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Messy Mama, a haven for parents and young children

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Ennis and Theo Willens playing with Oobleck, a substance that can behave like a solid or a liquid (Photograph supplied)
Heather Willens with sons Ennis and Theo (Photograph supplied)
Heather Willens making footprints with her son Theo (Photograph supplied)
Soapy water play at a Messy Mama playgroup session (Photograph supplied)
Making footprints (Photograph supplied)
Messy Mama subscription boxes (Photograph supplied)

Heather Willens remembers just how isolated she felt when her son, Theo, was born last year.

Worried by the pandemic, she initially kept him close to home but as time went on she noticed he seemed a little more prone to sensory overload than his two-year-old brother, Ennis.

The former Primary 1 teacher at Saltus Grammar School believes it is because Theo had not been exposed to the hustle and bustle of everyday life that was typical before Covid-19.

Ms Willens, who had been running a weekly playgroup called Messy Mama in her backyard for Ennis’s peers, decided to do the same for Theo.

“With Covid, what was a casual way of connecting and doing something different than what was currently on offer locally for parents and our young children became more of a key way of keeping some semblance of normalcy, sanity and connection with other moms,” she said.

On offer were fun, sensory activities: bubble flowers, chalk art – creating footprints with paint.

Ms Willens believes that exposing children to positive sounds, textures, tastes and visual stimuli helps with brain development.

“You don't want to bombard them, but you develop a baseline with experience,” she said.

Messy Mama grew out of a WhatsApp group she started soon after Ennis was born. She needed “a mom tribe” and reached out to a few parents she knew.

“We were looking for a community and things to do with our children that were healthy and hands on, and a little bit more than just music,” she said.

“There is not a lot on the island for young kids until they are about four years old and even then it is very gendered, in my experience. If you are not sporty or musical, there is not a lot for little guys until they are a lot older.”

Ms Willens, who studied psychology with a focus on neuropsychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and has master’s degrees in science and integrated education from Wheelock College in Boston, often pulls out her old text books for ideas.

“I am a big nerd,” the 35-year-old said. “I am really interested in how kids learn.”

One of things she has discovered is that self-directed, or independent play, is really important for brain development.

The role of adults should only be to keep the child safe but many parents feel pressured to do educational things, particularly during times of remote learning, Ms Willens said.

“There is a lot of pressure to have ourselves and our kids achieve,” she said. “It is really hard to do that when you run your own business, or have to do your job alongside home schooling your child.

“Because I have encouraged independent play from the start, [Theo] will sit next to me quite happily and play while I pour cement, or whatever.”

Although Messy Mama meetings are on hold because of the uptick in Covid-19 cases, Ms Willens is offering sensory boxes so parents can do the same with their children at home.

Typical things in the boxes include diggers, board books and building materials. Each month the boxes follow a theme.

Ms Willens also sells sensory resources such as kinetic sand and play dough.

“Every time we go into social-distancing, the subscription box sales go up,” she said.

Although it has been challenging for her running a business and raising two little boys she manages with the help of her husband Joel, and other family members.

“Up until recently, I had two children under the age of two in my house 24/7, while running two classes a week and learning the basics of online retail,” she said.

“It was a lot. I already knew how hard it was for retailers out there, but now I have even more respect than I did before. Everything has to be brought in.”

Among the many other skills she has had to learn are how to mix concrete and resin to make the alphabet letters she includes in the sensory boxes.

But, she says, it’s an amazing challenge.

“I spent the summer establishing wholesale and retail relationships with some vendors that I truly believe in – whether it is just from sourcing my packaging to really high quality open ended toys that are not available on the island,” Ms Willens said.

“There are people on the island who are bringing in some great things, such as Jolie Kids, Bright Isle and the Stationery Store. They are amazing, so I am making sure to stay in my lane.”

Ms Willens sells mini subscription boxes for children ages six to 30 months for $35. Boxes for children between the ages of three and seven are $55. The boxes can be purchased as a one-off or can be delivered monthly.

Follow @messy.mama.bda on Facebook or Instagram. For more information visit messymamasensoryplay.com; hello@messymamasensoryplay.com; 704-4489

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Published September 21, 2021 at 8:05 am (Updated September 22, 2021 at 8:06 am)

Messy Mama, a haven for parents and young children

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