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Church should value its work with toddlers more, says ministry group

19 March 2024

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THE tendency to downplay the value of toddler groups has been challenged in a new booklet that highlights the vital part that they play in preparing children for school.

The booklet, It’s not ‘just’ a parent and toddler group, has been compiled by a number of organisations brought together by Dave King, the strategic director for Gather Movement, an organisation that works with churches seeking to transform communities. The group including Kids Matter, Daniel’s Den, Care for the Family, 1277, 5 Minus, and Love and Joy Ministries.

It encourages those running groups to stop prefacing references to their work with “just” (“I’m just putting out some toys”), and sets out 12 aspects of school-readiness to which the groups can contribute.

When it comes to developing independence, for example: “It’s not just involving families in tidying away at the end of the session; it’s helping children to know they can look after the toys, too.” Singing action songs and playing “Simon says” is “helping children to follow simple instructions”.

“We can often underrate and downplay the value of what we do.” the booklet says. “Beneath the surface of our noisy, messy, and chaotic sessions there is all sorts of hidden treasure. Children are learning how to interact with others, developing communication skills, gaining resilience, growing in curiosity and much more. Before we know it, the children in our groups are leaving us and starting to put on a school uniform five mornings a week. We’ve helped them prepare for that.”

The booklet is accompanied by a summary of academic evidence concerning school-readiness compiled by Narissa Samani, research assistant at Kids Matter. Both are available free to download, alongside posters.

On Tuesday, Jo Gordon, founder and chief executive of Daniel’s Den, a charity that works to promote the value of the parent-and-toddler groups, said that the resource was not about “a guilt trip or another thing to have to do, but an affirming document”. The message to churches was to “value what is going on in your church hall in the middle of the week”.

Some church leaders had a negative perception of groups, she said, associating them with mess or demands for more storage space. Or leaders felt that, because children were not present on a Sunday, their church did not have children.

“The children are getting ready for school. The Vicar’s getting ready for a lie-down”

“Toddler groups are right up there in terms of missional impact in your local communities,” she said. “The opportunity that you have with all those local families at that vulnerable age of new babies and little ones. . . It’s really important that these youngest children and their families receive a welcome. For me, the primary thing of a toddler group is that unconditional welcome to all.”

While many pre-school groups charge fees — within a ten-mile radius of a Daniel’s Den group in Brent, only three per cent cost less than five pounds a session — most church-rung groups are free or low-cost.

A number of recent reports and surveys have raised concerns about whether children have acquired the skills necessary to start primary school.

Last month, the early-years charity, Kindred2, published the results of a poll of 1000 primary-school teachers and 1000 parents of children in Reception. The teachers reported that 37 per cent of children were unable to listen and respond to basic instructions; 46 per cent were unable to sit still, and 38 per cent found it hard to play or share with other children. Ninety per cent of teachers said that at least one child in their class was not toilet-trained.

Among parents, 43 per cent had not heard of the idea of school readiness and the connection to developmental milestones before their child was four; while 22 per cent said that they had never had a visit from a health visitor. Health visitors numbers have fallen by 40 per cent since 2015. More than half of teachers and parents said that lack of school readiness was caused by parents not thinking it was their job to prepare their child for school.

Research has also explored the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. In its annual report in 2022, Ofsted reported that the pandemic had had an “negative impact on children’s personal, social and emotional development. Some children’s social skills are less advanced than they might otherwise have been at their age. These include the skills needed to make friends, to become more confident and to communicate with adults. They have missed out on socialising with other children and adults, and lack confidence during social interactions.”

It has also reported that “the lack of physical activity, including access to large-scale play equipment, during the pandemic has meant that some children have not developed the gross motor skills they need.”

A 2021 survey of childcare providers and parents, carried out by the House of Commons Petitions Committee, which gathered 8730 responses, found that 93 per cent disagreed that they had been able to access baby-and-toddler groups in the previous 12 months.

The pandemic had had a “huge impact”, Mrs Gordon said. While groups had faced challenges, including a lack of contact details for families who had attended and changing national guidelines, many had done an “amazing job” of responding creatively, including by going online and meeting outdoors.

Once groups reopened, she had observed that babies and toddlers “came in as if they had always been there”.

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