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Playing for time by giving two fingers to The Man, by Ashley Parsons

It’s ‘Man’ versus machine…

Sometimes it takes a minor crisis to challenge lazy habits, and I’ll admit it: like most parents, when I’m busy or tired I can be lazy about playing imaginatively with my two year old.

Sometimes I resort to the CBeebies channel to buy myself time for ironing a shirt (only to end up eating biscuits). Other days I cave in to demands for another burst of Toy Story, because at 5pm it’s easier than persuading my daughter that she’d rather try organic potato printing.

At these moments my inner-Luddite generally pitches up, looking vaguely Amish, to plead that I have at least resisted the temptation of owning and deploying a toddler-friendly smart phone or iPad; mainly because I don’t want my child to start crying with confusion when she swipes her finger across a window pane and the world outside doesn’t move. But that defence isn’t really compatible with our bulging DVD shelf (sponsored by Pixar), and there remain a thousand little conveniences that I take for granted, on a daily basis, in balancing my parenting career with a full time job.

Last week’s minor crisis – a stint in hospital with my daughter – brought this into sharp relief. We needed blood samples processed overnight to establish if her recent spots really had been mild chickenpox. The disease can be dangerous for unborn babies and my pregnant wife had a) just found that she had no immunity, and b) been booked in for a scary sounding blood infusion the next morning. So my daughter and I rushed straight to hospital from the GP, without much of our usual kit and already past her bedtime, to get a definitive answer.

What with chickenpox being highly infectious we were placed in isolation. This meant waiting on our own in a small, brightly lit room, without any toys or books, and with no possibility of meeting anyone else in the queue. For the first hour we played all of our usual games, including Emptying Dad’s Wallet and Counting to Ten with Sock Monster (yes, that’s a sock on my hand), as well as singing and naming the colours around the room.

But as one hour became two even these old favourites started to lose their appeal. And, of course, the more I explained to my daughter that the various alarms, monitors and buttons fixed to the wall above the gurney were out of bounds, the more intriguing they became.

So, with no idea how much longer we’d have to wait, and the chances of a full-throttled melt-down rising by the minute, I dusted off my A-game. The cardboard bed pans became hats, which we decorated with plasters. The tissues on the side table became snow and the bed sheet became an igloo and then a tent. But the apogee of my creative streak was entirely free of props – a ludicrously simple new character, voiced by yours truly and performed rather brilliantly by the index and middle fingers of my right hand. He ran! He jumped! He followed instructions! My delighted daughter instantly showed her ultimate approval by giving him a name – ‘Man’.

Between Man’s crazy parkour antics and my daughter’s willingness to interact with her new friend, we managed to keep going for another two whole hours – right up until the blood was finally taken (ouch). At which point a tearful but dignified melt-down brought an end to a very long evening.

And this is where the 24-carat criminal justice link comes in. Not because I managed to remember during the evening in isolation that the Fathers Inside programme includes a whole lesson on imaginative play for prisoners and their families, using just a piece of blank white paper. (Naturally, I only remembered that afterwards… doh!)

But because spending four hours in a starkly institutional space with my child, and labouring under the pretence that everything was alright (when really I knew that the needle part at the end would be fairly horrible), made me later reflect on how lucky I am to spend so much daily time with my daughter at home, feeling relaxed and at ease. Compare and contrast that with the weekly experience of prisoners and their kids seeing each other in a supervised visits hall, with little in the way of toys or props.

Whatever the setting, young children can be demanding and exhausting – but they also have astonishing imaginations and a glorious aptitude for play that flat-screen gadgets will never be able to fully engage. And therefore the rewards for any parent willing and able to energise themselves to be included in that creative process are enormous. Even when the starting point is nothing more than a two-fingered man.

Ashley Parsons is the Fathers Inside Coordinator at Safe Ground

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