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.

Toddler fun at the skate park – #CountryKids

Just a quick post from me this week about our outdoor adventures. I’m still not finding loads of time to blog in amongst the boys not napping consistently and trying to sort out house things plus finding out about the local area of where we will (hopefully, if the sale goes through) live. But I had to share this outing that we had to the local park one bright and crisp morning this week. We’ve been here a lot, as it is rather handily just a short walk from Granny and Grandad’s house, and is perfect for bike riding.

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One part that we haven’t been in for a while is the skate park. As there was nobody else there, Andrew was keen to go in. At first I thought he wanted to ride his bike in there, and so I was hesitant to agree to this. But then he told me that he wanted to play with his ball in there, which sounded like a much safer idea! So we went in, and he absolutely loved it. I couldn’t believe how much fun he had with some concrete ramps and a small yellow ball. This free form of entertainment kept him busy for ages – placing the ball near the top of a ramp, watching it roll down and up the opposite side, and running after it – again and again and again! His giggles were amazing, he clearly enjoyed himself a lot.

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We did have to watch out for a few icy patches, but we just kept to the ramps that we could see had been in the sun longer and therefore the ice on them had melted. It was me who had to drag him away, because we needed to get home for when a work man was coming to fix a window, but we will definitely be back for some more toddler-suitable fun in a place that generally lies empty when all the big skateboarding and bmx-ing kids are at school (though I’m sure Andrew will love to do that himself one day, if his current love of bike riding is anything to go by).

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I also can’t forget to share a couple of pictures from elsewhere in the park that morning. First up is the ‘sand windmill’ that he is fascinated by – the sand was particularly hard and crunchy with the ice, so a great sensory experience for him as he picked some up to make the wheel go round and round (Joel was too tired to be out with him here, so was snuggled in the sling on my back).

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And second is the ‘numbers snail’ that he likes to walk around, starting at number 1 and counting up as he goes around the spiral up to 25. So being outdoors can be just as educational as staying at home with books and toys (though of course we like doing that too once we’re home). I love the shadows in this picture too – little Andrew, tall Mummy, and Joel’s head peaking over my shoulder 🙂

Number and letter fun in the sun – #CountryKids

With all this glorious sunshine, it’s not been at all difficult to entertain two little ones who love being outside. It’s been lovely just to spend time in the garden, and to go to our favourite parks and open spaces.

The paddling pool has been a big hit with both boys, though I can’t believe how small it looks to me now – the last time we had it out we only had an 18/19 month old as opposed to a nearly 2.5 year old and an 8 month old taking up their space in it. With some bath toys in it, this provided hours of fun throughout the week, starting at the weekend when Daddy was around; we’ve had it out both in the garden and on the balcony.

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We’ve also had some fun with numbers and letters this sunny week. Andrew is very into them, and he enjoys saying them out loud whenever he sees them written somewhere. One afternoon I took a beaker of water and a paint brush outside and told him that we were going to do some painting. He was excited, and was intrigued to watch me ‘painting’ with water on the bricks of the drive; he then had a go himself, and was fascinated to watch our artwork disappear (pretty quickly in this heat!). We painted a few things on the bricks that were warm in the sun, but his favourite was of course the letters. I heard of this idea a while ago, I think when talking to a friend at a group, but I can’t actually remember who, when or where now. But it provided some cheap and cheerful fun on a sunny day.

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The photos don’t seem to have come out as well as I’d hoped, but I think you can get the idea

One morning we popped up to Anglesey Abbey, our local National Trust property. I blogged about this for Country Kids earlier in the year when it was much colder and Andrew went everywhere with his yellow coat on. Since that time, Andrew has made a new game which we have to play whenever we go, he won’t let me get away without it! There is a path that leads through a part of the gardens with lots of shrubs in, and for each specifies/variety there is a little plaque with a number on next to the plant. I presume there must be some guide book that you can take out with you which tells you what each number is, though we’ve never done that. Andrew’s game is to ride along the path on his bike and shout out all the numbers that he spots on his way. Sometimes they are obvious, and others are hidden under leaves and harder to spot. He would happily go up and down this path all day if he could. Here is (quite a long) video of him playing this fun game!

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There is also a new activity board near the water mill that tells you all about how flour is milled there. Andrew is fascinated by the wheels that you can spin around on it! One of the wheels (the far right) is a pizza – he particularly likes that one 😉

So that was our week of outdoor fun in the sun. Let’s hope the good weather continues!

Linking up with the fantastic linky over at Coombe Mill’s blog – Country Kids
Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Learning to swim, and learning how best to learn how to swim

I don’t write anything about swimming for a while, and then two posts come along at once! For a few weeks now, I’ve been reflecting on how Andrew’s and my swimming sessions are going. He loves the water, that is clear to see, and he has great fun splashing about, chasing toys and other children. I’ve been trying to do some specific exercises with him that I found on a great website called uSwim. In theory these look great, gradually building up to letting your child swim unaided in the water. But I’ve been finding with Andrew that he’s simply too distracted by being interested in everything else going on in and around the pool. He rarely looks directly at me for more than a few seconds, even when I try and keep his attention with singing or talking. This means it’s incredibly difficult to set up a situation in which I can count to three with him looking at me, and then let go. He’s pretty good at holding his breath, and doesn’t mind being let go of for a few seconds, but I don’t feel like we’re making much progress, because he would rather just go off on his own to chase the toy that he’s got his eye on, than do things on my terms when I say it’s time to go under. He tries to wriggle away from me, and he’s confident to do so, but he doesn’t have the strength or skill yet to swim completely on his own – he just flounders for a few seconds before I scoop him up out of the water again.

My glamourous assistant modelling his arm bands - I know it looks a bit odd with his nappy on and not trunks, but I don't have enough hands to take a picture at the pool whilst carrying all our kit, so home photos will have to do for now until I can enlist the help of a willing grandparent photographer!

So…. I had a scout about online, and got Mum to ask a friend who has kids and is a keen swimmer, for advice on buoyancy aids for toddlers. I had thought, and again came across this advice, that it was best to not use buoyancy aids at all. But as I’ve just explained, I don’t think in Andrew’s case that this is working. Some suggested a woggle/noodle float – a long thin tube-shaped float that you can wrap around them, or get them to hold onto. I’ve tried that as they have them in our local pool to use for free, but again Andrew is interested for a short while, before he exchanges his interest for another exciting toy/float/person across the pool. In the end, all things seemed to be pointing towards the Delphin System arm floats.

The Delphin System: 1 red, 1 yellow and 1 green disc on each arm, clipped together to make the arm bands

These are like traditional inflatable arm bands, in that they fit onto the upper arm and give buoyancy in the same place. However, they don’t need any blowing up and deflating each trip to the pool (I’m not very good at generating enough puff for those kind of things at the best of times, let alone when I’m having to keep an eye on an active toddler!), and they can’t be punctured by sharp objects. Instead they are made of a lightweight material similar to what kickboards or those big floats you see during splash sessions in pools are made of. They are shaped like thin discs, with a hole just below centre for the arm to go through, and a blue foamy bit in the hole which adjusts to the size of arm – they are apparently suitable for ages 1-12 years. The discs clip together so that you can have more than one on each arm; the idea is you start with 3 discs on each arm, and gradually take them away one at a time over the course of your child learning to swim. It’s supposed to build confidence and allow you to easily adjust the buoyancy as they get stronger and more skilled at swimming.

Being cheeky and trying to hide from the camera around the back of the table, giggling about it to himself at the same time!

So that’s the theory, but how do they work in practice? I decided to take the plunge (financially) and buy a set with some money that Andrew had been given as a present. From my Googling around, the cheapest I found was £26.39 (including postage and packing) for a set of 6 discs from SOS Swim Shop. On Tuesday we had our first trip to the pool with them, and I was very impressed! For the first time in a while, Andrew was much less frustrated and we had no whinging about the fact that he wanted to go his own way – this time he could do as he pleased. It took a little while for him to get used to the buoyancy effect and how he should move to go with it and not resist it, and I think that will take a bit longer to get completely right, but overall he reacted very well. He figured out that his head needs to stay above the water, or he needs to hold his breath if it goes under slightly. He was best when swimming on his front towards me or a target object, and I encouraged him to kick his legs to keep the forward motion. Again, this will take some practice to get right, but for a first attempt it went well. Of course I didn’t just let him go completely unsupervised, but I found my hands were much more free to encourage him and help direct his body in the best way, like using a finger to push his tummy upwards to get him onto his front rather than upright in the water so he could move forwards.

Mummy, this isn't the right time to have arm bands on - are you mad? We're not at the swimming pool! By the way, the blue circles you see on the left-hand arm band are how the discs clip together - they slot into indents in the adjacent disc, like you can see on the right-hand arm band.

As the weeks go by, I’ll try to put some updates on here as to how we’re doing. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has the problems that I’ve mentioned with their young toddler getting distracted in the swimming pool. All the discussion I found online whilst researching buoyancy aids seemed to be from parents with older pre-school-age-ish kids, and distraction didn’t seem to be the main issue, but rather gaining confidence in the water – we don’t have that problem, probably because he’s been swimming since just 6 weeks old. Please let me know if you found this post useful and/or interesting. I’d love to hear from anyone who shares my love of taking a toddler swimming!