x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Play time is down time for mums

While their children play with toys and each other, parents get a chance to chat, grab a coffee and exchange parenting tips.

Jill Greenhill, left, with her son Finlay, 1, and Lindy Moruzzi chat yesterday while their children play. Dads are also welcome to join Abu Dhabi Mums.
Jill Greenhill, left, with her son Finlay, 1, and Lindy Moruzzi chat yesterday while their children play. Dads are also welcome to join Abu Dhabi Mums.

ABU DHABI // Mirai Deacon is curled up on the brightly coloured floor, watching as her two-year-old son, Kailash, draws large swirls on a small easel with chalk.

Nearby, Azfer Nasir stacks plastic blocks until they tumble to the ground. The one-year-old laughs in delight, then starts stacking again.

Azfer's mother, Kauser, watches from the sidelines while dozens of other children race around the games room at Zayed Sports City, pushing dolls in pushchairs, tossing miniature footballs and squealing down the slide.

Ringing the large play area, parents gather in small groups, sip coffee, and exchange recommendations on the capital's best paediatricians and advice for getting through the night with a newborn. They hand out snacks, snap photographs of their children playing in the inflatable ball pit, and take turns cleaning up spills and scrubbing crayon off the wall.

Nearly every day, families from the Abu Dhabi Mums group - open to mums and dads - come together in the city's parks, beaches and playgrounds to share stories and provide their children with structured play time. The "Mix and Match" play groups at Zayed Sports City, which allows children of different age groups to play together, are some of the more popular activities for the social group, which is open to anyone living in the city who is expecting or who has children under six years old.

"What we're doing is filling a gap for people who don't have a family support system here already," said Sam Turner, a co-ordinator of Abu Dhabi Mums.

The 17-year-old organisation started as a weekly coffee meeting among new mothers but has since grown to include more than 600 parents from more than 50 countries. The non-profit organisation is run by volunteers who co-ordinate several weekly play groups - with child-friendly names such as "Movers and Groovers" and "Toddles and Waddles" - and special events geared at helping facilitate a close relationship between parent and child.

Just as important is building a social network for new parents.

"The play groups are for children, but they're really set up so mums can meet," Mrs Turner said. "It's really scary and terrifying to be in a new country without that support system, and this is a chance to meet women with children who can tell you what you're doing is right, and that's reassuring."

Abu Dhabi Mums is composed primarily of expatriates, and among the offerings for swim groups and singalongs are language-specific gatherings for Spanish, German and French speakers. Family groups and ladies nights are also part of the rotation.

"When I first moved over here, I was sitting at home bored out of my head," said Lucy Hanns, a 23-year-old from England with a one-year-old and another baby on the way. "I joined because I like the feel of a community. It helps take the place of friends and family who aren't here."

At a recent Mix and Match playgroup, three-year-old Abdullah Abrahim, decked out in a Toy Story T-shirt, pushed his one-year-old sister, Hajar, in a blue plastic boat.

"I wanted my children to be more social. And just being at home, it's nice to come and just get some rest," said their mother, Arij Abrahim, a 32-year-old mother from Iraq.

And Abu Dhabi Mums also draws in a fair share of dads.

"I joke that this is the most exclusive club in the city," said Eric Potter, 33, a stay-at-home dad to two-year-old Lola and three-month-old Beck.

Mr Potter, an American, has been coming to the playgroup for nearly two years, and he said he comes as much for the conversation as he does for the activities.

"This is a place to go in the morning where it's all orientated for kids, and it's all about my daughter," Mr Potter said. "But it's also a lot of information exchange - where's there an organic store? What are the best parks? Where are the splash pads?"

The group's new membership cycle begins in April, and part of the next push will be to encourage more Emirati women to join. Posters will be printed up in Arabic, and part of the Abu Dhabi Mums website will be translated.

"We really want to see more UAE nationals involved," Mrs Turner said. "We understand that the support network that is needed is predominantly for expats, but we are open to everyone."