Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Toys are over-rated. A few simple play ideas for the Christmas hols

I’m writing this post on our bed with Bella lying next to me. I’m trying to interest her in a multi-coloured musical bumble bee with crunchy wings, though I am sure it won’t be long before she finds it exhausting and decides to chew on her thumb instead. This is not surprising given that she is only four and a half months and spends most of her life on someone’s lap or in someone’s arms. Still, I think toys are over-rated.

I remember when Jemima was a baby, a friend told me that she could never do what I was doing - stay at home full-time with her child - because she would go crazy “sitting on the floor playing with toys all day”. So would I. I love the whole peek-a-boo, tickle and raspberry-blowing thing for a short while – I’ll be doing that any minute no doubt – but I soon get bored of cooing. And I didn’t get into using toys for play until Jemima was well into toddlerhood.

No, no. Generally my favourite way to pass a day with a baby in my care would be to spend much of the morning in bed, drinking tea, eating toast and cuddling, feeding, reading and writing. You can’t beat taking a bath together in the middle of the day. Ideally this should be followed by a massage, a feed and a long sleep. Then I’d take a walk with my babe in the sling (Ahhh, my sling. A parent's best-friend). If it’s raining, I'd get inspired in the kitchen listening to the radio and cook dinner, also using the sling. And at some point a friend turning up for tea would be nice.

Hmmm, writing this has me dreaming about the old days with Jemima in England. It is a little harder to achieve all this with two children. Although with Jemima at school in the morning Bella and I do a pretty good job of it. The only difference of course is that we live in Cambodia where the heat makes the sling a less attractive prospect – particularly in a kitchen with an ancient oven that heats up more on the outside than the inside. Oh, and there is nowhere to walk. I miss parks.

The thing I have always loved about being at home with my children is having the time to do things that I never could when I was working. Shortly after Jemima was born I began to volunteer for a refugee and asylum seekers’ charity. She accompanied me to meetings and home visits for a year. I loved the fact that I could do something that I felt passionate about, and that gave me plenty of intellectual stimulation, without having to be separated from my baby. Together we also made a beautiful garden, planted vegetables and I baked enough cakes to feed an entire colony of breastfeeding mothers.

Friends from the office asked whether I missed work and London. How could I switch so easily from an exciting, vocational NGO career involving travel and constant learning to domestic drudgery in the suburbs of the tiny city of Winchester (‘city’ because it has a cathedral, ‘small town’ in every other respect)? I never understood their concern. I had more time than ever to read the papers, listen to the debates on Radio 4 and, as every first-time parent knows, there is no learning curve steeper than getting to know and understand your baby. Besides, most babies and toddlers sleep for hours every day. I had precious time to write for the first time in my life. Oh, and housework and supermarket shopping are far more interesting with a little person in tow.

Really, when I think about it, toys don’t have to come into the early years at all. Even now Jemima is three, and has plenty of them (no matter what I preach I am still vulnerable to peer pressure), she can spend half an hour lost in a game of her own creation, with a couple of pencils or rubber bands as props. At the moment everything she gets her hands on she personifies. She invents conversations between wooden spoons and plastic cups, and plays ‘mummies and daddies’ with an earring and a paper clip. She does have dolls, but post-it notes are apparently more interesting. She also has this amazing pink Barbie tent-castle thing in her room, given to her by her ‘spirit mother’ (I’ll explain another day), but she’d rather make her own camp with a couple of chairs and a sheet. We bought her a second hand toy kitchen, but she insists on taking a few bits of the play food and a plate over to the table and pretends to cook them there.

For totally child-led play I’m all for letting my child loose in the house, under my relaxed supervision. That way I can find out pretty fast what will keep her happy when I need a rest. I make sure all the cupboards within her reach contain the stuff she can play with – plastic pots, harmless kitchen utensils, saucepans etc. I allow her to rifle through my desk when I am in the mood, but am thinking of making her a little one of her own, which I could fill with all the stationary items I mentioned above, and a hole-punch and some scrap paper. Just imagine how many hours respite I could get once she discovers how to punch holes!

I’m also very happy for her to dismantle all the cushions on the sofa and arrange them on the floor. Not only is this one of her only forms of physical exercise in a city with no green space, but it is just so brilliant to play with her when she does this. We play boats and crocodiles, islands and monsters, trains, planes… the list is endless and it all comes from inside her head. All I have to do is sit there with Bella on my lap and a cup of tea and join on her on her journey.

Housework is always a good one too. Jemima loves dusting and helping me hang out the washing. Sometimes I give her a bowl of water and a bar of soap and some clothes. James and I discovered that gem one Saturday morning when we were both hung over - we watched her from our hammocks for nearly an hour.

And then there is cooking. Jemima has been chopping vegetables with me since she was two. She sits on the side next to the oven and stirs sauces … oh dear, this sounds bad. I realise that some people reading this will be horrified. Don’t be. She knows it is hot and dangerous and I do not leave her alone in the kitchen. As a result she offers to help mash potatoes, grate cheese, break eggs, weigh out flour, melt butter, and of course, lick the bowl. She makes a fine pizza. I can’t imagine how I would ever cook dinner if I did not encourage her to help me. It may take a little longer, and create twice as much washing up, but surely it will pay off soon. I am hoping she will bring me breakfast in bed by the time she is four. Besides, Jemima also loves to wash dishes.

Cooking is not the only way to satisfy a child’s urge to get messy and experiment with texture and touch. Jemima loves creams (what child doesn’t?). From time to time it goes very quiet in the house and I know that she is hiding behind some piece of furniture with her hands deep inside a pot of something – hopefully vaseline rather than expensive moisturiser. It took me a while to think creatively about how to deal with this carnal urge she has to smother her entire body with cream, but one day it dawned on me. Massage! I have been massaging Jemima since she was two days old, and, just as with breakfast, it’s surely about time she returned the favour. Now she is welcome to slather me with cream anytime she likes as long as she puts some muscle into it. On a good day I can get a whole five minutes out of her on each foot and leg.

When she is not working for her keep, my other favourite for Jemima is her dressing up box. It is filled with ridiculous dresses and shoes from the market, and scarves, beads, hats etc from charity shops back home.

I could go on and on but this is way too long already and Bella is waking up. I hope I have got your creative juices flowing in time for Christmas. If you are as fed up with the material gluttony of the west as we are, or as broke for that matter (relatively speaking of course, for all my dreaming about English playgrounds I have not forgotten I live in Cambodia), please rest assured that your kids really won’t be any happier with expensive shop bought toys. A little inspiration is all it takes to help enrich your pocket, your environment and your child’s imagination!


Tara said...

This has got to be my favourite post of all.... your life with J sounds exactly like ours with E!!!! She has only just turned two and she can talk me through the making of scrambled eggs (in French of course!) 'Butter first mummy, then break egg, add milk etc...' She can put her music CD in the player and turn it on or off, and she GIVES a massage (without much muscle admittedly) no breakfast in bed yet though... could go on and on but will definitely share this post with many of the new Mums around me..... T xxx

Anne said...

Really cute one, and so clever....Thank you