Well known and much loved as one of the liveliest, most interactive song and dance groups for babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers – and now a Milton Keynes institution – Toddler Time celebrates its 14th birthday this month. Mum to Mum’s Rebecca spoke to Annette Cowell, who told us about how it all began, and how it’s going strong 14 years later.
In 2005, Annette and her friend Karen had young children, and were familiar with the usual round of baby and toddler activity groups that were on offer.
“All of the music groups were fine – to a point. They introduced instruments, and there was lots of sitting still and listening. But honestly, my little boy didn’t really want to sit still. He wanted to enjoy the music, and be up dancing, bopping around and having fun – just like all the enjoyment we got from watching Fun Song Factory!”
This BBC favourite was hosted by children’s TV royalty like Dave Benson Philips, and a very youthful Justin Fletcher. “They would play all sorts of songs – not just nursery rhymes, but modern, lively tunes with exciting moves to copy and jump around to. Karen and I just thought to ourselves one day: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a music group like that – live performances, with interactive singing and dancing, for little ones to join in with?’”
And with that, Toddler Time was born. Annette and Karen were up at the front, leading the singing of popular, bouncy tunes and talking everyone through the moves they could do to play along – just like Fun Song Factory.
“We started with a session in New Bradwell. In the time before social media, we had no idea whether anyone would hear about it, or turn up – but we were astonished to have 14 families there on our first morning!”
More people came along via word of mouth as the weeks went on, and soon they had to move to a different venue. They also opened up more sessions in Bletchley and Leighton Buzzard, and started running sessions in Children’s Centres as well. “We were known for our Toddler Time tshirts – I was the Red Lady, and Karen was the Yellow Lady. We’d do the big group sessions together, and others in the Children’s Centres we’d do separately.”
One of the things that make Toddler Time different is the music. It’s all manufactured and recorded especially for Toddler Time, and you won’t find the same songs anywhere else. Annette chooses the tracks, pays for them, and reorganises them with her own lyrics and how she wants them to work in the sessions. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s one of the things that makes Toddler Time unique. The pop music tracks are karaoke versions, and I write the lyrics to fit the movements we’ll be doing in the sessions.”
All of the sessions are structured to cover the Early Years Foundation Stage framework, so as well as having bags of fun, the children are learning too, in line with other educational settings they may be attending. Numbers, colours, movement, textures, relationships, communication and language, understanding the world – it’s all in there in a Toddler Time session.
“Something else that was very important to us when we set it all up was that whatever props we bring for the children to use in the session, there must be enough for every child to have one. Nobody has to share, and nobody goes without.”
And there are hundreds of props – a typical Toddler Time session has two different sets of props, which can be bells, sticks, balls, beanbags, scarves, ribbons, socks, microphones, drums, shakers, and rattly bottles – all handmade by Annette, especially for Toddler Time.
“I often change the content on the day depending on who’s there. If the age range is predominantly a lot younger, I choose tracks that they’ll be able to take part in and enjoy.
“I don’t ask anyone to sit still, keep quiet and listen. That’s just not what we wanted the sessions to be – but this does mean that the sessions get a little noisy! So we used microphone headsets and a professional sound system from the beginning. It means everyone can hear everything that’s going on, and most importantly, the children can follow the dance movements for each song.”
Its broad appeal also sets Toddler Time apart. There are very few activities that can offer so much enjoyment and participation to every age from 0-5 – and even beyond, which is proven every school holiday, when all of the older siblings turn up and join in!
“Everyone gets something out of it, even the ones who want to sit on their grown-up’s lap and watch. The number of parents who tell me that their shy toddler, who didn’t seem to want anything to do with the dancing and singing, will suddenly burst into a Toddler Time song in the back of the car when they were least expecting it!”. Listening, learning, and socialising in a relaxed environment are all part of it.
In 2014, Karen decided to pursue her other passion and become a Teaching Assistant. Coinciding with the reduction in Children’s Centre services, Annette was able to continue all of the three established weekly sessions, weekend birthday parties, and a couple of preschool sessions a week as well.
“I am so proud at how Toddler Time has grown, from nothing but an idea that we had 14 years ago. It’s crazy to think there are adults walking around out there who came to our first sessions.
“I absolutely love my job. I love performing, anyway – some people may recognise me from the annual Dreams ‘n’ Wishes pantos – but I just love the feeling of creating a magical world of imagination, that little ones just love to be part of. It’s the best feeling.”
Toddler Time sessions are every week – including most school holidays :
Mondays – Bradville Hall MK137AY – 10am
Thursdays – Heron’s Lodge Guide Centre, Loughton Lodge MK89LA – 10.15am (in school holidays, this session usually moves to Medbourne Paviliion)
Fridays – Tennis Club, Lake St, Leighton Buzzard LU71RX – 10am
Toddler Time parties are individually tailored to your child, and the age range of children attending. Annette can hold the attention of a huge span of ages, and she is always highly recommended by our community!
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