Most Friday mornings we spend at Playgroup. This is a charity function that takes place two or three times a week at one of the local community centers. The best way to describe a morning there would be: Chaos – Snack Time – Chaos, it’s truly incredible. It’s just a big room stocked full of toys of all types, for ages 1 – 6, on average around 30 kids turn up and they wreck the place. At snack time the kids all sit down at the little tables in the corner while the parents bring them food, mostly toast, cookies and squash. For twenty minutes there’s calm, order and quiet until gradually as the kids finish their plates we descend back into chaos.
Some Saturdays we go to Play Booth. It’s essentially the same thing but instead of toys the kids have two big constructs, each with a gigantic slide. There's a bouncy castle too, also with a slide. Snack Time is replaced by a kitchen that offers adult snacks as well as kid snacks. Since we’ve been going there Jack has had me for his playmate. Together we run, climb and crawl through the constructs until we get to the slides, at the slide we race or slide down backward or whatever we feel like at the time. Then we do it again, and again, and again. For Jack, it’s the best thing ever, he loves the slides and especially loves the bouncy castle. For me, the play booth means three hours of extreme workout, because Jack prefers the over 5s’ construct to the under 5s’, he’s not tall enough to climb through it by himself, I have to lift and carry him, as well as myself, around up and down the obstacles. Usually by lunch time I’m pretty beat.
Jack loves both, I don’t think he could choose between the two.
A few weeks ago we went to the Play Booth. As usual Jack had opened the child-proof gate and left his shoes and a coat on the floor next to me before I’d even finished paying. He's like a character in a cartoon show, he zips off screen leaving only a twirling pair of shoes behind. Helen and I off-loaded our coats and bags on the sofas then I removed my shoes ready for my three hours of pain. I walked round to the entrance of the over 5s’ construct where Jack is normally waiting for me, very loudly, but Jack wasn’t there. Instead I found him lying on the ground about 5 feet away giggling. Normally this wouldn’t have been anything except where he was lying was at the bottom of the slide. He’d managed to get all the way up to the slide, by himself. When he finished giggling he got up, pushed me out of the way and went up and ‘round again and again.
At that moment I was filled with a mixture of emotions. Pride that my son was both big enough and strong enough to climb all the way up to the slide alone. Relief that I wasn’t going to have to find the energy to keep up with him for the next three hours and sadness, my son didn’t need my help any more.
I took these emotions with me back to the sofa and my puzzled wife. I sat down, relaxed and… watched, just like most of the other parents. I didn’t care for it much. I sat with Helen sipping hot chocolate and joking about feeling unwanted in an attempt to hide my hurt feelings, I fear I may have given myself away by practically jumping out of my seat when I heard Jack calling me from the ball pit. The session passed slowly by, much slower than usual, occasionally Jack called me over to play with him, but eventually he’d lose interest and go off on his own. As he got tired the calls increased, but it was clear it was more out of necessity than anything else.
Recently we were at the Play Booth again, this time with all his little buddies from the Playgroup. Jack spent most of the time running around with them, almost all of which are also now tall enough to get all the way to the over 5s’ slide, just two weeks earlier none of them could do it on their own. I was still needed for some things, but mostly I just sat on the sofa, watching.
As Jack has grown older he’s stopped needing me for a great many things but this was something to which I hadn’t really given much thought. I’ve always been his favourite playmate, and he mine.
I’m getting past it all now. Jack still needs me to toss him around the ball pit and things, and some of the other kids like me to play with them as well, but it’s not going to last much longer. Over time our relationship will change. He’ll grow up and away and as he becomes more and more independent, I’ll find myself sitting on the sofa more and more. I guess I’m just going to have to accept it sooner or later but I don’t have to like it.