When Boy Child was just two and I was heavily pregnant with Girl Child I started attending a toddler group. By the time Girl Child was a few months old it was threatened with closure because the lady who had been running it was moving. With a baby and a toddler to look after I wasn’t all that keen on the idea of running a toddler group but started doing a few bits to keep it open. Those few bits grew every week until, somehow, I was running the group, despite never actually agreeing to it! I ran the group for nearly three years and, despite my initial misgivings, I actually loved it. When I first took over I searched online but didn’t find a lot of information. That’s why I’ve decided to create a how to post on starting a toddler group for other people who are interested in running one.
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Choosing a suitable venue
A good venue will be somewhere it’s easy for parents to come to. Ideally you want somewhere that has a decent sized car park and is on a bus route. In terms of facilities you need a nice open space for running around and chairs for adults to sit on. Built in baby changing facilities are great but I wouldn’t discount a venue that didn’t have them. If necessary, you can set up a changing area in a corner of the hall. Baby and toddler groups have a lot of stuff and you won’t really want to cart it backwards and forwards, so a key priority is negotiating a storage area you can use. The most important thing when running a toddler group is, of course, a kitchen so that you can make teas and coffees!
Price will be a big factor in your choice. Ask the venue owner if they offer lower rates for non profit or community organisations. You could also look at partnering with another organisation that has space, for example a local preschool, nursery or children’s centre.
Equipment you need for Starting a Toddler group
Toys, toys and more toys! You’ll want to try and lay your hands on a good range of toys including puzzles, small world toys, games, building blocks, a toy kitchen, dolls (ideally ones without hair as they end up in a terrible state), books, educational toys, dressing up clothes and walkers. If you have the space, ride on toys are really popular. I would avoid soft toys because they usually end up pretty disgusting after they’ve been dragged around and chewed by a variety of children! If you plan to have a baby area you’ll need some mats to make the floor comfortable, bouncy seats, play mats and baby toys. Nearly new sales can be great for picking up toys for your group, check out Mum2mum Market and the NCT. You can also ask in local Facebook groups if anyone has anything to donate.
If the hall doesn’t provide them, you’ll need equipment to make hot drinks and you may also want to use plastic cups and plates for the children. A basic set of craft supplies including, crayons, paper, paint, paper plates and brushes also helps if you plan to do some activities. Hopefully your venue will have tables that you can use, child sized ones are great but many groups manage with full size ones.
If you’re planning on doing some singing then the children love instruments. I would suggest only having them out for singing time otherwise you’ll have to listen to them for the whole session!
The Practicalities of Starting a Toddler group
Unless you are covered by the venues insurance, you’ll need to get your group insured. Morton Michel and Markel both offer policies as do the Pre School Learning Alliance. Shop around to make sure you get the price.
Many groups ask parents to sign in on arrival. This is useful as it provides a register in the event of a fire as well as a record of attendance numbers. You may also want to ask people for their email addresses so that you can contact them about the group. If you do that you will need to be aware of data protection regulations.
Health and safety are important when running a toddler group and you’ll need to do a risk assessment for your group. This sounds daunting but basically just involves considering all aspects of your venue and what will happen at your group and highlighting any potential risks. You then need to examine each one to consider how it can be dealt with or minimised.
You might want to consider creating a buggy parking area, perhaps in the foyer or a corner of the hall. This will stop muddy wheels from making a mess where the children are playing.
Dealing with the money
You’ll need to decide what you are going to charge people to come to the group. Many toddler groups offer the first session free and this can be useful to get new people to give the group a try. Check out other groups in your area to see what they’re charging, around the £2 mark is quite common. You’ll also need to consider your pricing structure. Some groups charge per family and some per child, offering a sibling discount.
You’ll have to work out how many people will need to come to your group for you to make enough to cover your costs. Is that number realistic? This is how you’ll decide if the group is viable. If you would need more families attending than you can fit in the hall or you would need to charge significantly more than other groups, then it definitely isn’t going to work.
Marketing your toddler group
It’s no good running a toddler group that no one comes to so you need to get the word out. It’s a good idea to set up a facebook page for the group. You can then join local parenting groups and let the members know about your toddler group. You can also ask your friends to spread the word on social media.
It’s useful to create some posters and even flyers for your group. These can then be taken to local shops, libraries, children’s centres, Pre schools and other child friendly businesses. Most places are happy to display posters for non profit groups.
You can also contact the local press about your group. Community activities are often of interest to them. It can help if you can suggest an angle like tackling social isolation amongst mothers.
The Structure of your Group
You’ll need to consider how long your group will run for, one and half to two hours is a common length. Next you’ll need to consider what you’ll do in that time. Some groups just have free play for the whole session, others are a bit more structured. Here are some of the things that can feature:
Hot drinks for grown ups
Snack for children
Circle time (with songs or parachute games)
Tidy up time
Craft or messy play activities are usually best done early in the session when children are generally most ready to focus. It also gives you plenty of time to get it tidied up. You’ll need to decide if you’re going to make the hot drinks yourself every week or if you are going to set up a rota and ask the parents to take a turn.
For the children’s snacks you’ll need to decide how formal you want to make it. At some groups the children just grab a biscuit and carry on playing. At others they are encouraged to sit down and share a snack together. Don’t forget to consider allergies when planning for snack time. Make sure you hang on to packets so that parents can check for allergens if they need to. If you have children at your group with severe allergies you may need to put very strict rules in to place about food.
Many groups end with circle time. Parents and children sit down together in a circle and usually sing some some songs. You might want to use instruments if you have them. Children might take turns choosing songs or you might have a set list you always do. Parachute games can also work well at this time. At most groups, parents and children are encouraged to help tidy up at the end. It’s good for the children to experience team work and they usually love it.
Support for Starting a Toddler group
The Pre School Learning Alliance offers support for people running toddler groups, including a membership package. If you’re just starting out you could consider approaching you local branch of the NCT who may support you in opening a toddler group under its umbrella. Other potential sources of support or partnership include your local children’s centre, nurseries, Preschool’s and libraries.
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