Our choice of nursery (preschool age)

I can’t believe that Andrew has just had his first week at preschool. It does’t seem long ago that he was a baby and we were treading through this thing called parenthood, not totally sure what we were doing, but doing our best to get off to a good start. Now he’s a chatty, confident and active boy, who loves playing with other children his own age (or older, or sometimes his little brother, if in a good mood). He’s absolutely loved preschool this week, just as he did for his settling sessions – the staff were amazed at how happy and confident he was from the word go.

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We started looking at preschools not long after we moved to Coventry where we would live ‘temporarily’ for 7 months before moving into our new home in Birmingham. I started with Google, having no clue about preschools in the area, and wrote down about 5 that were nearest to where we intended to live. I had a look at their websites, and emailed about visiting. The two places that got back to me within the day were the two nurseries run as part of the University of Birmingham, and that’s Tom’s employer too. I arranged visits on days that I knew Granny could help out, so she could look after Joel while Andrew and I looked around. I also heard back from one other preschool by email a day or two later – that was the local ‘nursery school’ – so I arranged a visit there too.

When we looked around at each preschool, they all came across as quite different from each other. The two university ones were daycare nurseries that had different rooms for different ages, from babies to pre-schoolers; both had a room just for 3 and 4 year olds. The nursery school was essentially a school year below reception, so only taking children for the academic year before they would go to school, which is this September for Andrew.

The main thing that struck me about our visits to all three was the amount that the members of staff talked to me versus how much they talked to Andrew and down at his level. At the school, the head teacher showed us around, and basically only talked to me. The children were all wearing uniform, and the rooms were laid out very much like classrooms – it looked and felt like a school with 3-4 year olds there. Sure it looked like a fun school, but school nonetheless. Andrew stayed with me for most of the visit, except when he saw a rocket painted on the playground and went off to count the numbers on it.

The main campus university nursery was different. The deputy manager talked quite a bit to Andrew, but was still mainly talking to me as she showed us around. She was very keen to point out all the different facilities they had, how they monitored children’s progress, and the systems and policies that they had in place for various aspects of the nursery. It too looked fun, and definitely less ‘school-like’ than the nursery school. Andrew went off to play with some other children in one of the rooms, and otherwise stayed with me.

The smaller campus university nursery was even more different. The deputy manager showing us around talked in equal measure to me and Andrew, bending down to talk to him on his level. The building didn’t look as fancy as the other two, but it was still bright and cheery inside and definitely not like a school – there were far more toys and fewer tables and chairs. Pretty much as soon as we walked in, Andrew was off playing with other children and exploring what was on offer with no hesitation. I had the full tour with our guide, but he was free to do as he pleased and join in with the day’s activities. In fact at the end it was hard to drag him away. I knew there and then that this was where I wanted him to go, where I thought would be best for him.

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It may not have been the one with the ‘outstanding’ Ofsted report, or the lovely old building, or the biggest number of educational ‘gadgets’, or the most recent decoration, but it was the one where Andrew clearly felt immediately at home and able to leave my side. For us it is important that he goes somewhere with an emphasis on play and not on formal education. Of course they all follow the EYFS, but how they interpret that in their style of ‘teaching’ versus ‘play’ seemed quite different from what we saw. And we made a positive decision to go for the most play-based one.

In this country we already start formal education much earlier than in other countries in western Europe, and there is good evidence that starting school as early as 4 years old does not make kids cleverer, in fact it could result in poorer academic performance (a brief summary of this evidence by an academic at a reputable university – I used to work in his faculty too 😉 – can be found here http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence).

Andrew seems to be doing well in his learning already, even without having gone to any nursery until now. He picks things up from us and from his play. He likes letters and numbers, and is starting to read and write basic words. He asks how things work, and why things happen. He likes to look at maps and books with both fictional stories and factual writing in. This has just happened over time, we haven’t forced it on him, but have been lead by his keenness to learn from everyday life. So we don’t see why being in a school-like environment would change this for the better.

If there’s no need for a change in environment to make him learn more, why go to preschool at all? Well he’s going mainly because he loves being around other children his age – he’s much happier at the park, for example, if there are others his age to play with rather than just little brother. As we haven’t built up a network of friends here in Birmingham yet, nursery is a great way for him to start building these friendships, some of which may continue into school age. It gives him some time completely separate from little brother, and I get to spend time one-to-one with Joel, just like I did with Andrew before he was born. It also gives me chance to work more, and get things done while Joel is napping that would bore Andrew. I’m sure we will continue to do lots of learning together in our everyday lives outside of the 15 hours that he goes to preschool in the week, and I fully accept that as a parent this is my role; I don’t want to palm off all learning to the teachers in the formal education setting – they already have far too much to deal with in large classes.

I’ve written this account of my thoughts towards preschool partly for us, to have a record to look back on of why we chose the nursery that we did and why it was important to us, and partly to share our experience, for anyone else who might be considering nurseries and preschools and would like to read our perspective, though I know all children are different and what suits one may not suit another. I hope it has been useful if that’s the case for you.

The beginnings of reading

It’s Children’s Book Week this week, which I’ve become aware of mainly through twitter and other parenting blogs. I’ve been thinking about writing a post about Andrew’s reading anyway, so I thought this would be good timing to join in with the fun.

Andrew has always been interested in books, right from flicking though board books with us as a baby to sitting down on his own and talking through what he can see on the page of his ‘big boys’ books’ (to differentiate from Joel’s baby books). He doesn’t sit down and ‘read’ for hours on end at a time – his general philosophy to playing is spend a bit of time here, a bit of time there, getting as many toys, books and puzzles out as possible and not committing himself to any activity for more than 5 minutes but often coming back full circle to what he started with after going round them all. But he does enjoy sitting and reading, both with us and on his own.

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Over the past month or so he has consolidated his knowledge of the letters of the alphabet that he’s been interested in ever since we started reading the Ladybrird Cosy Cat alphabet book to him over a year ago. He knows all the letters and can tell you what they are both randomly pointed at in words and going through from A to Z in context. This is the beginnings of him learning to read. Now he has the foundation of single letters, he can build on this and learn how letters join together to make written words.

As well as reading books, he is very keen on watching the ‘Alphablocks’ on DVD – this CBeebies programme is all about learning to read, with little blocks that each have a letter of the alphabet and their own character, who get up to all sorts of adventures and make words along the way by holding hands and saying their individual sounds out loud. It’s quite ingenious in my opinion, and Andrew adores it! We try not to let him watch too much on screen, but when it’s something like this, I really don’t mind him watching it in sensible quantities. He also has an Alphablocks magazine that Granny bought him, which has various activities in, and this is encouraging him to understand how we write letters as well as read them.

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As with other aspects of parenting, we have been very child-led in this part of his development – he has shown interest in reading and we have followed his lead and also encouraged him that it is a good thing to do. When we had his 2.5 year check (a little late) with the health visitor recently, she said he was doing very well to know all the letters at his age, which is good to know, as I didn’t really have much clue about time scales for children’s literacy. Hopefully this will stand him in good stead for starting pre-school next year.

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With this background of finding out that Andrew is doing well for his age, I was particularly shocked to read some stats on the disparity in attainment between infant school age kids from poorer and better off backgrounds which were published in the Too Young to Fail report by Save the Children earlier this week:

• Fewer than one in six children from low-income families who have fallen behind by the age of seven will go on to achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths.
• Better off children who are behind are more likely to go on to achieve well – but even they only have a one in four chance of getting five good GCSEs, including English and maths.
• If a child from a poor family is already behind with their reading at the age of seven, they have just over a one in five chance of going on to achieve a C in English at GCSE.

Basically if children are achieving at the lower end of the range already at the end of Key Stage 1 (up to 7 years), then they are highly likely to go on to fail when it comes to GCSEs and not get the qualifications they need to enter many forms of employment. Children from poorer backgrounds are at more of a disadvantage in this, and in these stats the problem is particularly highlighted for reading ability.

This made me think about how we have encouraged Andrew with reading. We take it for granted that we have lots of children’s books, most of which have been given to us by family and friends as presents. Just having these around from the beginning of his life has shown him that reading is normal, fun and something we do every day. I can imagine that this is not the case in families that struggle to pay the bills, get food on the table and clothe their children, so books would be much lower on their priority list and the children would not get such an introduction to the concept of reading at a very early age. Also, we take it for granted that our own parents read to us as children, and this means it’s something we have just automatically done with our own children, because we know how much we enjoyed it and how it helped us learn (even if we can’t remember the very beginnings of reading with our parents). I can imagine that parents who themselves struggle to read, maybe because they too had little opportunity to read from an early age, would be less likely to sit down and read with their children, and so it would become a vicious circle from generation to generation. And none of this is fair on the children (who then become adults) involved.

There are people out there trying to help in this situation though, and I have been reading about Save the Children’s Born to Read initiative in partnership with Beanstalk. The aim is to provide many more reading helpers in schools in deprived areas, as well as support parents to help their children’s reading skills develop at home. When I think that there may well be children the same age as Andrew who live just a few streets away who are getting such a different start in life in terms of reading and literacy, it really hits home just how real a problem this is and just how important this kind of work is. I will be following their progress and trying to stay aware of this issue as much as I can.