What a genius idea: messy play. I sign E up for a set of sessions, gleeful that we have a Structured Activity in place for a non-nursery day, a day that can otherwise seeminly stretch unendingly into the distance and into which I am obliged to plan an ever-increasingly desperate set of things to do to keep E occupied whilst simultaneously wearing him out.
The idea is simple: kids being messy, just not in your house. Instead, we are in a clapped out old church hall, with bomb-proof lino on the floor and wipe-clean walls.
“Can we read some books, mummy?” E asks, once he has shed his cardigan at the spot on which he is currently standing. Oh no, no book reading thank you. I didn’t pay nearly a fiver to sit down in a non-messy way and read a non-messy book. “No,” I say, and lead him over to the glueing table, where an array of tiny glittery shapes and foam stickers are just waiting to be thrown around the room. He sits down and sparingly spreads a line of glue onto the blue sugar paper in front of him before gently sprinkling a small amount of glitter on top. “More,” I urge, like some malevolent glitter pusher. But he has already lost interest and heads to the books. Buggar.
A little later, we are at the Playdoh table. Except it is not actually PlayDoh, but a stickier, slightly gritter poor substitute that leaves a pink residue on my fingers and an annoying crunchiness under my finger nails. I continue to make a row of sausages on E’s request and look around the hall. One mum is pouring frothy water into a varierty of containers with a pink teapot whilst her son watches on, another mum is intent on drawing some flowers on the chalk board, her daughter having long wandered off. A third mum dollops paint onto a piece of paper as her son picks his nose, and another builds a castle with Lego whilst her daughter shows her knickers to any interested parties. Who the hell is this messy play for, anyway?
I find it is mainly an hour and a half of trying to be tolerant of other people’s kids. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if I dislike other people’s kids. Actually, scrap that. That is exactly the case. I have never been a kid kind of a person, I don’t know why. It could be that heady combination of excrutiating volume, lack of control over bodily excretions and utter belief that the world revolves around them. Mind you, it could just be they smell a bit. Luckily, the act of becoming a parent must have activated the otherwise dormant kid-loving gene, allowing me to believe that the sun, moon and stars all emanate from my son’s posterior on a regular basis – although this sudden rush of kid-love seems only to extend to my offspring.
So when a boy snatches a toy from E’s hand whilst his mother looks on and says nothing, I smile thinly and roll my eyes in that ‘kids, huh?’ kind of way. And as soon as she has her back turned, I prise the aforementioned toy from the boy’s grubby little fingers and reinstate it with its rightful owner. And when a girl rams my ankle with a loaded pram, I pat her on the head and smile through gritted teeth, whilst simultaneously wondering if anyone would notice if I accidentally clock her on the head with the pink teapot I am now holding. Another boy makes me wince just looking at him, with his moustache of mucus and unidentifed breakfast materials coagulating at the corners of his mouth.
The final activity of the session is a communal sing along. A variety of instruments have been distributed to the kids and mums are busily trying to get small bums to stay on seats with varying rates of success. Already barely contained chaos is threatening to tip over into unrestrained violence, as one girl swings her over-sized maraca round in a windmill fashion, endangering the skulls of at least three of her immediate neighbours. The song starts, a cacophony of reluctant parental singing and random percussion noises from the floor. Several drumsticks are being sucked viciously and one enterprising boy has realised that using another boy’s head as a drum is quite effective in the noise-making department.
One parent is engaged in a futile attempt to try and get her little girl to hold the triangle properly, showing her three times to grasp the string, not the metal – and three times failing. Watching her getting more cross as her daughter insists on free-style triangling makes me want to grab the bloody thing and hit the mother repeatedly over the head accompanied by the words: “Let her hold it how she bloody well likes, you cow.” I don’t, although I might have got away with it if I had sung it to the tune of Five Little Ducks.
There is a collective sigh of relief when song time is over and no major injuries have been sustained. I hope St John’s ambulance will be in attendance next time as I fear it is only a matter of luck that someone has not got a mini-castanet stuck in their ear.
We go to leave, but not without one last attempt to get E to engage in something messy as he almost seems cleaner than when he arrived. One last painting where I don’t care how much paint falls from your paintbrush and onto the floor? One last collage, and I promise I won’t say a word when you stick all the stickers to the furniture? A quick splash with the water, and I really don’t mind if you pour it down the wall? But no. We get into the car and I look down. I have a spray of pink paint on my sleeve, a patch of ground-in Play Doh on my top, a circle of wet on my trousers and a trail of glitter stuck to my forearm. Well, sod it. it is messy play, after all.