Delivering children’s group activities during the Covid-19 pandemic: Stories of adaptation and survival

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In a world of continuous technological advancement, human interactions with businesses are increasingly automated, often leading to depersonalised service provision. However, for some businesses, such as providers of children’s activities, regular face-to-face and personal contact with customers remains fundamental to the value they provide. These businesses work directly with groups of young people, often over extended periods, supporting the development of children’s self-confidence, friendships and self-esteem alongside specialist skills such as sports, music and dance. Providers of these services also work hard to form relationships with parents and carers, and to build a community around their specific activity. Think, for example, of the friendships and support networks that emerge among adults who meet on the football pitch sidelines or at a baby and toddler group.

The Covid-19 pandemic presented providers of children’s activities with huge challenges. National lockdowns immediately rendered their normal places of work inaccessible, be it a community centre, church hall, dance studio, or football pitch. That all-important face-to-face group interaction became impossible. Providers needed to adapt, and to do so quickly, if they were to continue throughout the pandemic and beyond.

In a recent study, academics Helen L. Bruce (Lancaster University), Ewa-Krolikowska (University of Greenwich) and Tara Rooney (Technological University Dublin) explored the experiences of 15 children’s activity providers in the UK and Ireland who migrated their businesses from offline venues to online platforms during the national lockdowns. Study participants offered a range of activities, including martial arts, gymnastics, dance, music, extra-curricular science and maths, and specialist activities for visually impaired children. Their customer bases ranged in age from very young babies and their parents to older teenagers. These children’s activity providers described how they overcame the learning curve associated with mastering online platforms such as Zoom and Facebook Live and made significant changes to the way they do business to remain active during lockdown. 

Children’s activity providers had to redesign their sessions for online delivery.

For example, previously interactive and ‘hands on’ science experiments were reduced to online demonstrations, or simplified alternatives which utilised household objects and products. Classes for very young babies and their parents, which typically involve tactile props, specialised music and mood lighting, were impossible to replicate online, with providers reliant on parents to provide suitable objects as stimuli. Across all classes, social interactions and group or team working disappeared, so providers dedicated time during sessions for friends to simply chat. Inevitably, participants’ experiences changed, and while some children continued throughout lockdown, many parents withdrew their children from classes due to a lack of obvious benefits, resulting in a significant reduction of income for the activity providers.

Providers suddenly had to adapt to running a business from home with many also managing full time childcare and home-schooling responsibilities.

Despite not deliberately recruiting female participants, all the providers interviewed by the research team are women. Data show that women in households undertook the majority of childcare during lockdown, often to the detriment of their work. This proved particularly relevant for some children’s activity providers, as a leader of baby cognitive development classes noted: “I just couldn’t be live online at 10 o clock every morning. I had to be mum and put the children first, rather than the business”. Operating from home led to pressures around shared space and technology. One provider reported having to run her online classes from their garage due to a lack of suitable space in their house. Another described a need to invest in several new devices to enable her to run activities online while her husband and children also worked and studied at home.

Providers offered more support for less income.

In addition to adapting activities to meet the limitations of an online, home-based environment, providers of children’s activities reported offering more in the way of service and support than they had before Covid-19 struck. Some ran extra activities, such as parties on Zoom, quizzes, and competitions. Others made phone calls and doorstep visits to children with gifts and prizes, boosting morale and supporting emotional wellbeing. Providers also absorbed additional costs despite their own reducing income, such as postage costs for teaching materials. Most reduced their fees in recognition of the financial strain felt by many during lockdown. Where parents struggled significantly, fees were sometimes waived to ensure children could continue to take part.

In addition to their professionalism and acumen, the providers of children’s activities showed a great sense of responsibility to the children and parents who form their customer base. These businesses are small, often comprising a single person. They have no large stocks of resources, assets, or extensive commercial networks upon which to draw during times of crisis. Yet, they play a consistent, integral role in local communities, supporting the wellbeing of those who take part in their activities. The participants in this study showed immense drive and resilience to survive the impacts of a global pandemic.

The future of children’s group activities.

As children’s activity providers look to the future, efforts are focused on rebuilding their businesses by regaining customers that were lost during lockdown and recruiting new children to their classes. However, it seems unlikely that all providers will return to their previous offline format of activities. Many are considering retaining some online elements in the form of extra material, such as training videos. For others, online sessions will remain in the background, as an option for future lockdowns, or for individual children who are unable to join a face-to-face session due to having to self-isolate. For other providers who participated in the study, the impact of Covid-19 means they will not reinstate their prior offline business model. One provider, for instance, plans to adopt a new business-to-business proposition, training staff in schools to deliver her activities, thus ensuring a stream of income if (or perhaps when) she is prevented from entering venues due to Covid-19 restrictions. As with many industries, it seems likely that the pandemic will have lasting effects on the children’s activities sector.

The study reported here identifies success stories in times of adversity. There are, of course, providers of children’s activities for whom the inability to work face-to-face with groups meant they simply could not operate during lockdown. The nature of certain activities, for example swimming, team sports, and musical ensembles, prevents their online delivery in any meaningful way. Other providers will have been prevented from adapting their sessions for other reasons, such as a lack of suitable space in their homes or caring for their own children. For these activity providers and their businesses, the post-pandemic journey to recovery may be longer and more challenging than for those who were able to run activities during lockdown. As Covid-19 remains present within the UK and Ireland, it remains to be seen what the future holds for these businesses and the individuals that drive them.

The research report entitled “Delivering Children’s Activities During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Succeeding in Unprecedented Times” was co-authored by Dr Helen L. Bruce (Lancaster University), Dr Ewa Krolikowska (University of Greenwich) and Dr Tara Rooney (Technological University Dublin). 


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