On Sunday as a rainy day treat we took Ben, five, to our local Build-A-Bear Workshop (www.buildabear.co.uk).
Just in case you haven't been pulled by the hand into one of these stores before (and they have branches all over the UK), they're a bit like Willy Wonka's factory – only with stuffed toys instead of chocolates and sweets. The kids, and some grown-ups, apparently, choose which toy they would like from the array of fun fur animal carcasses on offer (which start at a very reasonable £8), and then they begin 'building' their bear.
After five minutes of careful deliberation Ben chose a panda, before moving on to 'Hear me', where the child chooses optional internal extras such as a tiny beating heart or a sound (Ben went for 'I love you'). The next stage is the stuffing – performed with the help of a giant machine - followed by Fluff me, where the bear is blow-dried and brushed to perfection.
Then it's time for an outfit or accessories – with every possible combination on offer, including a Hannah Montana dress and various football strips. 'Can I have that one?' Ben asked, gesturing towards a biker jacket which would have given his bear a distinctive George Michael (in his Wham! heyday) look. 'Um… what about this one?' I said, gently nudging him in the direction of a martial arts outfit. 'Then he'll be a Kung Fu panda,' quipped our super helpful assistant, Melanie. 'OK,' Ben said happily. 'But he's a black belt.'
Finally, the children register their new bear's details on one of the special computers. Ben sat down next to a little girl clutching a bright pink glittery girl bear and proceeded to tap in his details onto the keyboard – with careful supervision, of course. (An added bonus is that when the children get home they can play with their bear in the virtual world on the Build-A-Bear website – so they can see an avatar of themselves, and their bear. Genius.)
An hour after we first entered the store we emerged with Ben… and Pongo. The little girl named her bear Thomas Cook.
written by Liz Jarvis