By Dave Waller Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A day in the life of a nursery worker is anything but playtime

The Sharp End: Endearing as his charges were, a nursery job was too much like hard work for Dave Waller.

This month, MT is sending me to Toad Hall nursery in Hitchin, Herts. I'm expecting tears and tantrums, and not just from yours truly. In fact, the full job spec I've been given is 'front-line' nursery worker, which hardly fills me with confidence.

I imagine getting sent 'over the top' into a barrage of Night Garden dolls lobbed by an advancing platoon of bawling toddlers.

I report for duty at Hitchin station at 7.30am, where I meet Toad Hall Group chief executive Ruth Pimental and immediately realise that my late finish the previous night may have been a very bad idea. Judging by how bouncy and energetic she is, I shudder at the thought of how pumped up the little sugar soldiers are going to be.

And there are 100 of them, aged from three months to five years. 'Your group are about to start big school,' Ruth beams. 'So they basically feel like they run the world.'

But things are initially sedate when I reach my battleground for the day, the Dragonfly room. A pair of four year-olds tuck quietly into bowls of Shreddies at a tiny table in the corner. 'This is the calm bit,' says Chris, who's in charge of the room.

She's right - it's so calm that one girl manages to sustain a perfectly formed pea of mucus on her nostril for the whole hour.

But before long, the space is home to 13 kids. While Chris responds to demands for second helpings of Weetabix, everyone is free to roam and play.

Two five year-olds march around with plastic boxes on their heads, saying 'I am a robot', while the rest mob Carly, the other nursery worker, as she reads a story about a princess.

'I came in early to say hello to you,' says one precocious young chap, announcing his entrance, before introducing himself to me with his full name. I half expect him to pull out a business card. Maybe next year.

Other personalities are immediately apparent too. One lad goes on long rants about his time as a baby, while another sits laughing at his family's word for the toilet. 'Look at me!' shouts a third, as he slams a foam block into his forehead.

The trick to managing all these characters is to keep things moving - one minute I'm helping to make a 'chocolate cake' out of a pile of sand (an activity that rapidly descends into chaos once everyone wants in on it), the next we're being herded together for focused group activity.

Dave Waller prepares for battle

'This is going to be amazing,' says one lad as Carly unfurls a big sheet of paper. We're sticking labels on parts of the body, an activity rendered less amazing by the fact that someone keeps 'popping' throughout. It wasn't me.

Soon enough, we're all back on our feet again and the kids are excited because we're going to the garden.

I help them get their coats on and tutor one lad in putting his shoes on the right feet. He promptly puts them on the wrong way round again. They line up in wonderful order by the door before hitting the playground, whereupon they transform into a fascinating Bosch-like tableau of human life. While some rush with great intent in random directions in toy vehicles, others follow each other blindly along lines of stepping stones to no apparent end.

True to form, our precocious entrepreneur-in-waiting has started a business. He pulls up in a pedal car and flogs me an invisible ice-cream.

The team here are masters of timing (as well as patience, which you have to have in abundance).

Just as the energy reaches that universal fever pitch where tempers start to fray, we're back in for French songs with a visiting teacher about a bear doing laundry. I sit at a table with Chris as she shows me her paperwork, which covers everything from the kids' personal development to diet.

The team can earn £21,000 for their 40-hour week, and although Toad Hall provides its staff with holiday pay and sick pay, many others in the childcare sector do not.

In fact, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years identifies poor pay and low status as major gripes among childcare workers. But Chris, who used to be a research scientist, loves it here.

Of course, working with kids brings its rewards, even though I'm knackered. When it comes to say goodbye, I've got to know them so well that I feel sad to leave.

I console myself with the thought that, rather like one session on the rifle range, one morning in a nursery may be fun, but I wouldn't fancy the whole tour of duty ...

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