The prospect of going to playgroups for the first time can be unfamiliar to new parents and more daunting still for dads who are less likely to have already been involved in parenting groups, such as NCT follow-on meet ups. Playgroups are, it’s true, mostly occupied by mums but there are good reasons to try them out:

  • Social contact – if you’re at home with your child all the time, contact with other children is good for them and you can indulge in some rare adult conversation and get to know other local parents. And yes, dads, you may well find other fathers doing the same.
  • Routine – groups and classes give structure and routine to your day with the little one(s). They know what to expect and the day focuses around it.
  • Amazing energy burn off – my toddler conks out after every session. That’s nap-time sorted.
  • Fun – they’ll be masses more toys than even the most indulgent parents will buy for their child, you can get involved in the activities and there’s generally less mess to clear up at the end. Win all around!

You might be wondering where all these playgroups are. To the 9-5 worker they’re all but invisible but during the days towns and villages up and down the country are abuzz with toddlers having a great time. So how do you find them and how does it all work? Read on, for the dad’s survival guide to playgroups contains the answers you seek…

Types of playgroups and toddler activity sessions

There are no shortage of parents wanting toddler groups and classes and consequently there’s loads of choice. I reckon there are seven types of groups but they’re all largely focused on largely the same thing – keeping little ones busy and happy.

Children’s centre groups

Children’s centres are a hub of activities for different parenting groups. They help parents and children with specific needs, however they generally also host at least weekly sessions where all parents and toddlers are invited to come and play for an hour or two, free-of-charge. A range of indoor and outdoor toys for unstructured play with a snack time and song time is a typical format.

For dads, some children centres also host sessions specifically for working parents or dads specifically, often on a Saturday.

Children’s centres can be helpful for finding further information and support in your area. My local children’s centre had a helpful booklet for dads, packed with activity ideas to get involved with your child to support areas of key development.

Council groups

Your local council may also host groups and activities in your area, often held in libraries. Yes it may sound odd to have dozens of toddlers in a library but it’s very common. These may include singing sessions and story time and are typically free-of-charge.

Parent-led playgroups

There’s quite a number of different types of parent-led baby and toddler groups. Some are run by specific individuals, which others are more of a group with the organiser passing from person to person as members join and leave. Given these are arranged locally, the specifics can vary, however it’s common for there to be a small charge to cover venue hire – often around a couple of pounds – and the format one of free play with snacks and singing time for children plus refreshments for parents.

Nursery toddler groups

Many pre-school nurseries run weekly or occasional toddler sessions. The idea is that some of the children attending with go on to attend the nursery, although this isn’t normally a requirement. The toddler groups benefit from the trained staff and extensive resources of the nursery. Free-play, snack and singing times are common and special events may also feature.

Local class franchises

Certain activities are hosted nationwide through a network of local franchisees. The largest of these is probably Tumbletots, although quite a number are in operation, often based around specific activities, sport or music. Normally you pay for these by term, and many classes are around £5 – 6 each. Trial classes are available, often by pre-arrangement. Here are some of the classes I’ve seen listed:

Disclaimer: I can’t comment on the quality of any of the classes linked to.

Individual-run classes

Often in a similar format to some of the franchised classes, there are many classes run in a specific area by a single person. The sessions we’ve attended have been music based, involving stories and movement by the children. Classes tend to last around 45 minutes with separate classes often operating for babies and toddlers. Cost is £5-6 per class and it can vary whether it’s a drop-in format or pay-per-term. Where you do pay by the term, you can normally attend a free trial class, which may need to be pre-arranged.

Church or other faith group

Many churches run toddler groups – it’s worth distinguishing these from toddler groups that just happen to use churches as a venue. Church run toddler groups often include some faith-based content such as religious stories or songs and may encourage involvement in the church’s broader activities. Not all do this, however if you’re not a member of the church it’s worth trialling to see whether you’re comfortable with the format, as not everyone is.

Finding activities in your area

There’s no place that lists absolutely every group running but the lists below we help you track down what’s local to you. Do be careful when using online directories, as often the information regularly reviewed and can be out of date.

Family Toddler group listingsInformation Service – each council operates an online directory of services for parents. They typically include many of the groups and activities on offer to you and these can typically be browsed by area of category.

Netmums – has one of the better online directories of groups and also awards the best groups in an area.

Local parenting magazines – often available in your local library, we have bi-monthly toddler and family magazines in our areas, which are a great source of information about what’s on. As adverts are paid for, they general show the chargeable classes rather than free toddler groups.

Local magazines – you may receive free papers or magazines that include a community directory, which may include adverts for toddler groups.

Noticeboards – Community notice boards are becoming more common in indie-style coffee shops as well as in other local shops. These can be good for details of more local groups, which don’t otherwise advertise. Groups do also sometimes advertise on street lamps.

Try them out

Each group or class is different, so it’s worth trying out a selection to see both what your child and you find most beneficial. This is easy with the drop-in style of groups, while with termly classes you just need to drop them a line to organise a taster session.

If you’re looking to get to know other parents in your area, you’ll probably find playgroups the best option, as you have opportunity to chat while your child plays, whereas the classes are focused on the activity for the duration. If you particularly like a group, those that do operate on a termly basis tend to have the same faces there most weeks, which again can make it easier to get to know other parents, although drop-in groups have regulars too.

Did you find this useful? What’s been your experience? Please leave a comment!

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2 thoughts on “The dads’ survival guide to playgroups

  • 6 October 2014 at 4:51 pm

    Really helpful post. I really struggle with some of the toddler groups being the only bloke there but find sessions where there are lots of supervised activities the best 🙂

    • 7 October 2014 at 3:03 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I’m fortunate in that there’s another dad at some of the playgroups I go to but I reckon it’s still daunting for many. Our toddler enjoys unstructured play a lot.


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