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.
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.
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.