Expert Panel: The Secret to Running Successful Classes for Babies & Toddlers

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All the details from the Connect with Hoop panel on the secret to running successful baby and toddler classes. Experts shared their take on what keeps families coming back to their favourite activities for little ones.

Top insights from Baby Sensory, Zip Zap, Amelia Boo Stories and EasyPeasy on how to run classes for preschoolers that parents will love.

On the 13th February 2019, Hoop hosted a panel discussion with experts from the early years family activity sector, looking at the ways to run classes that families will love.

The panellists included Tabita Gerber, Baby Sensory Regional Manager & Franchisee for Croydon & East Surrey, Moya McGinn, Zip Zap Co-founder, Rebecca Merry, Amelia Boo Stories Founder and Jen Lexmond, EasyPeasy Founder & CEO.

The discussion was moderated by Hoop co-founder, Max Jennings as part of Hoop’s February 2019 networking event.

Read on below for the full discussion, or get all the best bits from our 7 Key Insights: Successful Baby & Toddler Classes.

 

Meet the Expert Panellists

 

Tabita Gerber, Baby Sensory Regional Manager & Franchisee for Croydon & East Surrey

Baby Sensory is backed by over 35 years of research in childhood learning and development, and has won multiple awards.

Suitable from birth to 13 months, classes are designed to help babies’ development during the crucial first year through sensory activities using amazing props.

 

Moya McGinn, Zip Zap Co-founder

Hoop Awards 2018 winners Zip Zap run weekly classes for under 5s. Each individualised class provides an exciting mixture of music and drama –written in consultation with an Educational Psychologist – which are linked by a weekly theme.

Every week at Zip Zap, children explore a thrilling new theme through performance, games traditional nursery rhymes and upbeat pop songs, ranging from Colours, to the Wild West, to the Night Sky.

 

Rebecca Merry, Amelia Boo Stories Founder

Rebecca is an early years specialist, trained drama and movement therapist and mum of two. Amelia Boo believes that you should never put limits on a child’s capability.

Amelia Boo Stories started in 2013, and is a group for little ones aged 0 - 5 to introduce and encourage a love of books and literacy from a young age. Tailored for every developmental stage, it’s a theatrical experience for children, not matter what their age.

 

Jen Lexmond, EasyPeasy Founder & CEO

Jen is a social entrepreneur with a background in education and social mobility research. Jen founded EasyPeasy in 2014 as an experiment in applying user-centred design and scalable technology to help close the UK’s social mobility gap.

EasyPeasy is a digital service that helps parents discover and play learning games with their children in the early years.

Jen has over 10 years experience leading research & design programmes aimed at improving child development and social mobility,

 

The Full Discussion: Read the Transcript

Hoop: To start, Jen would you mind giving a little bit more context to how important early years development is for children. I know you've been a champion of this for a long time.

Jen Lexmond, EasyPeasy: Yeah. There are a couple really key insights that I happened upon during my work as a policymaker and a researcher. First one came from this burgeoning area of neuroscience. For example, 85% of the brain is developed by age five. All of this is happening before most children step into the formal education system. That system is designed to give everyone an equal chance and provide a clear potential for everyone. But if 85% of the development has happened before kids get in, that's a really important insight for us I think.

We also know that the levels of development when children arrive into school are very different. In the UK, it's normally just over half the children that have achieved what the government describes as a good level of development. So that's looking at things like their language and their vocabulary, their social and emotional capacities, their ability to pay attention, to inhibit distractions around them, to sit still, to get on with other children and recognize their emotions and be able to handle them. But also, their basic physical development and motor skills.

“It's about development, interaction, the stimulation, warmth and responsiveness that young children are getting from their caregivers and from the environment certainly. And that's what makes the difference.” Jen Lexmond, EasyPeasy

“It's about development, interaction, the stimulation, warmth and responsiveness that young children are getting from their caregivers and from the environment certainly. And that's what makes the difference.” Jen Lexmond, EasyPeasy

There's a really big gap that we're dealing with in general. Then if you look at this through the lens of disadvantage, the gap is even greater still. Over half of children from lower income families haven't reached that basic level of development the government's looking for when kids enter into reception.


So there's a lot of work to do. One story I like to tell to sum up the importance of early years is the marshmallow test.  There's a professor in Stanford back in the 1970s, called Walter Mischel. He ran longitudinal studies, so would look at development right across the human life cycle.  He ran an experiment where he took young children, aged three or four years old, and he sat them down in a room, and said, "Okay, you can have this marshmallow right now, or if you can hang on for two minutes, you can have two." And this was essentially his way of looking at something called delayed gratification - an ability to resist something and to think into the long term.


Obviously it's a really difficult thing for anyone to do, particularly for a very small child. But he ran this test with many children and he monitored which were able to distract themselves and wait for the second one and which weren't. He carried on tracking these children's development right through their school years and into adulthood. He found these really striking associations between that early ability at age three or four years old to resist something, and things like their educational outcomes and their future earnings.


There's a lot of flaws with the methodology, but I think the story itself captures why the early years are such a profoundly important space for us all to be working in. Because it's not about genetics, it's about development, interaction, the stimulation, warmth and responsiveness that young children are getting from their caregivers and from the environment certainly. And that's what makes the difference.


Hoop: Moya, at Zip Zap, do you find the customers, are parents looking for Zip Zap as a way to entertain their kids and fill a spot of time in the weekly, or do you think they're looking for something that will support their child’s developmental goals?

Moya McGinn, ZipZap: I think they're definitely looking for both. They're looking for 45 minutes where they can, either chill out and switch off, or catch up on their emails. But then also you have the mums and dads who are completely involved, they're giggling away and they're finding it really entertaining watching their child be very free.

“Overall I think parents are looking for elements of both something that helps their child’s development and a fun way to spend their time.” Moya, ZipZap.

“Overall I think parents are looking for elements of both something that helps their child’s development and a fun way to spend their time.” Moya, ZipZap.

At Zip Zap we work a lot on confidence building. So even from a very early age, we can start to build in those confident elements within personalities. At the baby class where they get a sensory toy, it stays with them for the rest of the class so they can explore. It's those very simple things, that are massive milestones in their development.

The other thing that we work on every week is object permanence, and that idea of separation anxiety and knowing that things come back. It seems a bit trivial, but every week one of us goes to sleep under a blanket and the other one has a castanet and does a little poem.  We all count to three, boo, and the person reappears from the blanket. Again, that's a really good way to indicate that child's confidence, or that child's ease with object permanence.

With the parents, we don't want to bog them down on, "Okay now this is what we're working on." If someone wants to come and ask us, "Why do you hide under a blanket every week, do you really want to go to sleep?" No, we actually have a reason behind it.

Overall I think parents are looking for elements of both (something that helps their child’s development and a fun way to spend their time). I know from my little boy, if I brought my son to a class where he was getting stimulated; I didn't feel guilty about then going to the coffee shop for 40 minutes and eating a massive carrot cake with my friends. So it's that element as well of balancing mum/parent guilt. It's okay to have cake. Because you've done your job already.


Hoop: Baby Sensory has a great history investing in and marketing the developmental benefits of its classes. How do you approach early years development with families?

Tabita Gerber, Baby Sensory:  37 years of research has gone into Baby Sensory. Most of the people who come to us, are nervous first-time parents dipping in, wanting to to do the best for their little one. Very quickly, when the little one is about five weeks old normally, they realize, "Oh my goodness, I'm sitting here with a little creature, and I'm not in a boardroom, I don't have deadlines. But he's looking at me saying: 'Do something, Mum.' So what do we do?

“Hopefully we will inspire parents so that when they're away from the class, they realise how their little one's development works" Tabita, Baby Sensory

“Hopefully we will inspire parents so that when they're away from the class, they realise how their little one's development works" Tabita, Baby Sensory

Baby classes tell you what to do up to birth, then you take the car seat home, and you sit and look at this creature on the bed thinking, now what? At the classes normally we would tell parents why we do it. Although the class takes an hour of time, hopefully we will inspire parents so that when they're away from the class, they realise how their little one's development works, whether they're five weeks old or five months old.

Hoop: So you're kind of educating the parent what the benefit is in the class?

Tabita Gerber, Baby Sensory: Yeah absolutely. In a playful way, while you hand out the maracas, you would say to them, "Now last week, remember your little one did that. See whether they remember." You would see how they change, how the behaviour of a two-week-old to a two-month-old evolves.

Jen was saying earlier that the early years are the difference between babies and children. The most influential plaything that a child has from birth is their parent. I often think the moment you get a parent to realize that, they don't miss the boardroom or their deadlines. They realize, "Oh my goodness, I'm sitting here with milestones they've been wanting to reach."


Hoop:  Moving beyond the developmental benefits, how much do you think about keeping the parent entertained as a way to engage families in your classes. Is it equally as important for the parent to have fun as well their child?

Rebecca Merry, Amelia Boo Stories: I think it's very important. People are paying to come to these classes, and they want to spend time with their child, and they want to have fun. So it is important to look at the parent and the child, and to stimulate both so it's enjoyable for everyone. It's all about relationships, really. If they're having fun in that space, then they're more likely to come again and again..

Thinking about how to promote the developmental benefits of my classes, my classes, I believe that, and it depends upon what sort of class you're doing. You don't need to say, "Oh I'm doing this because of this." It breaks the class up. A lot of parents have an idea. They know about confidence, and you can put those on your website, you can put those on your fliers.


Hoop:  Jen, what have you found to be most impactful for children. What are the types of activities most likely to support a child’s development in those early years?

Jen Lexmond, EasyPeasy: It seems, what we know from the literature and the theory and very much the practice as well, is that what matters is the interaction between a trusted adult and a child, whether that's a parent or a carer or a teacher or practitioner. It's that warmth and responsiveness. In EasyPeasy we have what we call a golden ribbon. These are certain principles that are baked into all our activities, and we share that to parents through video clips that show families modeling the games.

“What matters is the interaction between a trusted adult and a child, whether that's a parent or a carer or a teacher or practitioner. It's that warmth and responsiveness.” Jen, EasyPeasy

“What matters is the interaction between a trusted adult and a child, whether that's a parent or a carer or a teacher or practitioner. It's that warmth and responsiveness.” Jen, EasyPeasy

So with our games, there's a clear expectation that the parent sets out to show the child how to play. This involves explaining what's going to happen, and using warmth and eye contact and responsiveness to encourage the child through the game. We also encourage the parent to find the appropriate level of challenge in the game. So if it's about screwing up paper and throwing it into the basketball hoop or whatever hoop, it's not about getting it in, it's about the parent understanding, where's the right distance for me to put this so that it's challenging for my child, but not impossible? So they're pushing themselves, and they have to push through and keep trying, but it's not so challenging that they're just going to give up and find it overwhelming.

Working with parents, especially through technology, to build the confidence in them to be able to do that is actually quite challenging for us. One of our big design challenges is how do we help explain to parents that it's not about getting the bit of paper into the basket, it's about the interaction that they're having together, finding that right level of challenge, and pushing through.

In our films we always show mistakes. Every EasyPeasy game is going to show that family playing making a mistake, and then working through it. The final piece of our golden ribbon is the celebration at the end. So for us it's those four principles, that make a good play experience that's going to be developmental.

If we can support those types of interactions in whatever we're doing, I think you can be pretty confident that there's going to be a developmental benefit.


Hoop: It sounds like you're all saying something similar.  You've got to get parents interacting with the child as much as possible in your class, that gets the child more engaged, which then also increases the chance of the parent returning.

Jen Lexmond, EasyPeasy: That's such a challenge when we're talking about what it's like to be a parent as well. From our early research, all parents unsurprisingly want the best for their children. Secondly, they're all time-poor and tired. Thirdly, they don't necessarily make the link always between their interactions and the benefits they can have for their child.

“Parents' well being is really important. If they're not feeling good, they're not going to be able to provide that warmth and consistent interaction with their child.” Jen, EasyPeasy

“Parents' well being is really important. If they're not feeling good, they're not going to be able to provide that warmth and consistent interaction with their child.” Jen, EasyPeasy

In our experience they tend to associate that with school or professionals. Parents' well being is really important. If they're not feeling good, they're not going to be able to provide that warmth and consistent interaction with their child. So how do you balance that for them, make sure that there's time for them to be entertained, to chill out, to get away. But then also encourage them to spend time together.

Rebecca Merry, Amelia Boo Stories: On that point with the parent, I've found there are some parents that are tired, and have had no sleep, it's been a very, very tricky night. Sometimes you have to offer that opportunity for the parent to be able to step back, to just watch, to be. And then let them step back in when they feel comfortable. So they don't feel that they're under pressure to do everything right, to be able to help their child in the most perfect way. So it normalises things, and they feel free to be able to experience it comfortably.

When we were developing our classes, both as mums ... we used to always feel really stressed at a class where you just suddenly march around the room with Grand Old Duke of York. It's like the parents are coming so you can do that with their kids. It's not that they don't want to have any input, it's just finding the right balance that they are feeling chilled and having a big respite, and recharged, as well as then learning the skills.

It's finding the right balance between asking for too much input from the parent and  "I could've just done this in my living room."


Hoop: I'm gonna switch gears slightly and move away from the developmental piece for a moment. How do you think about differentiation within the marketplace and making sure that your classes really stand out?

Moya McGinn, ZipZap: Our biggest thing is the relationship with the parents. One parent was going back after a long time off for maternity and said "Thank you so much for giving me my name, and not just Finn's mum." We make an extra special effort to know every child’s and parent’s name in the room.

Parents are typically coming from a world where they have a place, they have a position, they have a career, and suddenly they're launched into a very different career path, and they're sometimes a little bit anonymous. Having that meet and greet and asking, "How was your holiday?" makes a difference.  So I think it's just having that personal touch.

Hoop: Once you've got that connection with the parent, how do you ensure that the family keeps coming back. Life often happens, it might be raining or the child has a tantrum that might reduces their inclination to visit you, or the parent is dropping in every other week to you class and won’t commit to a full term.

Rebecca Merry, Amelia Boo Stories:  My class is a drop-in, because there is that dentist's appointment, someone wakes up at six in the morning with a temperature, you have to go to the doctors, it's been an awful night. So I give people the option, if they can give me two hours notice I'll refund them, or they can come to another class. And it still gives me time to offer the space to someone else.

I know that isn't always possible, because you've got some classes that are progressive, so you need to actually attend each of the sessions to go on the learning arc. So it just depends what your class is, really. But flexibility, it does help, and people do really appreciate it.


Hoop: Does anybody here monitor the frequency that their customers attend classes to understand the split between weekly, semi-regular and occasional attendees?


Rebecca Merry, Amelia Boo Stories:  Usually if I get someone coming, they'll come a couple times, they carry on. That's just the way it is. So I'm quite lucky in my classes, I only do six classes at the moment, because I'm still growing, but usually they are full up. And if someone's not there then I've got a waiting list.

If you book on the night before, you'll get a place, but if you leave it to the morning there may not be a place. People are okay with that, as long as they know and communicate the risk of turning up on the day..

Tabita Gerber, Baby Sensory: For me that's an easy one. Create the expectation. Our little ones start when they are five weeks old,  and they stay with me until the parent either goes to work, and the mum can't bring them. So 14, 15 months typically.

At the end of the class for the previous week, I'll say, "So next week ..." And then you'll give them a little teaser on that there is to look forward to. What's coming next week. And then of course social media is an important one if you do little teasers, and just say, "Remember umbrellas," or whatever the case might be for that one.

We’ve also structured our classes so they don't stop with school holidays. Of course we work in pre-school, that's quite easy. But then you need to be flexible and sensible for those second-time parents, because I do get parents who come back with baby number four, which means there's three older siblings that need to be accommodated.


Hoop:  Turning to pricing, do you benchmark your the cost of a class with local alternatives or is there a price point that parents care about, or is it quality of the class itself?

Moya McGinn, ZipZap: We recently put our prices up by a pound, last September, and we found it quite a struggle.  Suddenly less people were coming in.

“They see the personal touches that you have and the business owner, then they buy into you and they buy into the brand and they come back".” Moya, ZipZap

“They see the personal touches that you have and the business owner, then they buy into you and they buy into the brand and they come back".” Moya, ZipZap

We then introduced a trial rate where it's less in price, and business massively improved, because families get to experience the class. They're seeing that there's two of us, there's the performance element, there's the comedy element, a different theme every week, there's different sets and props. And also there's entertainment for the parents, and building relationships within the parents and with the class as a whole.

We then saw repeats, they were coming back, they were booking on Hoop, they were booking for a term. So I think as far as prices, as long as you get that person in through the door the first day, and they see what you're offering, and they see the personal touches that you have and the business owner, then they buy into you and they buy into the brand and they come back.

Rebecca Merry, Amelia Boo Stories:  We recently started a new group in a new area, and I always offer a free session. I fill it out with as many people as the class can take, and we make it an event. I might even do some extra things like some craft, to make it a family day to drive word of mouth.

I think word of mouth is so strong amongst parents. That's the best recommendation you're going to get. The important thing is to get people in, so they can see what you're doing.


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