Parent-toddler groups can be a bit of a life-line, not only can they be great for our children’s social emotional development but they are also a space to meet other parents and carers with children of the same age. Sometimes it is the only part of the week where you get to speak to other adults – in many small, interrupted and unfinished sentences of course, but it is adult socialisation non-the-less.
When I lived in the UK it was common for churches to run coffee mornings for parents and toddlers. They usually cost you a small donation of a pound or two, you get yourself a rich tea biscuit, even occasionally a bourbon, and you sit on hard plastic chairs and watch the children go about their business of play. I think these groups are beneficial all round, they get you out of the house, they don’t break the bank and you get what might be your first cup of tea of the day.
Then there’s the other kind of parent-toddler group, the only kind I can find here in Singapore, that costs you a good £15 ($30) for an hour of ‘educational enrichment’. The only problem is that they can be so far off the mark that they really aren’t worth the time and money. I’ve tried quite a few of these groups and have never returned.
Why? Because more often than not they are developmentally inappropriate and overstimulating. A group with too much structure, comprised of mainly adult-initiated and adult led activitie; such as mandatory circle and story time, table top crafts and a lot of adult initiated transitions from one activity to the next is simply not appropriate for children under 3. In fact it can be extremely stressful and this is why you often see more than one meltdown.
At this stage I believe it is so important to provide an environment that fosters uninterrupted exploration. Toddlers need ample time, space and resources to direct their own play. Below I talk about 5 common features of parent-toddler groups that I would avoid and what I would look out for instead.
Whole group circle time
A circle or story time where all children are ‘encouraged’ to sit and join in is not developmentally appropriate at this stage as they simply do not have the attention skills to sit for prolonged periods of time. Toddlers should be free to choose whether they come and sit with an adult and join in with songs and stories. They should in no way be forced or bribed to sit down. A circle time where an adult leads some songs or a story but where other provision is still accessible to them is much more appropriate. This way children can join in if they wish but they can also carry on with whatever activity they were engaged in before or have the option to leave after a little while if they wish.
If you have ever found yourself sat on a child’s sized chair at the craft table covered in glitter, surrounded by templates and split pins and finishing your child’s ‘work’ then you’ll probably have realised how little this activity actually engages them. Sometimes you get lucky and they become engrossed in some minute detail, like applying copious amounts of glue or picking through the googly eyes but none of this has much to do with the actual craft itself. Usually it is to do with exploration of the materials. Crafts stifle a toddlers creativity whereas open ended art activities allow children an opportunity to experience different materials and experiment with them in their own way. ‘Art’ should be much more of a sensory experience at this stage. Yes it’s usually a lot messier but it’s a lot more beneficial and also takes a lot less time for an adult to set up. Once children have the fine motor skills and attention span then crafts (alongside open ended art provision) are just fine.
If the session involves a lot of interaction with adults rather than with other children then this is missing the point. We want children to be able to self-direct their play and interact with other children. This is how children learn to play both independently and together. Children need opportunities to problem solve and figure things out for themselves and they cannot do that if an adult is always there showing them their way of doing things. It is our job to step back and observe and offer support, and only the bare minimum required, when it is really needed.
Transitions are a natural part of our child’s day, for example they must transition from play to lunch and from play to bed. Transitions no matter how big or small can be difficult and stressful for young children and it is important they learn how to cope with them, but all in good time. I attended a gym group that, over a one hour session, included 10 transitions between adult-led activities. My head was spinning so I can only imagine how the toddlers felt. Each transition involved the activity being packed away and the children being herded to the next. As you can imagine there were children running in all directions, there was crying and screaming, it was chaos. Children need to be prepared for an upcoming transition, they need us to slow right down, give them ample warning and time to finish an activity and they need lots of support, such as modelling and a song to mark the transition. There will inevitably be transitions in a session but these should be sensitively planned and kept to a minimum.
Children make noise, that’s a given and thats what should dominate a group session. Not loud adult conversation or blaring music. One group I attended played a barney the dinosaur soundtrack from start to finish. Not only did I feel like I’d stepped into a time warp, I also came out with a migrain. Some quiet classical/instrumental music playing in the background is appropriate but still not necessary.
Groups that genuinly value child-led exploration and play can actually be hard to come by, I know of a few but they are a little out of our price range and a little too far away (factoring travel time into the experience is also something you must consider) . For now we are sticking with our small weekly playdate with 4 children Althea’s age. Five children in a prepared environment (you really don’t need a lot of resources to achieve this) for an hour or so can provide a much less stressful opportunity for them to work on their social emotional skills. And you’re guaranteed that cup of tea.
I’d love to hear about your own experience of parent-toddler groups and what kind of session works well for your toddler.