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10 Years of Tots Play

10 years! Starting a business is not unlike having a baby. It needs lots of your time, lots of patience and lots of nurturing. You try your best but constantly wonder if you are doing the 'right things'. It brings equal measures of joy and frustrations, but one 'smile' or bit of progress and it's all worthwhile. It also starts off as this tiny thing, then you blink and suddenly your 'baby' has got all grown up while you weren't looking!

Top picture from one of my early classes. Bottom picture from our most recent franchise conference.

All of those things could describe the journey I have had with Tots Play so far, and while I can't say it's all been plain sailing (where would the fun be in that!)

it has given me some amazing experiences and allowed me to meet many, many wonderful people.

There have been lots and lots of highlights along the way, far too many to mention here, but none of it would have been possible without people like you being willing to take a chance on trying out a new activity for your little one, or our fabulous franchisees taking the plunge into business ownership. So, as one of those people (as the saying goes) without whom none of this would have been possible, I thought you might enjoy a snapshot of some of the key points on the journey up to now.

How Tots Play Came About

Although 2009 is when Tots Play launched, it's not the start of the story. I first ventured into the pre-school classes industry 5 years earlier when my daughter was a baby. I bought a music class franchise to allow me the flexibility to work but still be there for her, and started up a few sessions in my local area. That was great and the business did well, but I was interested in doing so much more than music with my baby. I wanted to know how to massage her, what baby yoga was all about, how sign language could help me to communicate with her better, and what other activities there were that we could enjoy together. In short, I wanted to be the best parent I could be, as I'm sure you do too.

At the time, there wasn't anything like the range of classes and organised activities for little ones that there are now, and certainly nothing that combined all the things I was interested in, so I had to learn and do much of it for myself, and was constantly seeking out books, people and courses to help me.

Selling my first business due to a house move gave me the chance to use all the experience I had gained running classes for babies and toddlers and combine it with everything I had learned on my parenting journey to create the kind of class I had wanted for myself but that didn't exist when my daughter was a baby - and so Tots Play was born.

2009 - Tots Play Launches

The very first classes were in early March. There were just two age groups, Discovery Tots for babies and Action Tots for toddlers. Though the basis of today's programme was there, classes have evolved and developed a huge amount over the years and in these early days I was still very much trying out different things to see what worked the best. Here are a few pictures of those early classes - as you can see I didn't even have a Tots Play top!

(I was lucky enough to have amazing photographer Maria Farelly bringing her son to classes at that time and she agreed to take these fantastic pictures for me; that's her son in the bottom picture - still super grateful, thanks Maria)

2010 - Baby Development Course and Social Tots Introduced

Classes started to expand quite quickly after the first few months, which was fantastic, but it soon became clear that there was a bit of gap between the activities we were doing in Discovery Tots and those in Action Tots, and that we needed something for those babies who were mobile but not yet ready for the more advanced physical activities we were doing with our toddlers and pre-schoolers, and so Social Tots was introduced to fill that gap. I later changed the format a little and combined Social Tots with some of Action Tots, and Action Tots stopped for a while.

Some of our Social Tots enjoying some musical fun.

Another issue we found was that some of our parents had just a short period of maternity leave and were only able to attend classes for a limited time. What seemed to be needed was something of a toolbox of techniques and activities that these parents could learn and then carry on at home with their baby so they didn't feel they were missing out. I also wanted to be able to enable people to learn some simple massage techniques without having to do this as a separate course, and thus came up with the idea of a short course which would be focused on meeting those needs.

I called this Baby Development and the first courses I advertised sold out within days. This was a turning point for the business and I could see the positive impact it was having on the families who attended the courses too. It remains one of the most popular aspects of Tots Play, and has become much more than a course for those short on time, but a valuable introduction to everything that Tots Play is about and a place where many long-term friendships have begun.

Some of our Baby Development babies and mummies from a course in those early years.

2011 - The First Pilot Franchise Launched

By 2011, it was becoming clear that what Tots Play offered was something that people wanted and it was time to grow the business beyond just me. I didn't really want to simply take on teachers to run more classes, instead I was looking to share my experience of developing a business that worked around my family and offer the opportunity to run Tots Play as their own business to others looking for a similar solution. I started to consider franchising.

At this point I didn't even know if the business would work for someone else, so I needed someone to test the model, and our very first franchisee, Emma, agreed to give it a try! I didn't take the traditional route of having everything set up and in place beforehand; we worked out together what was needed for someone else to be able to run the programme, and the business, step-by-step, and if it hadn't been for Emma's patience and enthusiasm through that process, it might never have happened at all, so thank you, Emma.

In case you are wondering, Emma moved on from the business a few years later for personal reasons, but we are very much still in touch and her original area is still up and running today.

Emma and I at a Tots Play event.

2012 - Franchise Programme is Officially Launched

In 2012, I was still running classes four days a week but ready to offer the franchise more widely. We started slowly, but took on three more franchisees that year and started to expand outside of Wales. I was also a finalist in the What's On 4 Kids awards, which was also in its early days then.

Visiting one of our franchisees as she sets up for classes.

2013 -Tots Play Starts to Expand Across the Country

I remember this year as being a juggling act as I continued to run my own classes alongside developing the franchise side of the business, but by the end of that year, we had nine franchisees and Tots Play had expanded to the Midlands, the North West and the South East.

Franchisees Lynn and Jo at their training course in 2013.

Some of our Tots enjoying porridge play.

2014 - Our 5th Anniversary, My Last Regular Classes and Our First Conference!

By the Spring of this year, we were celebrating Tots Play's 5th birthday, but I knew that something was going to have to give. I couldn't continue to grow the franchising side of the business and run classes as I had been doing if I wanted to be able to do either of those things well. I made what was a really tough decision to give up running regular classes, which I still loved doing, to focus on the growth of the wider business. I was lucky enough to find two amazing women to take over the areas in which I had been running sessions, and both are still with us and providing a fantastic service today.

Our 5th Birthday Party!

November of that year also saw our very first franchisee conference. I was so nervous as I had never put together or led a conference of any kind before (very different to being in a room full of babies and toddlers!), but everyone was gentle with me and we had a great day discussing all things Tots Play.

Our first conference - Totsy and his brothers were a little naughty!

2015 - The Franchise Continues to Grow and the Programme Develops

Word was starting to get out and we continued to attract new customers and new franchisees throughout 2015. I was also keen to keep the programme itself fresh and up to date and after completing some further training, introduced the popular story massage element to our classes. By our second conference towards the end of the year, we had over 20 franchisees join us for the day.

Class time fun with franchisee, Kate.

Some of our Midlands franchisees, spreading the word at a baby event.

2016 Biggest Expansion Yet and Extra Support for our Franchisees

This was another incredibly busy year which saw our biggest expansion to date, taking on 16 new franchisees over the 12 months.

I needed more help to make sure that everyone was able to get the best out of their business and our programme and Amy, our franchise support manager, joined us after bringing her own children to classes. She is now the first port of call for all the support our franchisees need, big or small, and has been instrumental in helping many of them develop a business that's right for them (which is what our franchise programme is all about).

Amy delivering training at our conference.

2017 - First Classes Launched in Scotland and New Programmes Introduced

Being married to a Scotsman, it was lovely to be able to expand Tots Play into Scotland this year with not one but two fabulous ladies launching classes north of the border.

Clare launched our first classes in Scotland.

Our franchisees had also started asking both for a programme that they could take into nursery settings and also something for the children who were outgrowing Social Tots classes, but were not yet off to school.

Around the same time, I was approached by Karen from Strider Bikes UK, suggesting incorporating their fantastic balance bikes into our classes. Going back to some of the activities our older Tots used to love at our original Action Tots classes (which we had moved away from over the years), and combining these with the skills needed for learning to ride a bike that I was introduced to by Strider, I developed brand new classes for the pre-school age group, bringing back the name Action Tots to the Tots Play programme. These classes are designed to offer a new challenge for older toddlers and pre-schoolers and provide an extra element for our franchisees to add to their businesses. The first all-new Action Tots classes launched during that year, and are now offered at many of our locations across the UK.

One of the first of our 'new' Action Tots.

Some of our franchisees training to deliver Action Tots classes.

2018 - A New Website, A New Office and a National Award

Technology doesn't stand still does it, and by the start of 2018, it was time to give our website an update and a brand new look. We also had new videos produced showing more of what goes on at our classes to help those thinking about joining us to choose a class that's just right for them.

Filming for our promotional videos.

With expansion not slowing down, we really needed some more help. My home office (which was once upon a time a dining room!) was no longer enough and we took on our first outside office and a new member of staff to help with operations and marketing. We were lucky enough to find office space with access to a fantastic conference room, which we now use for training and open days for new franchisees.

The other highlight of this year was Tots Play winning our first national award. The What's On 4 Kids Award for Best Franchised Baby and Toddler Activity. Having been a finalist or runner up for several awards we have entered over the years, it was nice to finally win one - and I must credit our franchisees with working as a team to achieve this, and, of course, thank everyone who supported us.

Collecting our award.

2019 - New Social Tots Programme Launched and Our 10th Anniversary!

Never wanting to stand still, and passionate about always providing the best service I can for both our franchisees and the families who attend classes with us, we responded to feedback and made some changes to our Social Tots classes this year. New songs and activities have been added while keeping many favourites, and a new structure introduced to help our Tots get even more out of their sessions. Feedback so far has been hugely positive, which hopefully means that even more fun is being had by all!

Some of our Social Tots enjoying the exploratory play section of the class.

And that brings us to our 10th Anniversary, a chance to both look back to see how things started and how they have evolved over those years, (it's been a busy few years - I might need a lie down!), celebrate everything that has been achieved by all those involved, in whatever way, and look forward to what the future might hold.

What's Next for Tots Play?

We have come a long way in ten years, but have only just scratched the surface of what I would like to achieve with and through the business. My passion is not growth for growth's sake (although I would love to see Tots Play expand to many more areas), but for making a difference, however small, to the lives of the people in communities we serve around the country and, maybe one day, around the world.

Whether it's the warm welcome received at one of our classes that brightens the day of an overwhelmed, sleep-deprived new mum, or the chance to achieve a work/life balance in a role that still allows full use of their skills for someone joining our franchise programme, sometimes those small things can make a big difference - and to feel I may have had a part in that is what keeps, and will continue to keep me striving to bring my best every day.

Is Tots Play still my baby? Absolutely. As our children grow, the challenges of parenthood don't stop, they just change, and a business is no different. Both parenthood and entrepreneurship are also journeys that teach you a lot about yourself and I am grateful for everything I have learned along the way to get me to this point.

My business baby now needs me in different ways than it did ten years ago, just like my daughter does, and there are also many more people involved in raising both than there were at the start. That can only be a good thing, as each of those people bring something extra to the party, and they do say it takes a village! Hopefully our village will continue to grow and be a great place to be for many more years to come!

Be Part of the Story

Would you like to be part of the story of the next 10 years of Tots Play and beyond? We have made a great start, but would love to bring the fun and benefits of the Tots Play programme to many more families and to do that, we need many more great leaders for our classes. If you think you have what it takes and would like to run your own family-friendly business delivering Tots Play in your area, then why not find out more about our franchise programme and help us spread the message even further. Simply like to join us at a class? We would love to welcome you. Find a class near you HERE.

Tots, Then and Now

It just remains for me to say another huge thank you to everyone who has been involved with Tots Play over the last 10 years. Whether you have been to one class or many, helped us spread the word or supported us in any way, or have simply taken the time to read this blog, it is so, so appreciated. A special word of thanks to our fabulous franchisees who took a chance both on me and on themselves and who I know make you smile every day with their commitment to providing a fantastic experience for you at classes.

Let me leave you with some pictures of a few of our former Tots - from their time at classes with us, and how they look now! I absolutely love these. Thanks to everyone who sent them in.

Here's to many more years of play time fun!

Helen xxx

(founder of Tots Play)

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