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Whenever I asked my own mother what she wanted for her birthday she always used to say the same thing year after year; “peace and quiet”. Now, living in a small Swedish village, she is at last surrounded by more peace and quiet than you can shake a stick at. But as a child I couldn’t think of anything more soul destroying. Why on earth would my mum desire something so useless and boring? As I got older I still didn’t get it. In fact, it’s not something you naturally understand as you get older (like some things in life). Because you only really kapish once you’re a mother yourself. And by then it’s too late. Because all your chances for peace and quiet have gone, forever. Well, at least 18 years.

The bottom line is children have a way of invading your aural universe 24/7. First of all there’s that constant jabbering (they’re either talking to you, talking to a toy, or, er, talking for the sake of it – usually repeating a phrase endlessly – internalising their thoughts is not something toddlers do). Added to that, their toys plink, plonk, judder, thump and bump, or even talk as well – Dora The Explorer’s squeaky Americana is a particular ‘delight’. And kids don’t stop moving (unless you glue them in front of CBeebies) so there’s a constant ambience of feet tripping, containers being opened and emptied, doors slamming and loo seats crashing. And at regular intervals the screeeeech of a child who’s either fallen down, fallen off, banged into or trapped their limbs. And I only have one (for now).

Your only chance of some relief from this constant ‘on’ volume is when they sleep. Which is why you spend your whole day craving for that moment when your offspring is/are finally asleep and you can collapse on the sofa shellshocked. Wine often helps at this stage. Until your partner sticks on Eastenders so you can have Peggy and her brood jabbering on at you instead. Sigh. Still it makes you appreciate the smaller things in life. It’s a rare but eagerly relished morning when I’m blessed with an extra cup of tea in bed while dad is downstairs fighting with the little one over whether to have Shreddies or Weetabix for breakfast (“Nothing!!! I just wanna watch TEEEEVEEEEE”) . On playdates I see the potential aural onslaught of two or three kids, plus a baby, where such cups of tea would be pure fantasy. And I realise that my mum, who reared four of us, deserves every nanosecond of peace and quiet she enjoys now.

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It’s just a blob of coloured squashy putty. One of those kid-things that you vaguely remember. Oh, but once motherhood strikes you realise Play-Doh is so, sooo, soooooo much more than that. It’s a pacifier, it’s a boredom-imploder, it’s a creative outlet for your budding ‘artist’, hey, it’s practically a miracle. Really.

As well as its ability to keep ’em quiet for, well, at least a few minutes at a time, what makes it so wonderful is its versatility. When they’re young they’re happy to just bash it about and squash it and mash up the colours. As they get older they can spend hours making their first 3-D figurine (my two-year-old daughter was jubilant about her snowman – pictured above). And who needs plastic playfood when you can make your own carrots, peas and sausages? Bonus: clearing up is easy – unliked paints, glue & sand and the like – just stuff it back in the pot for next time.

Make your own why don’t you (the basic version is just flour, water and oil*), and your kid in messy play heaven ‘baking’ cakes without help. Just add glitter for extra visual panache. Or take a small mini-tub of it on a long plane or train journey – tetchy toddler soothed. At a festival I went to last year one smart mum had brought not only tubs of play-doh, but a foldable play table and play-doh cutters/shapers/rollers as well. The result? Four ecstatic 3-5 year olds kept busy out of harm’s way for a whole blessed hour while bleary-eyed parents enjoyed a quiet coffee and chat.

Here’s my advice: as soon as your baby stops jamming all and sundry into their mouth get them started on it. And from then on they will (hopefully) never stop. Well, until they start hammering the Nintendo DS anyhow. Dare I say even adults get a certain satisfaction from squashing, rolling and shaping this stuff on occasion.

And here’s the key, unlike some toys we find ourselves spending outrageous amounts of money on only to find they’ve grown out of them after 6 months, this stuff isn’t only cheap, there seems to be no age limit. Which is the holy grail where cash-strapped parents are concerned.

*you need to chuck this right away after play however – a more lasting recipe can be found here

Photo by Jim Linwood

For many years now I have felt faintly embarrassed by living statues. Not just for myself, but also for them – it’s no way to make a living, standing almost motionless for hours dressed up as a metallic Grecian statue or Charlie Chaplin in the cold and wet. I can see that the better ones probably spend hours applying their face paint and designing their clothes, and that some of them are, yes, actually quite visually clever. I know that most of them are probably out-of-work actors who don’t fancy waiting tables, and some possibly even talented mime artists. But the truth is, I don’t much care. They get in my way when I’m trying to speed-walk from Marks & Spencer to Paperchase in Covent Garden as quickly as possible.

And the hordes of unbelievably easily-amused spectators (or idiots as I like to call them) who gather round them – well surely they’re worse? Actually to stop and look and possibly even pay money to someone who is merely, erm standing still?

Perhaps the worst thing about living statues is the way they signify you are in a particular kind of hellish tourist zone, along with branches of Garfunkels, racks of postcards of Princess Diana and casual pickpockets.

It’s not just living statues I have previously been irrationally prejudiced against though. It’s any kind of street entertainer. Jugglers. Fire-eaters. Ventriloquists. People who do weird things with string and wire and perform magic tricks – in short anyone who looks like they got buzzed out by Amanda Holden on the last series of Britain’s Got Talent.

However, as with most things in life, all that has changed along with the arrival of my son. The other day on the South Bank I found myself wilfully steering him towards – yes towards! – a rather grizzled-looking juggling fire eater (two pet hates in one), and I finally became part of the gurning touristy crowd I had avoided all these years. ‘Look at that man over there eating fire,’ I found myself saying too loudly in the manner of embarrassing mums everywhere. ‘Isn’t it amazing?’ And you know what? It was amazing. Amazing to see my uncynically awestruck toddler’s face as he witnessed – for the first time ever in his entire life – a street entertainer doing something weird and wonderful and, yes, totally pointless. And amazing to have a couple of moments of peace that didn’t involve a bribe and a biscuit.

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This blog is currently dedicated to stuff new mummies like. As opposed to stuff mummies of teenagers like. That's because we don't have teenagers yet. Give us a few years though. We're told it goes pretty quickly...

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