Relaunching the ark

Restarting children’s groups after lockdown

As communities emerge from the pandemic, local churches have a vital role to play. In the first of a regular series of posts looking at how our parishes are bouncing back, refreshing and reinventing themselves, a families minister in Berkshire describes the joy of restarting children and families work in the parish.

This week the sound of ‘sleeping bunnies’, raisins squishing into floorboards and crashing cozy coupe’s was back in Twyford, Berkshire. 

Our much-loved toddler group, Noah’s Ark, run by volunteers from across our LEP (Local Ecumenical Partnership), closed its doors last February for lockdown and as the difficult months of the pandemic wore on, the faithful team felt it was time to hang up their hats.

This left me with a happy dilemma. Already running the Bumps & Babies session, how would I fit another morning group into my bulging schedule as a part-time Children & Families Worker? I’d been listening to the mums of pandemic-born babies telling me either via Zoom (during lockdown) or at our carefully planned support groups that they were enormously grateful for a place to meet. They were lonely, they were bored, and they were worried about how their babies would adjust to wider society! The toddler group inbox was full of enquiries about how and when Noah’s Ark would reopen.

An online survey on the community Facebook page was a great way to find out what sort of group families wanted, and it showed people that Noah’s Ark wasn’t forgotten. We hit our permitted limit of 40 free responses to the survey (!) and the answer to our big question was clear – yes, the community valued Noah’s Ark enormously and wanted a toddler group back in action ASAP! The survey was also a great way to test the appetite for introducing some more Christian content into the sessions. ‘Would you be ok with a weekly Bible story?’… ‘Would you consider joining an informal communion service at the end of term?’

Toys, volunteers, safeguarding training

The toddler team owned a fantastic range of resources and enjoyed occupying the whole of the URC’s premises. After a recce with my baby-mats and beanbags, I figured out that by changing the layout, we could accommodate bumps and babies in one room and the toddlers in the main hall. I could recruit one big team to work across both groups, and it would take place on one morning a week. I’d try to find enough people so that volunteers could help fortnightly. If we didn’t get sufficient offers, we wouldn’t open.

The first sign that God was backing the plan was when the offers of help flowed in. At a time when church attendance everywhere was slim, I was pleasantly surprised that stalwarts of our congregations were keen to be part of a fresh initiative. Mums with children starting school wanted something positive in their diary as they find their way in a new routine. One volunteer heard my appeal at the family service after missing the train to her usual church, and another who came forward that day was there to organise her baby’s baptism!

Over the summer, we checked the toy cupboard with some trepidation, but after clearing 18 months of spiderwebs and a thorough sponge down, the kit was ready. A successful bid to our local community charity enabled investment in some fresh resources such as a tuff tray for messy play and a teepee for a quiet zone. I’d also asked for funds for decor in the baby room, as our new venue has less natural light and a more old-fashioned feel to the room we’ve vacated up the road at St Mary’s.

After a team meeting, training by our fabulous parish safeguarding officer, and prayer, opening day dawned. Arriving in the pouring rain, we joked that it was a good day to relaunch an ark.

But would the weather keep people away or bring them flooding in?

Everybody there was excited

By 10.15 we had our answer – 45 babies, toddlers and their carers enjoying our first meeting. Everybody there was excited; the mums who I knew from last term’s baby sessions, those who’d been babies and were now old enough to join the toddlers, the childminder who’s had nowhere to take her charges, and the volunteers who hadn’t been sure if my promise of high demand would come true!

Our singing voices were a bit rusty, the buggy parking got in a muddle and we’ve already smashed a cafetiere, but the palpable joy and new beginnings overruled our teething troubles. ‘Yesterday was excellent thank you so much for all the hard work the team put into making it such a wonderful group’

‘It was wonderful to see Jack feeling confident and happy playing alongside other children, engaging with the story and dancing along to the songs. We’re already looking forward to next week.’

Alfie proudly shows his rainbow craft, before hearing the Noah’s Ark story at snack time.

Looking forward

Tots on Tuesdays is going to be hard work. But it’s fuelled by hope, love and homemade cake, and it’s meeting a genuine need in our community. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that on a soggy autumn morning?

Ele Buckley
Children & Families Worker, Benefice of Ruscombe & Twyford with Hurst

‘Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.’
– Genesis 9:16

Diocesan advice and ideas on ministry with children, young people and families

For advice and ideas on ministry with children, young people and families, sign up to Generations. It’s a monthly mailing from our Discipleship Enablers – read the September issue and subscribe.