Traumatic, overwhelming and highly emotional – our first experience of a mums and tots group in Dubai was far from pleasant. Entering a room of a dozen mums with their squawking brats (sorry, beloved offspring), we almost did a U-turn, such was the chaos. We stayed, and endured a horrible session of kids fighting, screaming and banging the bejaysus out of grubby plastic toys. I stuck it out for a tortuous hour but was on the verge of tears. My daughter, not yet a year old, had no such restraint, and turned on the waterworks as soon as she could catch her breath.
Perhaps surprisingly, I went back week after weeping week, thinking such bedlam was a necessary evil I’d just have to live with. Not so. Emma Mercer-Carter, a fellow ‘wide-eyed-with-fear’ mum I’d met and befriended at one such group, has discovered a more peaceful path. After attending a Steiner parent and child group with her two children in the UK, she created a group called Seedlings, based on Steiner principles, upon her return to Dubai.
‘If you go to most playgroups, you encounter a room full of toys, primary colours and noise,’ she says. ‘There’s no structure, it’s simply a free-for-all with children running around, shouting, crying, often distraught – it’s not relaxing for anyone. There’s just no routine or rhythm to hold the children and make them feel safe and secure.’
Part of the Steiner ethos is that if you show children what to do and what is expected of them, they will follow because they learn by imitation. ‘When it’s clear what children are supposed to be doing, they invariably enjoy following you and happily get involved, while parents busying themselves with a meaningful activity creates a calm atmosphere for the children to play in,’ explains Emma.
She’s right. As the tots arrive at her home, their innate curiosity is piqued by Emma, sitting calmly at a small table, singing softly and kneading organic bread dough. They trot to the table, grab a chair and start moulding their own balls of dough to make bread dragons. While a few kids are distracted by the toy kitchen, the outside painting, the wooden toys, and the baskets of shells, pine cones and stones (which is fine – they are free to join in or to play creatively) most get stuck in. Helped by their mums, they fill the dragon’s tummies with dates and prunes, make ‘fire’ with dried apricots and add flaked almond scales. Two small boys take great pride in carrying the baking trays through to the kitchen while everyone washes their hands, all the time accompanied by Emma’s singing.
‘I love it,’ says Anouk, who’s just started coming with her two-year-old son, Noah. ‘I like that it involves the parents in lots of pretend play, crafts and making things together. And I love Emma’s singing! Sweet and slow, it’s instantly calming and that rubs off on the children.’
The peace is striking. Looking around, it’s hard to believe there are seven mums (not including Emma and myself) and 11 nippers aged from two months up to five years, although the main core of the group is between 18 months and three years. In any other situation, that would spell pandemonium, but here there’s no squabbling over the saucepans and no pettiness over the painting.
With hands washed, it’s snack time, and all the kids get involved in setting the table and prepping their own healthy munchies, washing carrots, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and fruit, while the mums do the peeling and chopping. Everyone says ‘thank you’ for the food and tucks in. They spread organic butter and jam on the now cooked bread dragons using teeny metal knives and china plates and sip warm organic apple juice and chamomile tea from mini china cups.
A key aspect of the group is a respect for the child and for nature. The toys and props are all natural (no plastic here, thank you) and the refreshments are wholefood or, where possible, organic. ‘When you live in an environment like Dubai where you don’t have trees and forests outside your door, it’s nice to have that focus on nature,’ says Arnie, mum to Ben, almost three. ‘As a parent it makes you more aware: Is my child running barefoot in the grass? Does he know what earth smells like? And I love the communal aspect – washing hands, preparing snacks and clearing up is all done together. It gets you thinking about your lifestyle.’ Emma says, ‘There’s an emphasis on the aesthetic quality of things; the room is beautiful and I’ve had a two-year-old comment on the beauty of a small, delicate knife. There’s often an assumption that children don’t find beauty in things. In fact, they are more sensitive to their environments than we are.’
After carefully washing up (amazingly all crockery remains intact) the kids make a circle for song time. It’s hard to believe two hours have passed, and despite being in the company of a large number of under-threes, I don’t feel in need of a large glass of ‘mummy’s medicine’.
‘This group is all about taking a breath, a bit of calm in our very busy and often over-stimulated lives. It’s about learning new parenting skills and ideas for family life,’ says Emma. And mum-of-three Kristi agrees: ‘When I arrived in Dubai I thought I’d have to tag along with everyone else, but there are alternatives. This definitely works for us. It brings us all down a notch. It’s just lovely.’
The Seedlings runs Wednesdays and Thursdays, 9am-11am. Booking is essential. (050 984 9370; email@example.com)
What is Steiner?
Steiner or Waldorf Education was invented by an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner and first used in 1919 with the children of workers in the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Germany. Steiner’s intention was to create a holistic approach to education, not just focusing on intellectual learning but through multi-faceted, multi- sensory learning experiences, building on a child’s strengths and weaknesses to become a more whole/rounded person.