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The wit and wisdom of the under-fives

Linda Blackburne spent three weeks helping in her daughter's Hertfordshire nursery. Here is what she learned. On my first day as a parent helper at Summercroft nursery, three-year-old Dominic asked: "Do you know what my name is?" "No."

"Dominic James Metcalf."

Ah. So this was the famous Dominic my four-year-old daughter, Lauren, was always talking about.

Two hours later Dominic asked me the same question. I could only manage "Dominic. . . er. . . er. . ."

"Dominic James Metcalf." he said, fixing me with a scholarly stare.

A week later I master it, and accost him in the middle of a game which involves rushing about wearing a black cape. "Dominic, I've remembered your name. It's Dominic James Metcalf" I said triumphantly.

"No, it's not," he retorted distainfully. "It's Batman." And he flounced off.

Intrigued, I asked Lauren why she liked Dominic so much. She thought about the question for a few seconds and said: "Because he's a nice cuddler." Long pause. "But I don't know who I'm going to marry."

This was progress of sorts. Only last week Lauren said she wanted to marry me, or grandpa. On another day at the Bishop's Stortford nursery, Lauren had been unhappy about Victoria sitting on my knee at story time. We had a chat about it at home, and this is what she said: "I like you best (sic) than a pig, best than a dolphin - but not sprouts. But I still love you mummy." Sprouts, you understand, are Lauren's favourite vegetable "in the whole world".

Seeing how children's minds work must be one of the most rewarding things about working in a nursery. Children make us laugh so much. And they also tell us a lot about ourselves. Take the spot-the-mistake-in-the-picture game, for example. One card depicts an armchair with human arms instead of wooden ones. In theory, the answer is supposed to be: "Chairs don't have people's arms; they have wooden ones." But two children gave the same (correct?) answer: "Somebody's hiding behind the chair."

It helps you to understand why questions in the Government's national tests misfire. Unlike adults, children have no preconceived ideas.

Children's humour can also be baffling to grown-ups. Why does: "You've got poo on your head, mummy! Ugghhh" cause, not just laughter, but hysterics in our offspring? Though I must confess a liking for the Summercroft alternative to Humpty Dumpty: "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wallEating black bananasWhere d'yer think he put the skinDown the king's pyjamas!" And the Father Christmas song sung (in March) to the tune of Frere Jacques: "Father Christmas, Father ChristmasHe got stuck, he got stuck Coming down the chimney, coming down the chimneyWhat bad luck! What bad luck!"

Learning whole nursery rhymes is another reward for working in the nursery. Lauren often comes home with a line or two and asks me for the rest. In my enthusiasm to help, I splashed out on The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book by Iona and Peter Opie, but even though it contains 800 rhymes, ditties, jingles and lullabies, it doesn't list "Tommy Thumb Where Are You?", nor the popular scarecrow song with grand theatrical actions which is always sung with such gusto that I can't hear all the words.

If only every parent could be a fly on the wall. Yes, they'd see the nose digging and eating (picking I can understand, but why eating? Is it because it's a part of themselves they don't want to lose, or is it just an extension of baby-mode exploring?); the runny, green noses; the three-second attention spans; the wriggle bottoms; and some naughtiness; but, I think, they would be surprised to see how much a nursery can fit into a two-and-a-half to three hour session.

Behind the two score cut out paper faces on the wall, the instrument making, and the Easter bunny biscuit baking, are as many after hours activities by nursery workers to ensure smooth-running, structured sessions. I can't throw away a Weetabix box or the inside of a kitchen roll without feeling guilty anymore. And wouldn't some parents be surprised to see their four-year-olds dressing themselves every week without any help? That sullen flop at getting up and going to bed times is a put-on after all.

Summercroft Nursery in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, is non-profit making, and currently provides places for over 100 three to five-year-olds.

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