Setting Up a Toddler Group

Louise Stewart, Killamarsh, England

Having decided that facilitating a Toddler Group may be a way forward for evangelism in your area, careful and prayerful preparations can begin.

1. PRAYER AND COMMITMENT
Apart from examining spiritual health and fitness for public service in this way, prayer should also be used to weigh up commitment and motivation for the task. It is hard to turn up every week of the school year for the foreseeable future, and put in the effort required to plan and prepare activities. If such a thought brings hesitation, remember the verse, ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’, Phil. 4. 13. Take one week at a time, and it’s surprising how the Lord carries you through! Once sure of commitment, prayerfully consider the impact of the extra workload on immediate family and current responsibilities.

2. PERSONNEL
The most common problem is lack of fellow-workers. Whilst three would be a desireable number of facilitators to have, I would suggest that even if only one sister has the burden, then she is in the majority with God. Perhaps it is the will of the Lord that she ‘steps out of the boat first’, and then He will provide the personnel – either from the mums that come, believers if possible, or from an unexpected source. In the meantime, build in contingency plans to make the workload manageable. Think about things that people could do to support the work, even if not actively involved in it.

3. APPROVAL
When sure of the plan, take it prayerfully to the elders, listening carefully to their response, remembering that they may see a perspective beyond your own. Most obstacles can be overcome, but if some seem insoluble, persist in prayer. It is the Lord’s work and He will go before you, opening up the path according to His time, not yours.

4. PRACTICALITIES
Once there is approval from the elders, the detail can be addressed. This is where the literature from Local County Council Early Years and Childcare Services is particularly useful. It will tell you about current Government legislation regarding voluntary children’s work and the way in which your local County Council is enforcing it. Our local website is www.childcare-derbyshire.org.uk Here is an additional checklist that we found useful:

  • Parameters – aim to operate for less than two hours a session and ensure that parents and guardians supervise their child at all times so there is no need to register with Ofsted. When identifying the day and time, ask about other groups in the area so that those times can be avoided. Also, think about the Gospel Hall activities either side of possible times – it can be useful to enlist the help of fellow brethren and sisters to set up the equipment, chairs and tables for the group after a meeting. 
  • Access – check out car parking facilities and ensure the outdoor area is free from anything on which the toddlers might hurt themselves. Consider pinning up a notice or banner, particularly in the early days so people can be sure they are coming to the right place at the right time. Check whether a ramp may be needed if steps are an obstacle for pushchairs etc. 
  • Health and Safety – check the insurance policies of the Gospel Hall, and become familiar with procedures for fire and emergencies. Put safety plugs in electrical sockets and safety gates to block doorways or stairs. Platforms and pulpits are also p o t e n t i a l hazards so consider the best way to guard them – we use a ring of chairs. Protect valuable items such as hymnbooks, organ and amplification systems from the inquisitive hands of toddlers. 
  • Toilets and baby-changing facilities – these should be clean and have hot running water and hand washing facilities. Add a potty and/or trainer seat and changing mat. Dirty nappies need a bin with a liner and lid, and try to remember to empty it each week! 
  • First Aid – although technically the volunteers have no responsibility for the kiddies, it is a good idea to have a well-stocked first aid box. First aid training is available through St. John’s Ambulance and the Red Cross. All accidents should be recorded; there are recommended forms for this. 
  • Storage – toys can be bulky and awkward to handle. We store ours in the loft; other people build big cupboards or use back rooms or outbuildings. Think about whether to enlist help for setting out and putting away the toys. 
  • Equipment – this includes small tables for toddlers and little plastic chairs that are easily wiped down. Also, mugs for the mums and the toddlers. Depending upon the flooring, it may be necessary to use plastic sheeting or something similar when doing activities such as sticking or painting. 
  • Toys – it is helpful to have a wide selection of toys, although the most popular tend to be the ride-on ones. It is worth investing in good quality toys as they tend to be better designed and less inclined to break. Activity equipment such as slides, tunnels and ball pools are popular and not as expensive as the soft play equipment. Remember that all toys will need thoroughly washing at least once a year, maybe once a term. Clean toys and facilities are very important. 
  • Funding – the initial set up costs are important, since the group needs to make a good impression from the outset, so consider a special offering if insufficient funds are available. Once established, the running costs are more manageable, and activities can be tailored to the budget available. The official literature recommends a small fee for drinks and equipment costs. However, offering a free service provokes questions that can give opportunities to testify and it is good for Christians to be marked by generosity. 
  • Advertising – initially, it is a good idea to put up posters in public areas to inform the community of your start date and intended group. This can be done on a computer at very little cost. The key people to contact are the Health Visitors, Midwives and G.P. practices, as they are usually the ones to recommend attending toddler groups. They may wish to visit your group, and see how things are done.

5. LAYOUT Depending upon the shape and size of the hall, chairs can be used to divide up the available space and encourage age- or activity-specific areas. It is useful to have a protected area, where the floor is covered with bright baby mats, so that babies can lie or sit without risk of being mown down by tricycles. Quiet areas for reading books, or for table-top activities are also appreciated. It is important to leave as much room as possible for ride-on toys to zoom around in.

6. INFORMATION LEAFLETS When people come for the first time, they will need to sign a declaration form that includes a statement that they:
- understand the rules of the toddler group;
- undertake full responsibility for their child;
- will not take photographs of any child other than their own without the expressed permission of the parent.

The information leaflet, setting out the purpose of the group, is also an opportunity to include the concept of spiritual need, and advertise other gatherings and opportunities at the Gospel Hall. A list of term dates and any special events can also be included. A copy of the toddler group rules must be given to them to keep.

7. FORMAT
This shapes the way the group will operate each week, and it is important to get it as clear as possible from the outset. Once routines become very established it is surprisingly difficult to change them. Consider: 

  • Registration – it is necessary, to comply with fire regulations, to have a record of everyone in the building at any one time. The easiest way to do this is for each person to sign their name as they enter. However, you may wish to greet each person individually and mark their attendance yourself, so as to learn their names. It can also be combined with getting the drinks orders and soon becomes an opportunity to catch up with news. 
  • Refreshments – these form a natural break and can be used to change the style of the afternoon. Encouraging all the children to sit down together helps contain the crumbs and spillages, and keeps everyone together for singing ‘Happy Birthday’ or making announcements. It also provides a good opportunity for hot drinks to be served to the mums. Consider whether you wish to ‘say grace’. If so, an accompanying ritual helps – hands together, having a ‘prayer drill’, singing it, etc. 
  • Activities – depending upon the age of the children, activities can be a way of teaching Bible stories to the little ones. If this is the case, it is important to make it plain on the introductory leaflets that this will be happening, and that participation is optional. Children love sticking, playing musical instruments, singing and colouring. 
  • Clearing up – set a time about 15 minutes before the end of toddler group to clear away the toys and encourage mums and tots to join in, being careful to thank effusively all help from little ones. In our experience, formulating a rota, however well intended, never works as mums do not turn up when it’s their turn! Accept help as a bonus!

8. PHOTOGRAPHS
Sometimes you may like to use photographs for advertising or to record events. It is necessary to have signed agreement from the parents or guardians to allow this. Be very clear about where the photographs will appear, why and when. Encourage mums to take the form home and discuss it with their spouse or partner.

9. SPECIAL EVENTS
Throughout the year there are opportunities to honour special days and events. Birthdays, and parties can also be used to have guest speakers and share the gospel stories. They are an opportunity to again demonstrate generosity, and give gifts that can be kept at home with a Bible verse, serving as a lasting memory of time spent at the Gospel Hall.

10. TRAINING
Anyone working with children should be Criminal Records Bureau checked. A policy for Child Protection must be agreed by all involved in children’s work of any kind, and made available to all those using the Gospel Hall. Your County Council may request to see a copy of it. Additional training is available for First Aid, Child Protection and Health and Safety via your local Childrens’ Voluntary Service or Early Years and Childcare Service.

This list of ‘things to do’ may seem overwhelming. Take it one step at a time and gradually things will fall into place. The results will be wonderful and could transform not only your spiritual life, but also that of those in the community whom you have never met. The harvest truly is plentiful, and the labourers are few!