We have two playgroups in our week. One is a Christian outfit in a shopfront church, run by the minister’s wife: 20 kids on a quiet day, maybe 30 at the end of a week of rain. A plethora of plastic, in every possible colour and incarnation, spews across the floor: plastic sausages and grapes sizzle in a pot on the plastic stove, plastic dolls, victims of several generations of haircuts and scarification rituals, are walked in plastic strollers, toddlers teeter at the top of the plastic slide and have tea parties in the plastic cubbies.
Kids run, squeal, laugh, dance, push, shove and cry in the chaos. Parents look around for the familiar features, voice, hair, T-shirt of their own child, lost in a sea of smallness. Church elders serve tea and coffee and homemade cakes (lamingtons, caramel slice, scones) to the parents; crackers and Kraft cheese or fairy bread for the kids, with apple juice in plastic sippy cups.
The minister, in shorts and T-shirt, chats to the odd dad or overwhelmed newcomer and mans the organ while his wife sings on guitar and mic. Craft inevitably involves parents attempting to string a noodle necklace, whilst damage-controlling toddlers eating glue sticks and enthusiastically customising each other’s hair and clothes with pots of paint, that are a uniform khaki or poo brown.
For Easter we make ‘eggs’ with Milk Arrowroots, icing and tubs of Smarties, woozy on the fumes from the bowl of Dettol, in which snotty and chocolatey fingers are dipped fore and aft. The sugar rush makes for an interesting story-time as does the Sunday School book-of-the-week (‘some men didn’t like Jesus, they nailed him to a cross and he died’).
Our other weekly date is a Steiner playgroup, housed in a pale pink cottage, wreathed in floaty muslin and rainbow-dyed felt. Maybe eight to 12 kids, not a plastic French fry in sight: Obi cooks up a storm with unshelled Macca nuts, river stones and seed pods.
Free play time is limited, instead there is a strong structure that is the same every week: we bring ‘juicy fruit’ to share, make ‘crunchy buns’, play outside, bless our food, light a candle, sings sing sing.
Ellen washes the children’s hands in a bowl of warm water and lavender every morning before we make our buns and again before we come inside to eat. We sweep and scrub and wipe the table after baking and eating, the scramble for sponges almost as heated as that over the Nimbin cheese, which (with cucumber, lettuce and tomato) adorns our crunchy buns, fresh from the oven.
Obi develops a hand-washing fetish (never a strong point in our house, unless poo is involved) and a deep affinity with the dustpan and brush.
Every one of these rituals has a song that accompanies it. The songs, while pleasant enough during daylight hours, are a particularly nasty strain of virus which tends to strike in the early hours of the morning, between two and four, at which time I can be found staring at the ceiling and tapping my feet along to: ‘we’re busy, we’re baking, crunchy buns we’re making…’.
While the children play outside in the sandpit and cubby, or water the garden and each other with hose, buckets and watering cans, we do ‘mamas’ busy work’, with needles and threads of different varieties. Eyes on another mama’s particularly graceful felt butterfly, I fail to prevent Obi being pushed in the back and face first down the stairs of the cubby, onto the gravel. Mama’s arms and arnica soon soothe my bruised babe and proffered cup of tea, me, although my shaken nerves could do with something stronger (a shot of rescue remedy, perhaps?)
‘I thought Steiner kids were supposed to be nice,’ says T, perusing his daughter’s artistically scraped face. But Obi gathers herself with grace and, with barely a backward glance, walks on into the big world.