What I learned hanging out with a 5-year-old boy

This week, I spent a day escorting a five-year-old boy around Sydney. Courtesy of school holidays and a last-minute change in plans, I was called up from the childcare reserve bench. My challenge: to ensure not only that my nephew was kept safe and sound (basic childcare), but that he had a reasonably good time (advanced childcare).

Safe and sound wasn’t too hard – it meant that we had to hold hands crossing the road and on the escalators, and he promised not to run off in exchange for my promise to follow wherever he wanted to go in return. A solid negotiation, I thought.

But the challenge of killing most of a day in the city was a daunting one, especially since rain was forecast.

Imagine my delight, then, upon realising that there was a vast Lego exhibition on in the Sydney Town Hall, especially for the holidays. It turned out that all my nephew’s friends were going, apparently, and so of course we had to, as well. After all, I wanted to be one of those fun uncles.

I loved Lego growing up. We had an avalanche of the stuff, and I spent thousands upon thousands of hours constructing my latest acquisition, characteristically discarding the instructions early on in the piece to freestyle additions that no Lego structural engineer would have signed off on. Stepping on one of those two-button-bricks was probably my most frequent childhood injury.

Back then, Denmark’s greatest cultural export to the world only came in regular, now known as City, and Space Lego. Nowadays, just about every successful movie franchise except Magic Mike has its own Lego spin-off. So I was keen to get up to speed on what on earth ‘Lego Chyna’ was, besides misspelled.

So it was hard to say who was more excited upon arriving at the Town Hall for the Lego exhibition, the five-year-old or the 38-year-old.

Unfortunately, both the 10.30 and 12.30 slots were sold out, forcing us to return at 2.30 – in four hours’ time.

For me, an unexpected few hours in the city is easily solved via a café, multiple hot drinks, and reading. I’m very comfortable being one of those terrible people who hog a table for hours and then, right when the wait staff are on the verge of making a pointed comment, ordering a cup of peppermint tea so I’m technically still paying rent on my space.

That plan, I quickly realised, would not wash with a five-year-old whose known tolerance to sitting still generally cuts out two-thirds through the first flat white.

What, I wondered, would be fun for my nephew – but also, since I’m not the world’s most selfless person and there was a lot of time to kill, fun for me as well?

Fortunately, he had a strong opening gambit. Before going and looking at several millions bricks’ worth of Lego in the exhibition, he suggested, why couldn’t we go and look at some Lego?

It was hard to fault his logic, and there was a specialist store nearby, so off we headed to whet our appetites. As he patiently explained the subtle distinctions between Ninjago, Ultra Agents and Super Heroes, I took careful note of all the items my nephew wanted for his next birthday, as he requested, even though it’s not for nine months.

After individually considering every single one of the Lego items on sale (and most of the Duplo too, as he has a younger sister), we went off to the ABC Shop. Amidst the endless Peppa Pig merch, they had a number of tablets set up to allow kids to view iView programmes, which offered fifteen minutes of blissful respite for me, albeit perched on a tiny stool.

Next he wanted to visit a bookshop, which was a surprise, but a welcome one. There are still some excellent, enormous ones in the city which are surviving in the face of Amazon. He sat and patiently read at least a dozen books – well, flicked through the pictures, at least, which is about all you can ask of a five-year-old. What’s more, only two-thirds of them were about Lego, Star Wars or Lego Star Wars.

Next, we went to a department store which was having a toy sale, ie more Lego, and, just to mix things up, we dropped in on a hotel which had installed an enormous Lego rocket in its foyer.

By now it was lunchtime, and my commitment to being a fun uncle extended to a cheeseburger and fries, although I insisted on water instead of lemonade as a token concession to nutritional balance. The burger came with a Minion toy, which provided the standard three minutes of fun before being relegated to my pocket.

There was still an hour until our 2.30 Lego exhibition, and I was totally out of ideas. But then I somehow remembered that my nephew was quite the fan of Timezone. Plastic crocodiles were whacked with a hammer, balls were lobbed into plastic cups and a descending claw game proved its usual unsatisfying self. Before we knew it, it was 2.30 – time to go and look at even more Lego.

Despite spending most of the day beforehand looking at and talking about Scandinavian plastic bricks, I thought the exhibition was excellent. Australia’s pre-eminent Lego artiste Ryan “The Brickman” McNaught had assembled a greatest hits collectionlego of planes, trains and automobiles, along with the Sydney Opera House, the Colosseum and many other delights. They were great to inspect, when we could see them through the crowds of primary-aged kids.

What’s more, the challenge of counting the little green spacemen hidden in each exhibit was equally difficult for both of us. I had the advantage of height, but he was able to peer under the models to spy their little green heads. I like to think we made a formidable space search-and-rescue team.

When I was heading home, I realised that I’d really enjoyed doing stuff my five-year-old nephew loved. Sure, my tolerance for Lego is significantly lower, but I really enjoyed the exhibition. What’s more, there’s absolutely no way I could have visited without a child in tow. And I’m not above visiting arcades the way I used to as a teenager, but let me tell you, you definitely feels less pathetic when you’re also supervising a child.

After his safe return, I was roundly praised for giving up a day to entertain my nephew. Little did they realise that I enjoyed the whole thing nearly as much as he did.

So, next holidays, I’m volunteering to babysit. Especially if there’s a Lego exhibition on.

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