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Pam Saulet, right, and Dana Shabaneh help Alice, 2, hang her artwork at St Andrews Church, Abu Dhabi, where Messy Monkeys hosts its art and craft sessions. Sammy Dallal / The National
Pam Saulet, right, and Dana Shabaneh help Alice, 2, hang her artwork at St Andrews Church, Abu Dhabi, where Messy Monkeys hosts its art and craft sessions. Sammy Dallal / The National

Make room for Messy Monkeys time in Abu Dhabi

Messy Monkeys is an arts and craft group for children of different ages, right here in Abu Dhabi.

The idea of doing art activities with young children makes most parents cringe with memories of play dough lodged in the carpet, glittery tables and washable paint that turned out to be un-washable. But parents in Abu Dhabi have found a stress-free way to introduce their little ones to the world of art through a group that offers them craft activities to enjoy with their preschoolers - without having to worry about staining the rugs.

"I love it when things get messy - seeing the children playing with shaving foam," says the Emirati organiser Dana Shabaneh, 30. "I love it when you see a child doing something that they can't do at home."

Shabaneh has been helping organise Messy Monkeys since the group began almost three years ago, when her son Faris was 2 and her daughter Maryam was a five-month-old baby.

The group is led by Pam Meenagh, 33. "There are some children who, when they first start coming, don't want to touch the paint or get their hands mucky and by the end of it, they're stripping down to their nappies and diving in as soon as they see the messy activities coming out," says Meenagh.

Back in the UK, Meenagh worked long hours as a lawyer when her six-year-old daughter Erin was younger. Two years ago, she gave up her career when she found out she had cervical cancer and spent a year battling the disease. The experience made her reassess her life, and the family decided to move to Abu Dhabi last February so Meenagh could spend more quality time with her children. She admits that running Messy Monkeys is a great way for her to exercise her brain while still managing to spend time with her kids.

Meenagh took over the running of the group almost a year ago, despite having had no previous experience doing anything similar and having only been to the group a few times. "I had to learn quickly. I get inspiration from my mum who was a primary schoolteacher back in the UK as well as being a mother of five, so she knows about children's craft activities. I often run ideas by her first. We also get ideas from just wandering around the craft sections of shops and thinking about how we can link the materials we see with different themes."

The British-born Jenna Batson, 32, coordinates Tuesday's session with her fellow Brit Dani Payne, 33. Batson came up with the idea of making jellyfish from paper plates and putting up a tent to look like an underwater grotto, with UV lighting inside that made the jellyfish glow in the dark. "It looked amazing, and such a sensory experience for the kids," recalls Batson.

Organisers also try to incorporate drama into their theme. "One week we read the children's book Going on a Bear Hunt, then we made a cave out of cardboard boxes, with teddy bears inside and had all the children and grown-ups pretending to go on a bear hunt around the room," says Meenagh.

Shabaneh particularly loved a term they did on countries: "India Week definitely sticks in my mind. We got an artist to paint henna on the children's arms, we served Indian food, the children got to smell Indian spices and we listened to Bollywood music, so the children were using all five of their senses. It really brought India to life."

Messy Monkeys had been running twice a week for more than three years. The group has never had to advertise itself, growing as a result of word of mouth in the community and attracting a mix of nationalities. Meenagh believes the new community centres set to open soon in Abu Dhabi will be a great opportunity for groups like hers.

Shabaneh adds, "There are so many new nurseries opening now in Abu Dhabi. Messy Monkeys to me is like a nursery, but without leaving your child. It is for parents who don't want to put their children in a full-time nursery, who want to spend quality time with their children. You leave with something that you have made with your child. And you treasure that more because of the memory of doing it together."

artslife@thenational.ae

More on Messy Monkeys

- Messy Monkeys involves three structured art activities, but there are also toys put out for children who aren't ready to participate in the crafts.

- Old clothes are advisable - halfway through the session, a messy sensory activity is usually introduced.

- Children eat a snack that they bring from home and the session ends with games and singing.

- Messy Monkeys is for children ages 2 to 4 and runs on Sundays and Tuesdays from 9.30am until 11am at St Andrew's community hall in Al Mushrif.

- The groups start up again on Sunday. See the Messy Monkeys Facebook page for more information.

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