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Colourful childhood

Little angels with painted faces seem to be everywhere these days -- but adults can join the fun too, writes Mary KirwanWhere two or three children are gathered together these days, a face painter will be in their midst.

Forget goodie bags and sugary treats, being top of the queue for the face painter is what kiddies would give their eye teeth for.

Once upon a time in Ireland the only place that you'd see face painting in action was on over-exuberant Euro 88 soccer fans or at the circus.

Now no social event is complete without children being covered up in non-toxic, water-based paint. Go to even the most modest gathering and your little darling is guaranteed to be transformed into a snarling tiger or fairy princess before the day is out.

No queue is too long for hassled parents as their kids wait ages for these modern Pied Pipers armed with paint and brushes.

There's even no escape at home with the ready availability of DIY face painting kits themed specially for Halloween, St Patrick's Day and even Euro 2012.

Why do kids love having their faces painted? It's all down to role play and child experts believe that this is vital for a child's development. It's the ultimate win-win. Something kids enjoy and that's also good for them.

Renowned scientist Desmond Morris in his latest book 'Child' explains how important role play is. "It's a special form of pretend play, in which the child becomes the actor taking on a part and then uses their imagination to perform as if they were someone else. It requires the child to think what it must be like to be someone else and then to act accordingly."

"Role play is now seen as an important stage in the mental development of the pre-school child. Because they must invent a dialogue to go with their acted out dramas, role play helps the development of narrative skills," adds Morris.

Activities such as face painting could also mean you're developing the next Brad or Angelina, according to Desmond Morris.

"One famous actor, when asked how he threw himself into one role after another, said that it was really very easy, all he had to do was to think back to the days when, as a four-year-old, he was playing cowboys and Indians and was a cowboy one day and an Indian the next."

At the tender age of four my son has been (among others) Darth Maul, a tiger, a butterfly, a robin, the Irish flag -- and his latest face painting request was a vampire bat. They've been painted with varying degrees of success by frazzled face painters.

I caught up with a group of kiddies in the middle of a face painting session in Dublin Zoo to see why they like the smell of the greasepaint so much.

Emily Breslin (6) was a very scary cat indeed. "I'm a tiger and I really like face painting because it means you have lots of colours on your face and it makes you feel you are a different animal. I've been a dog, a flower, a Cheerio and even been Santa before."

Looking colourful and pretending to be something else entirely is an attraction for Ethan Hanafin (4). "It's because your face is colourful and before I have been a spider, a dragon, Spiderman and a bat. That's all I remember . . ."

It's the make-believe involved in being face painted that Ava McKenzie (4) from Kerry really likes. "I am a cat today. . . I like it because it's fun. I feel like a cat when I'm painted. I've been a butterfly too."

Nina Kiernan (5) from Dublin opted for something girlie. "I am a fairy princess and I like face painting because it looks nice. I have been a princess, a butterfly and even a flag on St Patrick's Day."

For Nairn McKenzie (5) from Kerry it's more about the sensations involved. "I am a tiger. I like face painting because it's soft. I have had it done five times. I have been things like a dragon and a lion."

Jack Condron (6) who was a red panda on the day, is into the tools of the trade. "I like all the brushes, all the shapes and sizes of them . . . I have been a lion, a penguin, a tiger . . . and a normal panda . . . those big fat ones."

Birthday parties are where Violet McKenzie (5) usually gets her face painted. "I am a Dalmatian today. I like dogs. I like it when you get to change into a lion, or a frog or this dog."

Aoife Keegan is the events manager with Dublin Zoo. "We do about 200 events in the zoo every year. Every event is different but you would find it very hard to do an event without a face painter."

The zoo will always have a face painter at events even if they have costume characters and jugglers as well. Peak times for face painting include Christmas and Easter with parents willing to queue for over an hour with their children to get it done.

"A girl can become a princess for a day, or a tiger. The most unusual request lately was a little boy who wanted to be a tomato," says Aoife.

Even adults can't resist. "It's popular at team-building events.

"They go for a star or a flower on their cheek normally," she adds.

Popular US singer Taylor Swift showed recently that face painting can be an adult pursuit too. The 22-year-old posted pictures of herself sporting an impressive blue and black butterfly after 'face paint Wednesday' with her friends. Unicorns, flowers and hearts were also popular choices with Taylor's buddies.

Newbridge House and Farm in Donabate, Co Dublin, another popular family destination run by Fingal County Council. Face painting is also de rigueur at all their events.

Brenda Comerford is property manager at Newbridge .

"No matter what we do, we have face painting -- at Christmas, Easter, whenever. Nowadays people expect face painting. In May we had a fairy theme because in the Irish calendar May is the month of fairies."

"I've seen them all painted here -- butterflies, tigers. There's nothing like face painting to get them in the mood -- even if it's raining outside it lifts the event. The painters must have infinite patience though!"

So what is it like for the people who wield the brushes?

Nancy Parnis is a professional face painter who works at everything from multinationals' team-building days to kid's birthday parties. She set up her own business called www.facepainting.ie in 2007.

"I am absolutely passionate about face painting as it is a wonderful way to express my creativity and foster imagination in a child."

The best part for Nancy is seeing the joy in a child's face when they look in the mirror. "I've had children roar like a tiger, hop away like a rabbit, pant like a dog, and pretend to chew the eucalyptus leaf painted on their panda face!" she says.

Let's face it. Colour and smiles means a lot if you're six!

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