The purpose of a playgroup is two-fold: Firstly to teach young kids about Jesus while they have fun and secondly to provide a service parents and caregivers want so that they can hear the gospel and get to know Christians. To that end then here are some ideas for setting up a playgroup:
- Get a room
Kids need space – especially on rainy days. If you’re hiring look for room to run; if you’ve got a church hall or similar clear it out for maximum space. If there isn’t any midweek space available look to share the venture with another local church who already have a room: just remember you’re doubling your potential audience. If you have access to outside space as well plan to use it. Even in middling rain and snow it’s an asset (just make certain that it’s easy for carers to prevent their children from going out if they don’t want them to.
- Safety proof everything
It sounds unnecessary because children survive in regular houses but there is no way that you want the-one-time-something-goes-wrong to happen at your playgroup. Pad corners and hard edges, prevent doors from slamming, gate off exits and stairways, keep them out of kitchens and offices etc.
- Do something impressive
Spend on a least one big thing (climbing frame/massive soft blocks/tent and tunnel system/ball pool etc.) that makes kids and parents go WOW and think it’s worth coming rather than staying at home. Messy crafts or games that they don’t have to clear up are also a good idea – food colour spaghetti and let them play in the slime; splash around in shallow water; paint and playdough. Also make some noise; parents will be quite keen to donate toys that sing ad nauseam or bang on the floor and are loved but not suitable for anyone who has neighbours.
- Have a lot of toys
So that sharing isn’t too much of an issue. So they can be rotated and they don’t get boring. So that you can relate them to your theme. So new ones can be brought out half way through a session and revive the playtime. They don’t need to be brand new or particularly exciting and you don’t need to have them all at the beginning. Make it clear to parents you are willing to take donations all year round. Popular toys are vehicles, dolls, dressing up clothes, balls, animals and baby toys (true of all ages!). You could also section off a quiet corner full of books and jigsaws and other calming toys.
- Keep craft simple
You don’t need to do a craft. But if you’re going to it’s not where your prep-time should be going and carers aren’t there to do the craft for their kids so it needs to be small child friendly. One playgroup I went to would bulk buy craft kits that could be put together, if your budget doesn’t stretch to that then join me in the decorate a paper plate or toilet roll camp. In addition to those just mentioned craft must haves are paper, tape, crayons, paper straws, stickers, pipe cleaners, string, glue and googly eyes: it’s amazing what you can make out of those!
Link it, tenuously if needs be, to your Bible story: don’t be afraid to change the words to well known songs to make this happen. You need the support of caregivers so encourage them to come over for story/songtime; putting chairs out for them is usually pretty effective. Have words on a screen, or a large card, for them to sing along, some parents hate joining in so don’t rely on them to be bouncing their children around but keep it as an option.
- Put the Bible at the centre
You may think that I’m stretching ‘link it to your Bible story’ quite far but repetition is important for little ones and that can be kinetic (ie action songs), audible (words in stories songs and instructions), visual (repeated shapes, pictures and actions) and creative (making something from the story). Having a theme that shows up in your stories is great; make a point to mention it. If you’re not up for writing Bible stories in a kid friendly manner yourself don’t worry read your way through: The Big Picture Story Bible, The Jesus Storybook Bible, Cecil and friends or the preschool material we’ve put up. Finally; literally put your Bible story in the middle of your session. It means you won’t miss latecomers or early leavers and your less likely to be interrupted. Also if you have someone who can pull a switcheroo and discretely put new toys out while the kids are entranced by the story that’s ideal!
- Church parents are your biggest asset
They’ll donate toys, help tidy up, tell the stories, lead the songs, invite their friends, make friends with non-church parents, send their nannies along, provide a warm and welcoming atmosphere, bring snacks, lend toys you don’t have but would perfectly fit the theme. Get your parents enthused by the idea and they’ll want others to come along: Our first term has been 90% church families – it’s not how we want it to stay but it’s been great to get them enthused for inviting after the summer break.