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Is there anything bleaker than waking up in the morning and realising that you literally have nothing planned with your three-year-old other than a trip to the local park? OK, I do realise lots of things are bleaker – war, drug addiction and child poverty being just three – but some days I actually think I’d rather go to a warzone than my local playground (there are those who might say on particularly grim low-lit February mornings it resembles one, with its expanse of pockmarked concrete, and drifts of flyblown litter).

I haven’t quite plumbed the exact depths of exactly why it affects me this way (I need a few more years of therapy for that), but going to my local playpark makes me feel like a total misfit. My child is generally the only one having a full-blown, blue-in-the-face tantrum on the swings (‘I SAID, push me FASTER mummy!). The other mothers always seem to be in tight little gaggles of twos and threes. Their children are always perfectly dressed. They are generally in the bland suburban uniform of jeans, some kind of padded jacket and Ugg boots. Unlike me, they look perfectly, happily at home there, amidst the three-wheel Bugaboos and Micro scooters, the Jojo Maman Bebe playsuits and Baby Bjorn carriers. I look at them, and think ‘they’ll never want to talk to me.’

I’m aware this makes me sound like I am the one who has the problem (and in a way it’s true), and it’s my fault for living somewhere where wearing a pair of Converse trainers or reading The Guardian marks you out as a wacky leftfield individualist who dares to have their own thoughts occasionally, not just ones they saw in the Daily Mail (OK, I exaggerate, but not that much). But it’s true that there are few places where I feel more like an outsider than the park. Just the thought of going there instantly makes me feel inferior, stressed, weird and very, very bored indeed.

That isn’t the only reason I dread the park, however. There are the constant tantrums, as described before. There is generally the threat of one of the much older, rather aggressive school children who permanently seem to inhabit the under-7s play areas viciously kicking my son in the head on the climbing frame. There is the vague threat that my own child might accidentally hit or punch a younger child, leading to a minor law suit. There is the fact that an evil ice-cream vendor permanently parks his van outside the gates, which means I will inevitably have to fork out £2 for an ice-cream for my son on the way home.

There is the general fear that, while I look away for a split second, my son will tumble off one of the climbing frames, and smash his head in. And there is the slightly tense air of competitiveness amongst parents to get on the damned equipment to begin with, whether it’s claiming a turn on the swing or getting in line for the slides. I just can’t bear the middle-class elbows-out-ness of it all.

Ok, I grudgingly admit it – it’s nice to see my son’s enjoyment on the slide and roundabout. I want him to learn how to climb, and get a few adrenalin-based thrills on the slide. But, generally, when I take him, it is one of those selfless moments that as a mother I must practice every day, as I do something I would rather not, as I eavesdrop on blood-pressure raising conversations about catchment areas (my son got our 6th choice of primary school, so please just shut up!) and feel the hours of my life slipping away, every rotation of the roundabout another second not spent doing something more edifying. But I love my son, so I take him to the park anyway.

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An unidentifiable piece of plastic crap. A squashed piece of birthday cake, wrapped in a soiled serviette that will remain uneaten for a week before you throw it in the bin. A tiny bag of Haribo sweets to rot your child’s teeth. A cheap yoyo to add to the 50 other cheap yoyos already sadly languishing in your kitchen drawer. A lollipop (more teeth rotting), and a fake tattoo so your child can experience the joys of channelling David Beckham/Jordan at the tender age of three. All lovingly encased in a shiny plastic bag. These represent (though not always) the average contents of the children’s birthday party bag. I have heard tell of middle-class oneupmanship, where competitive mothers slip in iPods, Diptyque candles, Jojo Maman Bebe cashmere blankets, but I have to say that down my way it’s all multipacks of bubbles (we now have 14 of these in our kitchen drawer next to the yo-yos) and glittery sticker sheets. Thank God.

Like cracker gifts at Christmas, noone really wants or needs a party bag. Yet I’m absolutely not knocking them. They are an essential part of the birthday party experience. They hold such promise. The little bag of fun, those shining little faces grabbing them after the party, peeking inside, all expectant and hopeful. Will there be a Playstation? A Ben 10 figurine set? Or will there be a cheap glider that will manage one inaugural flight across the living room before nosediving and irreparably snapping, and some truly horrible chewy sweets? Even my son, who isn’t yet 4, and still thinks he’s got one over on me because I give him the occasional chocolate coin as a reward, knows the drill now. Eat the sweets fast before mummy confiscates, stick the plastic crap in the relevant toy tray with all the other plastic crap, leave the cake to ossify on the countertop and spill the bubbles. Truly a bag of fun.

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

For years I have been horribly cynical about the mania the rest of the world has for Christmas. The complaints I had were hardly original: yes, it’s become way too consumerist. I’m not religious so what am I actually celebrating? It’s depressing for people who are on their own (the suicide rates shoot up at this time of year). It’s also tough on couples (so do divorce rates in January). And for many people, the prospect of getting together with family is miserable and stressful, rather than fun and exciting.

But after becoming a mum, all that horrid, mean, Scroogy cynicism (OK, some of it) has gone right out of the window. Because now Christmas allows me to indulge every secretly tacky, consumerist, tinsel-covered bone in my body. I can’t wait to see my son’s face light up when he gets given a big fat stocking on Christmas morning, and tears open his presents. I’ve loved watching him open the advent calendars we have (both old-fashioned cardboard, and iPod app). He saw a fairylight-strung Christmas tree grotto filled with fake reindeer and owls the other day, and, being only 17-months-old and not highly developed in the ‘good taste’ department, looked awestruck with total wonder. Next week I am even planning to go into a Build-A-Bear Workshop to get a cuddly panda for my son (pre-kids the kind of store I gave the same wide berth as I do Kentucky Fried Chicken). I may or may not buy a mini Santa outfit to dress it up in. Speaking of which, yes, I do also plan to dress my son up as an elf on Christmas day. While he is little enough to enjoy the whole twinkly, magical side of it all, I’m certainly not going to spoil it for him.

I’m not saying I embrace every aspect of the festive season. I’m still not crazy about the wastefulness and endless cycle of people giving others presents they don’t want, like or need.
And I definitely draw the line at encouraging anyone to buy the Susan Boyle album as a present this year. I may have come round to Christmas but I haven’t taken complete leave of my senses.

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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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