reflections on running a church toddler group (1)

This post is long overdue. In September 2012, two friends and I set up a new toddler group at church. In July, I handed over leadership to one of these friends, having been expecting to be relocating, and intended to write some reflections on what I’d learned through its leadership. However, it’s taken me three months to eventually get round to it, and my friend Izzy is now well established as the new leader. (Is there any point apologising for my tardiness anymore? You’ve come to expect it, right?)

Tuesday Tots was set up because we wanted to bless families in York with a safe, joyful environment in which children could play and parents could connect. From the start, we were keen to make it a place where our faith could be talked about in an open way with those who wanted to know more. But here lies a delicate balance: how do we incorporate our faith without ramming it into people’s lives? Because, after all, families don’t come to these sorts of groups to discuss religion – they come so that their kids will learn how to socialise and get to play with different toys. Parents come to gain some adult company, make new friends, and receive support in their parenting endeavours. They come because to stay in the house all day with a small child can be unbearable.

But they don’t come to hear about Jesus. Why would they?

And yet if we believe anything as Christian parents, it’s that God is interested in our parenting, that He longs to refresh us after sleepless nights and comfort us when we feel sad about some aspect of our child’s development or attitude. He longs to wrap His Fatherly arms around us and tell us we’re doing a great job, that our children (and us) bring Him such immeasurable delight, that He knows the sacrifices we make daily for our children – and that He’s hugely glorified by them.

In other words, to try and encourage families using just our own resources can only go so far. Ultimate refreshment, peace – or whatever these families need – comes from God.

Through hearsay and experience, I know that some church toddler groups make those with no faith feel pressurized and isolated – whilst others tiptoe around their faith, assuming that those who come to their group couldn’t possibly ever want to know about something so stressful and disengaging as the gospel (you know, the one that tells us we’re unconditionally loved and forgiven by the grace of God…), and if they do want to know, well they’ll just work it out for themselves through us being nice to them.

No – from the very start, the Tuesday Tots leadership team was clear: we wanted the group to be an oasis for families in our city, somewhere they would find acceptance, value, encouragement, peace, joy, hope, love and coffee in unlimited quantities. And, because these things come from God (yep, even coffee), we wanted there to be opportunities for those who were interested in God to find out more.

Looking back over the last year-and-a-bit, it seems the initial vision has worked. Our families know we’re Christians. (For to be secretive about this would be deceptive, and deception to those we’re serving would be unthinkably disrespectful.) We start with a sensory/interactive Bible story, which seeks to engage the little ones whilst making our beliefs clear as crystal to the grown-ups. But those who aren’t interested just rock up later – no sweat. They don’t mind that we’re doing a Bible story, and we don’t mind that they don’t want to hear it. We don’t want to force our beliefs onto people: we don’t need to. God’s pretty good at changing lives.

There’s also a lending library for the grown-ups available throughout the morning. I think it’s an incredible resource. We parents often feel a bit brain-dead in these early years of parenthood. We may be off work (temporarily or permanently), and not feeling like our minds are being engaged by anything much. Free books are a great way to say “Look, we don’t think you’re stupid. We reckon you might be looking for something to get stuck into for you. Go on, take a book and carve out a few minutes of luxurious reading time for yourself. You deserve it!” Many of the books are to do with marriage and parenting. Some are novels. Quite a few are Christian books. Again, there’s an opportunity to explore faith. But unforced. Jesus didn’t force anyone to believe.

I currently have the privilege of running an Alpha course at Tuesday Tots. It’s something we were praying about for a while, and suddenly everything came together to be able to offer it to our grown-ups this term. Funnily enough, once we started to advertise, it seemed that quite a few of our grown-ups wanted to do it. What do you know – God actually has a decent sense of timing.

The delicate question of “How Christian do we make the group?” is one we are constantly thinking about, chatting through and praying over. I think we have it right, in that our regulars include Christians, Atheists, and everything i nbetween – but we’re always keen for feedback. Ultimately, our aim is to bless families – not to preach at them. But if we can be a forum in which those who are interested can learn more, then brilliant!

I have just added a ‘1’ to the title of this blog post. Oh dear. There will be more to come, but I’ve just spotted the word count. Over and out for now.

Advertisements

cheap spiritual tat

This year, for the first time, we allowed Mister to choose how he spent his £10 birthday money. Last week we trotted off to the shop and perused the toy section, looking at the options.

I was keen for Mister to spend his money on a small box of Lego, which I felt offered good value for money. He was keen for an overpriced plastic Monsters University toy with no useful features, as far as I could see, apart from hinged arms.

“Don’t you want some more Lego? I just think you’ll play with it for longer, it’ll last forever, and you might get bored of that monster… Think of all the new things you could create with the Lego!”

But no – Mister had made his mind up – and the monster was bought. He didn’t let it out of his sight all day – but, shortly before teatime, he let out a cry and ran up to me.

“Mum – I was just jumping him up and down, and the teeth fell out.”

Sure enough, there was a hollow space where Jonny’s teeth had been, and I could see them inside the toy, impossible to get out. The toy was nothing but overpriced tat, made from cheap materials and not designed to last.

This little incident made me wonder how often I reject what my heavenly Father offers me, opting instead for cheap, spiritual tat which won’t last and definitely won’t satisfy. He offers me an intimate, satisfying relationship – and I replace it with the rhythms of organised religion, going to church on autopilot and trying to hit a target with my personal devotional times, like it’s some sort of competition. As my Rock, God offers me total security – and, instead, I opt to put my faith in material possessions. He offers me grace – yet time and time again I replace it with my own works – the cheap, spiritual tat of trying to earn God’s favour through doing good things.

Of course, I could have insisted that Mister buy the Lego. It’s a good quality toy, designed to last, with infinite creative possibilities. I imagine Mister would get several years’ use out of it. But that wasn’t the point. We gave him the choice because we love him, and want him to learn about money. How else will he learn if he’s not allowed to make mistakes, and live by them?

God never insists that we spend our lives on Him. He loves us too much for that – and He wants us to make the choice ourselves. Each time I choose a cheaper god, I am ultimately dissatisfied. For every wrong choice I make, I’m learning to make better choices in the future.

We returned the broken toy and exchanged it – not for Lego (to my disappointment) but for Lightning McQueen and Mater. They’ve lasted nearly a week so far, so here’s hoping…

david and goliath – a song for preschoolers

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll be well aware of my slightly disturbing obsession with writing simple Bible songs for my kids. Many kids’ worship songs are too long and wordy for small children (of preschool age) to sing and/or understand. And I often find that when my kids are learning about a particular Bible story, it’s handy to have a song to go with it!

Now, it may be the blood or gore or whatever, but my 4 year old boy has been really into the story of David and Goliath recently. So I came up with this little ditty, sung to the tune of ‘Miss Polly has a dolly’. If you don’t know this tune (I didn’t, prior to having kids), give me a shout – and if enough of you shout, I may just post a little video of me singing it with my kids. Don’t get your hopes up.

 

Goliath was a soldier who was big, big, big

He could break several soldiers like a twig, twig, twig

He said, “Come and fight me if you dare, dare, dare”

But all of God’s soldiers were too scared, scared, scared.

 

David was a shepherd who was small, small, small,

But he knew that God could do it all, all, all.

He took five stones from the river bed, bed, bed –

And the first one made Goliath fall down dead, dead, dead!

 

Actions encouraged…I will leave them to your imagination!

robot party on a budget

A few weeks ago, I challenged myself to spend no more than £30 on my daughter’s 2nd birthday party. (You can read how I did it here.) We recently held a robot-themed party for Mister’s 4th birthday and, again, I wanted to see if I could do it for less than £30.

(A small aside: what a cool theme for a party! I take no credit – it was all Mister’s idea, and I’m so glad he chose it! It gave me plenty to work with.)

2013-10-05 18.12.45

The main factor working against my low budget was the number of people attending. Missy had 11 people to her party – Mister had 20. This wasn’t entirely deliberate: I invited 14, expecting there’d be the usual couple of declines (there weren’t), and forgetting about siblings. Last year, Mister’s friends’ siblings were mainly babies – this year they’re fully-grown toddlers, keen to be involved in every aspect of the party. In other words, they now ‘count’.

So we arrive at 20. And I am pretty sure I can’t run a party for £1.50 a head. I’m going to have to pull out all the stops if I want it to be under £50, let alone £30. Let’s take the party step by step:

Decoration (£2)

Mister now has birthday nostalgia bunting, just like Missy’s, made from his old clothes – so this provides free decoration year after year.

2013-10-09 19.54.54

2013-10-09 19.55.01

2013-10-09 19.55.08

I found a stash of balloons in a cupboard, including (bizarrely) some ‘4th birthday’ ones. I took some robot pictures Mister and I had made, and made them into door signs.

2013-10-05 18.12.37

The food had silly names with a robot/electronic theme, like “Chicken plug-its” and “Hard drive egg sandwiches”, and the labels were handmade.

I made junk robots to plonk on tables:

2013-10-05 16.41.35

as well as a larger one to welcome guests at the door:

2013-10-05 18.11.56

2013-10-05 18.12.03

These cost me nothing. I could have decorated them more elaborately, I guess, but I liked them rustic!

The tablecloth was reused from Missy’s party, and the plates were a mishmash of ones we owned, as well as some paper plates I bought (£2). No one seemed to mind the random selection! Napkins and cups were those we already owned. As I mentioned in the post about Missy’s party, themed tableware can really rack up the cost of a party – but does it make any difference to the kids’ enjoyment? Probably not.

Activities (£12.19)

We kept Missy’s party pretty simple, but 4 year olds (or, more specifically, twenty 1-6 year olds) probably need a little more stimulus in order to avoid a Lord of the Flies type outcome by the end. Likewise, they need the option not to take part, as this age group tends to have strong opinions about what they do and do not want to do, and of course the point of a party is to ENJOY yourself, not feel pressurized! The first option was to make a robot waffle, something which actually everyone opted to do. A success! The waffles cost £1.99 and the sweets were free, left over from decorating Mister’s robot cake. This is allowed, right? The cake is out of budget, after all. The frosting was left over from Missy’s cake pops a few weeks ago. (Keeps for 30 days. Offspring’s birthdays 19 days apart. Will remember this for future years.)

The second activity, which some kids loved and some didn’t touch, was to make a robot mask. This was time-consuming, as I had to design the masks and cut the foam. But cost-wise, I only had to buy elastic (£2) as I used coloured foam sheets which we already had in our craft cupboard. The results were pretty good!

2013-10-05 17.31.02

At this point, I got out some robot tattoos, and most kids were keen (nay, desperate) to have one on their arm. Even one Dad joined in the fun. I got 24 for £3.95 on eBay, and although this was over 10% of my intended budget, I think it was money well spent for the novelty!

We then trooped outside to decorate some larger robot costumes I’d made earlier in the week.

2013-10-05 15.48.53

These were entirely free – boxes from a Freecycler, features made from recycled bits and bobs, paint from Mister and Missy’s supply. Lots of the kids enjoyed being able to paint the robots – and those who weren’t keen seemed happy to play in the garden. Once the robots looked nice and colourful, the kids got to try them on!

2013-10-05 15.59.37

I took lots of photos, including something resembling a group photo (for Pete’s sake – it’s hard enough getting one small child to stand still for a photo, never mind 20). When we eventually headed inside for games, I left the mob to Al while I printed out the photos and put one in each party bag – a free party bag filler!

The games were Pass the Parcel (two parcels, each with a prize from the Pound shop, plus sweets in the other layers which cost £1.25) and Musical robots (again, prize from the pound shop, and leftover sweets for everyone else). This was the bit where perhaps we needn’t have had any structured activities – by this stage, the kids were having fun just messing around, and although they took part in the games, they weren’t really necessary. But in my world, a party isn’t a party without Pass the Parcel – the question is: if we’d missed it out, would the kids have noticed?!

Food (£15.99)

With 20 mouths to feed, I knew I was going to have to be really canny with the food to keep it under budget. I stuck to several principles, learned from experience:

1) we already have a lot of food in our house. (I worked cheese, egg/mayonnaise, crisps and chicken nuggets into the menu, all things we already had.)

2) kids (or anyone, for that matter) never eat as much as you think they’re going to, especially at a party. (I kept the quantities moderate, knowing I could always make more sandwiches if we needed. We didn’t.)

3) I shopped without the kids, so was able to take my time and pick up reduced-price foods about to go out of date (obviously OK until the party date).

Then – because I am probably insane – I cut melon in the shape of robots:

2013-10-05 20.05.09

This was the cake: a shoddy mess when up close, but from a distance looked pretty good.

2013-10-05 00.18.35

And, anyway, surely we only ever make our kids’ birthday cakes for that jaw-dropping “Ah!” when they first see what you’ve created for them. Anything else – including the cake holding together till the end of the party – is surely a bonus. I’m pleased to say mine did – just. (And in case you’ve forgotten: the cake is out of budget so THERE.)

Party bags (£3.35)

These had to be majorly economical. To me, spending £1 on each bag would have been challenge enough – but that would have cost me two-thirds of my overall budget! So I had to be clever. Firstly, I didn’t do party bags for siblings. I don’t think they minded – they got cake, plus any waffle and/or mask they’d made. So I ended up with 14 bags to put together.

I’d wanted to make lollies and sherbet for a while, since spotting the recipe in a new cookbook, and remembering how great they were when I was a kid. Would they be a cheap-but-nice item for the bags? Cheap, because I made them from blackberries (from our garden) and sugar (which we already had). The sherbet was sugar, citric acid (left over from elderflower cordial) then I only had to buy lemon flavouring and yellow food colouring (£2.57 total).

2013-10-03 15.14.24

Of course, they might taste disgusting – I didn’t have any left over to try (or to make Mister try), so if you’re reading this and your child has heaved after eating one, then oops and sorry. I had to spend 78p on two extra lollies, as I didn’t do my sums right. Grrr. (It’s been many years since A-Level Maths and, to be fair, the syllabus didn’t include calculating party bag quantities, it was more useful stuff like surds.)

2013-10-03 22.17.03

Next, I put in the robot masks (or kit to make one) and waffles, utilising the well-worn trick of getting kids to make their own party bag contents, as well as the photo/s from earlier in the party. Finally, I found a few bits and bobs stashed away (bubbles, curly straws, stickers, hats) so each child got one of those, not forgetting a slab of birthday cake.

And the bags themselves? Upcycled from old Disney and cbeebies magazines.

2013-10-03 22.22.02

I could have bought all the party bags for £2, but this is a considerable chunk of a £30 budget for something which can be made for free.

Total cost: £33.53

And before you complain that I went over budget…

…since I was a teensy bit under for Missy’s party (by £3.77), I allowed myself to add this to the budget for Mister’s (he did have more guests, after all), meaning that still, overall, I’ve spent under £60 for the two parties.

Grand total cost of both parties: £59.76

Epic win.

Disclaimer: if you’ve got to the end of this post feeling slightly drained and exhausted and like you’ve been reading the diary of a Supermum, let me assure you I am SO FAR from this accolade, it’s untrue. I don’t even clean windowsills. This party took months of dreaming about, weeks of making, and one week of very late nights in order to put together. It is the reason this blog hasn’t been updated for ages. There are bags under my eyes and overflowing laundry baskets in every room. It takes a certain amount of insanity to put this much effort into what is essentially just TWO HOURS, and I am very much teetering on the edge of Doodah Land. It is not pretty, not healthy and definitely not something to envy, so to any jealousy lurking, I say: begone with you!