Getting the most out of parent and toddler groups

By Christian Today |
Stephen Andrews | Unsplash

A new resource has been launched to support church toddler group leaders in supporting young children's faith and preparing them for school. The booklet, titled 'It's not just a parent and toddler group', has been created by Joanna Gordon, CEO of children's ministry Daniel's Den, Andy Frost of Share Jesus International, and David King, of the Gather Movement.

Christian Today spoke with Joanna to hear about the importance of setting a strong foundation for children and why toddler groups are such a vital part of church ministry.

What sparked the launch of this resource?

Several years ago, Andy, David and I came together to create a resource because a lot of local authorities were talking about school readiness being an issue with children and how toddler groups do so much to develop school readiness and the confidence of children and families.

The value toddler groups bring to society and to children is so important, and we wanted to highlight that. The resource affirms toddler groups in what they are already doing while encouraging people to think about what more we can do.

How important is it that children have a firm foundation before they start school?

I think it's absolutely vital. From my own personal experience, I was a primary school teacher teaching a reception class. I remember the days when parents would push their children into the classroom and say 'Mrs Gordon, give my child some manners.' I remember being really struck at the time thinking, it's not my job as the teacher to give your child manners, it's your job as the parent to lay those foundations that we can build on when they get to school.

This was one of the catalysts for me starting Daniel's Den. I wanted to give parents the confidence and skills to pass on the basics to their children. I think parents are the child's first teacher - and often the best teacher. We are all familiar with headlines nowadays of schools having to do potty training and teach a child how to use a knife and fork. Many of these skills were neglected during the pandemic but I think these basics should be taught at home.

Your toddler group is called Daniel's Den which is taken from the Bible. How important is it for parents to teach their children about faith?

Daniel was a man of prayer and because he prayed he ended up in a den of lions and prayer got him out. It's common for families to pray that God will bless them with a child, and when this child does come it's like being in a den of lions - it's a scary place! At Daniel's Den, we pray for the families connected to us and in terms of faith formation more generally, toddler groups are just a fantastic opportunity to create a space where that can happen.

Creating space with an unconditional welcome is a real expression of God's love, and I think that church-based toddler groups across the nation really create that space for people to know the love of Christ. It is important for children to know and experience the love of Christ in the language that they understand. They should see it in the welcome and hear it in the words. A lot of toddler groups across the nation will do a Bible story and sing Christian songs which again is building up a certain language that is very useful.

Do you feel parent and toddler groups are underestimated in how effective they can be?

Yes, I do think they are grossly undervalued. I've been running a toddler group for 27 years and I also lead a national movement called 1277, which is all about raising the profile of church-based toddler groups, and a phrase that I often hear is 'it is just a toddler group'. I think because toddler groups have been around for so many years they are taken for granted.

I do strongly believe there should be a toddler group within walking distance of every family in the nation. I know that some churches may not have the facilities but another church down the road might have a hall or a space. Through 1277 we organise a national month of prayer in June where we really encourage toddler groups to be profiled in church services so that their value can be shared. Oftentimes, listening to the stories of the families that come is an amazing experience.

Can the local church do more to support parent and toddler groups?

Absolutely! A lot of churches have facilities and a lot of them rent their spaces out to private nurseries, but the building doesn't have to be perfect for families to come, and it doesn't have to be huge. If there is a space for 10 or 12 families that's fantastic, but working with other churches is also really good in terms of building a volunteer team.

Churches should be looking to recruit volunteers from the local community and not just from the congregation because there are people out there. Toddler groups provide a great opportunity for people to come and help and to make a difference, and they are very intergenerational. People get a real sense of belonging and inspiration from volunteering, and who knows where that might lead in terms of belief and being connected?

Toddler groups are such a wonderful expression of church - that safe space where people are welcome, where you can build trust and relationships. What churches have to offer through the love of Christ is amazing and I think it's not our job to judge who should come. It doesn't matter what your background is or what your belief is. To have this safe space for all children, I believe, is vital. I think sometimes we can be a bit narrow in how we advertise what we do and I think creating that wide open door is really important.

Church is usually perceived as just a sermon being delivered before a congregation on a Sunday morning but from what you're saying, inviting toddlers and their families to play and learn with each other is an important extension of church.

Yes, but I think it is so much more than that. A lot of churches have food banks, clothes banks and baby banks. What I love about Jesus' example is that he got alongside people, particularly those on the edge of society, and he was there with practical solutions.

I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the church and the church doesn't do itself any favours sometimes; it can be perceived as being quite judgemental. Toddler groups are so important for the church's mission outreach because imagine if those 30 families that came to the toddler group on a Friday morning turned up at church the following Sunday morning. What would the response of the church members be?

We need to have an openness about how we can connect with these families beyond the toddler group. There are lots of activities churches can do to promote cross pollination and there are already some wonderful examples like Messy Church or something as simple as a family barbecue. I have sat in many sermons where the preacher has preached about reaching out to the community yet never mention or acknowledge the work that the toddler groups are doing. It's very frustrating!

Can you recommend any other resources?

There are some amazing resources for toddler groups around, like the 1277 Facebook groupCare for the Family's Playtime project, and Bible Buds. But having said that, one of the greatest resources are the toddler group leaders themselves. The thing about toddler groups is there is no one size fits all. I love the story of Nehemiah because he really encouraged people to build where they were and because they knew what they had to do, they got on and did it. That's my vision for toddler groups: be who God has called you to be where you are.

For more resources and a copy of the booklet, 'It's Not Just A Parent and Toddler Group', visit the dedicated website here.

Originally published by Christian Today