddler groups follow best practise, and can be downloaded at www.mothersunion.org/content/parent-toddler-groups-good-practice-guide

SUPPORTING TODDLER GROUPS

The day of prayer was set up to coincide with National Family Week, in order to encourage churches to pray for everyone involved in the toddler groups that their own church runs – the leaders, volunteers, toddlers and parents/carers – as well as other groups in their local communities and beyond. The 1277 website provides a list of resources, including prayer cards that can be used both within the toddler group and on a Sunday morning and other ideas to inspire your church to pray for the group. Why not visit www.1277.org.uk/nationalprayerday and see what your church can use to prayerfully support your church-based toddler group for this year’s National Day of Prayer for Toddler Groups?

Here is a personal commitment statement and a prayer produced by 1277 that you might like to use:

I commit to pray for parent and toddler groups, their leaders and the families and communities they impact.

Father, as we seek to nurture, develop and encourage our children, would you challenge us with your love, deepen us with your grace and teach us with your wisdom, so that through us your kingdom comes and your will is done. Amen

*Figures taken from www.1277.org.uk

Written by Claire Musters and first published in Mothers' Union's Families First magazine in May/June 2016