Thursday, November 26
A Tale of Two Toddler Groups
Now that the weather has turned yuk, spending most of the day wombling about in the garden or the park, or walking in the woods or up the mountain is not such an appealing option.
I've always eschewed toddler groups, preferring to potter around at home with Gwen (any excuse to bake bread, dance around the kitchen and paint rainbows all morning). But I thought I'd check out a few for those days when it is just too torrential to venture out, I've exhausted all the craftivities I can think of and everyone's getting cabin fever.
The group in our village falls at nap time, so has never worked for us. But I saw a poster in the library for a group in the community centre in the next village. We thought we'd give it a go.
Toddler Group Number One
We arrived at a large hall, with the floor absolutely covered in plastic toys. Just plastic toys, and nothing else. There was no order to the toys. It was just a jumble of random objects. Among the plastic toys were some pretend McDonalds chips and burgers. Ok, I thought, maybe this is free play at the start, then they do something else.
They were serving tea and coffee at a little kitchen in the corner, so I went over to get us a drink. There were hot drinks for the parents and nothing at all for the children. "But she can have a snack," said the woman behind the counter, then showed me the selection. Toast made from value white bread, those pink wafer biscuits, or Jaffa cakes. Gwen was quite keen. I managed to distract her with some raisins and a smoothie I had stashed away in my bag.
She wandered off to play with the toys and the group organiser came over to chat. "I believe in providing a safe and stimulating environment for children to play," she said, "so we just leave them with the toys, then we have sing some songs at the end for five minutes." No stories, no dressing up clothes, no drawing, no books, no crafts, no music...
"And we've got some great stuff coming up before Christmas." She pointed to the stage, where there was a trestle table covered in novelty Christmas gifts. "This week, we've got gifts on sale. Next week, we're doing Avon, then The Chocolate Club..."
Gwen waded her way through the sea of phthalates. "Can we go now Mama?" I didn't need asking twice.
As we left, group leader was screeching "It's tidy time" and we left to the din of the plastic toys being thrown into huge plastic boxes. We could just make out the CD player in the corner, playing the Postman Pat theme tune, which had got stuck on the word "cat... cat... cat... cat...".
I went home and lay in a bath of organic mung bean oil, sipping fennel and patchouli tea and reading 'What breastpump?'.
Toddler Group Number Two
The next day, I met a friend for a cuppa and she said I should try the Steiner toddler group. Before kids and when were fancy-free city dwellers living the high life in Splott, I'd walked past the Steiner school every morning on my way to work.
I've always fancied trying it, but didn't fancy the trip into Cardiff in the traffic to get there for 10am. My fears were realised - we were late getting there, couldn't find anywhere to park, Moll was screaming for a feed and it was all a tad stressful.
But when we arrived, the stress vanished. If the Dalai Lama ran toddler groups, they'd be like this.
We took our shoes off at the door, then it was like walking into a lovely warm, calm and serene home. People smiled at me. Children played imaginatively with fabrics and knitted animals and simple wooden cars. There was a season table, play silks for dressing up, baskets of pine cones and shells, a comfy corner for reading. At a table in another corner, some other parents and littlies were chopping up vegetables to make a soup for snack time. "Everyone brings a piece of fruit and a vegetable," explained the group leader.
"Would you like drink?" she asked, pointing to a shelf of green and roibos and fruity teas that almost rivalled my own collection.
Then she explained how the group worked. "After free play, we sing a gentle song, while we tidy up. Next, we sit in a circle for traditional songs, then coats on to play outside in the garden, whatever the weather." I almost kissed her.
After we'd done all these things, we ALL sat down for snacks. No parents gossiping on the edge of the room, while the children ate. Instead we all sat together and shared a meal. We even had bread baked by the kids in the kindergarten upstairs.
I met some fab people - a photographer, a home-schooling mama, a family from Japan, a lovely Spanish lady, a snowboarding dad - and went home full of home-made soup and a warm, fuzzy glow.
Guess where Gwen and Molly will be going to school?