Seven Days: Musing on Starting School

Thomas and I have seven more days before he starts school.

Well, obviously there are more days than that – four and a half weeks to be more exact. But for most of those Thomas will be at the “Holiday Club” at the school, and I’ll be working. There are weekends, of course, but those are “Family Days” for all of us to share. As are the days we’ll spend in Copenhagen at the end of the month.

What is left is seven days of uninterrupted “Mummy and Thomas Time”. (Yes, we really do call it this!)

Ever since I went back to work after maternity leave, and Thomas started nursery, we’ve had several days each week apart. And I’m firmly of the opinion that it made the solid days we had together even more special. I had the time and energy (and money!) to do all kinds of things, from exciting days out and theatre trips, to the more mundane park visits and days at home snuggled up with a book or playing endless train games. I planned and looked forward to that time.

And now, those days will be drastically cut down.

But…

Starting school is a massive milestone, right? It is its own thing to anticipate – for the good and the bad – right? Isn’t there is too much new in the adventure to think about to worry about the old and what might be missed?

Starting school is the moment when children start to take really independent strides away from their parents. It’s when they start to form friendships with children you’ve never met yourself. Start to spend days doing things they only share the merest glimpse of with you. And they seem to age immediately as they dress up in smart school uniform for the very first time. For parents it is a whole new routine. There is the anxiety of learning how the school works and meeting new parents, many of whom seem to know each other already.

How about if none of this is really true?

Thomas is staying at the same independent school where he has attended preschool for the last year. He is simply moving across the playground to the little reception block, complete with its outdoor learning area. A place where he has been visiting and “practising” for the last term.

He’s moving across with all of his well established friends. In his class there are just two girls who didn’t attend the preschool (both also have older siblings in the school already). His friends are children I already know well, and like. I also know many of the parents well, from the endless rounds of preschool birthday parties and events like the school nativity and the preschool “Moving Up” day. I know (as much as any parent ever does) how the school works and who most of the staff are. Thomas knows so many of the older children by name (and they him). He already plays in the playground with the older children, lines up with them in the mornings and eats lunch in the dining hall, sitting at a table that he sometimes help to lay correctly with cutlery. He wears a uniform too – that I’ve grown used to laundering constantly – and has been looking so almost like a school boy for the last year.

Even his routine will remain the same. With just one major exception, of course.

He’ll be going five days a week.

That, is the only difference.

We’ll be losing much of our treasured “Mummy and Thomas Time”. And I suppose that is the only thing that is really affecting me.

“Starting School” per se does not feel like a major change. It’s like we conquered that last year, with some tears and protests and initial reluctance. Now Thomas is so happy and settled he asked me a few months ago, with genuine worry, whether he would ever have to change school again.

Not having him all to myself for the two days that I don’t work is the only thing I’m struggling to wrap my head around. It’s true that in some ways I’m looking forward to some “me-time”. Some opportunities to do long neglected household tasks (clearing out my wardrobe, for starters!). An opportunity to get my hair cut without juggling childcare. To drink a cup of tea and read a book without interruption or guilt. Going for a swim or a run during the day, rather than in the dark evenings throughout the winter. Even scheduling medical appointments without having to take Thomas with me. I’ve not had such free time since… well ever before really. Having worked full time, like so many women, before having a child this will all be a new experience.

But at the same time, I’m really going to miss Thomas’s company. I’m going to miss his singing from the back seat of the car and his vociferous opinions on which songs he does and doesn’t like. His running commentary around the shops about what I mustn’t forget to buy. I’ll miss his music group and the genuine friends I’ve made there. I’ll miss our shared lunches and little coffee shop dates. I’ll miss park trips where there is no competition with much older children to use the best equipment. I’ll miss the freedom to take him to museums and child friendly events during the week and outside the school holidays where we don’t have to battle crowds of other children. I’ll even miss his trains constantly strewn across the house, packed up instead until he arrives home.

School uniform notwithstanding, he still looks so little. And whilst he is keen and excited about finally being in Reception (he’s been asking how many sleeps since before Christmas) and more than ready to satisfy his innate curiosity for learning in ways that I alone can’t, I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to accept it. I know that I need to focus on it as the adventure it is and the new it will bring. You can’t freeze time, nor continually look backward for that would be to miss so much more.

I doesn’t make it simple though.

Just over four weeks to go. Seven single days of one-on-one with my best boy.

I’m so glad I don’t have all the other changes to contend with too, and this one seems big enough on its own.

At least I have the holidays to look forward to.

So, how many sleeps until half term?

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Just Like…. Riding a Bike!

Thomas has always loved bikes. Toddling around the local playground when he could only just walk it was always older children’s bikes that he was interested in. And sure enough, the scooter he was given was rejected pretty much as soon as he was too big to ride on the attached seat, because it no longer resembled a bike.
So we bought him a balance bike the summer he was two.
It was probably slightly too big for him, a child who was long down in the lowest part of the growth charts. So it took him a short while to get the hang of it, me running along behind, holding on to help him learn to balance (whilst simultaneously wrecking my back – ahh, parenthood!). And then he was away. Picking up his feet and gliding along, reaching speeds that made him challenge to keep up with. And “riding my bike” has been an obsession ever since.
Last winter he began asking for a pedal bike. By now, the seat of his balance bike was at its top height, and picking up his feet to glide was more of a necessity than a choice. And I could see he was ready to at least try.
His fourth birthday would have been a good opportunity. But the trouble with a winter birthday is that it comes along with big puddles, slippery leaves and so much mud. Not to mention short days a deep darkness. Hardly the ideal conditions for learning to ride a bike and consolidating that skill. If Thomas and I both hadn’t been so keen to avoid stabilisers and the potential loss of that vital balance skill, we might have done it. But I wanted to wait.
Winter and Spring were punctuated with reminders that he really, really wanted a “big boy bike” and to learn to pedal properly. He was adamant that riding a bike was something he was going to do “before I start school”. So eventually we promised that when we got back from Florida, we’d choose him a bike and he could start to learn.
We kept our promise. The weekend after our return saw us mooching around a few local bike shops, checking him against frame sizes to ensure we were picking the right one. We were very firm that we needed to look around first and we wouldn’t be buying a bike that day. Surprisingly he took that pretty well.
We learned quite a lot about bikes that day. About how the majority of girls bikes are pink or princess themed, and the majority of boy’s bikes are superhero themed. We learned that wheel sizes vary on the same sized frame, and that not all handlebars and brakes are equal. But in the course of our search, we came across the next model up from his balance bike. It has the same shape and styling, just a frame size larger and with pedal and two brakes. Back home, online, all the reviews suggested kids found the transition from the same balance bike to this one pretty seamless. And better still it was on offer.
Despite saying we’d not be buying a bike that day, what Thomas didn’t know is that by that evening it was ordered. We selected the free build service and arranged to pick it up that Friday. By good fortune I finished work early and had time to swing by the shop and stow it safely in the boot of the car, only having to remember not to let Thomas put his school bag in the boot when I picked him up.
The next day dawned overcast and showery and my heart sank. But by lunchtime the sun was out in full force, and operation ride a bike was go.
We asked Thomas if he wanted to go to the park. As we left the house, I told him that I needed something from the boot of the car. I only wish I’d had a camera ready as I opened it. “A bike, a bike, my pedal bike!” The boy was literally jumping for joy.
Despite his enthusiasm, we got off to a slow start. We encouraged him to use it like a balance bike and get the feel for it, but he seemed frustrated by that suggestion because it was a pedal bike and he wanted to do it properly. We worked our way slowly across the park with me first supporting the handlebars as he pedalled, and then just the saddle from behind. As we tried to assure him that he needed to maintain speed, Ian and I have never uttered the words “pedal, pedal, pedal” so many times in a single day. Thomas’s response over and over was to make sure that I wasn’t going to unexpectedly let go. I kept sneaking my hands off for moments at a time, and I was confident he could do it. He just wasn’t confident himself.
In the end, it was a train that made him ride.
We reached the section of the park where an underpass crosses the train tracks to enter the woods. It’s Thomas’s favourite place, because he can sit and watch the trains to and from London that pass with efficient frequency. As he heard the tell tale rumble of an approaching service he looked up and gave the familiar refrain of “A train, a train” and within moments he was away, feet up on the pedals and flying.
It took a good fifteen seconds before he remembered to shout “don’t let go Mummy”.
And I was trying hard not to cry as I shouted back that I’d never been holding on in the first place.
He stopped and looked over his shoulder before giving me a massive grin and declaring “I can do it. I can really do it.”
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Watching him fly along the path away from me made me think of all the ways he flying away from me as he grows in size, in independence, in maturity and in skill. But that cheeky grin and the pride on his face reminded me that he’ll always be my baby.
That was nearly two months ago, and he hasn’t stopped since. He’s so proud of his skill, telling everybody about his new bike and how much he loves riding. He made me share it on his school’s online learning journal and couldn’t wait to call his grandparents to share the exciting news.
The only downside for me is that there is absolutely no keeping up with him on foot. But it does mean that my own bike is getting regular outings too, and suddenly a whole host of destinations are within much easier reach without needing to take the car.
Learning to ride a bike is one of those milestones that we all remember. I still remember my little Raleigh “Bullet” and my own dad running along behind me until I’d mastered it. And family cycle rides around the park are one of those activities that I’ve been looking forward to since that second pink line appeared.
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Magical moments indeed.

Masquerading as a “School Mum”

The last week has been one of yet more change for our family. In fact, it’s been the final step in a gradual process which has spanned the summer, since Thomas left his previous preschool. This has been the week where everything has come together – the new preschool, wearing a uniform and dealing with full blown school-run traffic – and fixed new family routines that will persist in to the far foreseeable future. It’s easy to say that it’s been nothing like as momentous as the weeks of those who have four year olds, embarking on their first days in a formal education career that will span thirteen years or more. After all, Thomas hasn’t started school yet.

I feel like a fraud, with pictures of my small boy in his pristine, too-big uniform amongst the scores of photos of “real” school starters on Facebook and Instagram. I feel like a fraud writing about how big this all feels to us when it’s only a preschool rather than compulsory education. I feel a bit like people might think we’re pretending to be something that we’re not. Or making a mountain out of a molehill.

But then, when I stop and think about it properly, I see that there can be no denying that this week has been huge.

It may still only be preschool but he is now settled at what will become his actual school when he does make that transition this time next year. The only difference in the routine will be moving across the playground to a different building (and, of course, attending five days rather than three with none of our current flexibility to nip off on holiday for a week whenever we choose). He is wearing his first school uniform, slightly too big in all dimensions, but having that immediate effect of making him look taller, older, so much more grown up. And it’s pretty much the same uniform that he’ll wear next year too.

I suppose, the point is, Thomas’s new school has been a massive change in lots of ways. He starts earlier, we travel by car, he wears a uniform, plays in the playground with older children and eats lunch in the school dining hall. Next year, when he actually “starts school” the changes will be much smaller. To the point that I think Thomas will barely notice, certainly in the run up and until he fully experiences the differences in classroom routine, teaching and learning. He won’t be nervous about starting in a new environment where he doesn’t know many faces because he’ll already have done that; He’s doing that now.

So no, I’m not trying to jump ahead of where we’re at, or rush through milestones in anyway. But I cannot not celebrate this one. He may not have started primary school yet and I may not be a genuine “School Mum”, but everything we’ve done these last couple of weeks has felt exactly as though that is what is happening. Effectively, this week has been his “starting school week”. The start of eight years of attending the same place, wearing roughly the same clothes and seeing the same people.

It won’t feel like this next year. I’ve no doubt it will still feel huge, but it will already be comfortable by then. Familiar. Not such a leap in to the unknown for all of us.

Which is exactly what it has been right now. New people, new places, new systems, requirements and regulations. I’ve been overwhelmed with ensuring I know who is who, where to hang bags and coats and which email address to use for what. And I’m an adult, not a not-quite-four year old.

So no, there is no denying that this week has been huge. And I couldn’t be more proud with how my little man has handled being left for long days in an alien environment with strangers. The most we have had is the occasional lament that he misses his old school. What he gets up to whilst he’s there, who he plays with and what he eats may be closely guarded secrets (his word!) but the smiles on his face, and the utter engagement I glimpse when I slip in, unnoticed, to collect him, speak volumes.

He’s not a school boy yet, but in his uniform I can already see the school boy he will become. I’m allowed to be proud of that. And to want to remember how it feels right now, without waiting for the officially defined “starting school” milestone. If I don’t capture this one now, it might have slipped through my fingers by then.

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Moving On: Nursery Grad-u-lation

On our way out one afternoon earlier this month, we bumped in to a neighbour who asked Thomas how he was.

“I’m not all that good actually” he replied. “I’ve hurt both my knees.”

It was true. He had. Each leg sported an almost identical scrape right across the knee cap, still fairly fresh and most likely the result of launching at top speed into tarmac.

“Oh dear” our neighbour replied. “Did that happen in the garden?”

“No” Thomas shook his head firmly. “It was at school. At my new school” with all of the emphasis on new. I expected him to continue by saying, as he had so many times to us that week, that he missed his old school. But instead he thought for a moment, then looked up and said “Oooh, I’ve got to be on my way now [where he learned to speak like this is beyond me!] I’m on my way to a party.”

“Oh, that sounds exciting” our neighbour enthused, taking note of how much Thomas’s face had lit up.

“Yes. It’s my grad-u-lation party. With my old school. And my old friends. I’m going to gradu-late. Bye then.” And off he trotted, with hardly a thought more to his poorly knees.

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And so it was that we found ourselves attending not a “Graduation” ceremony, but a “Grad-u-lation Party”. A mix between graduation and congratulation, I guess, but this is a Thomasism that will most likely stick (and that we’ll no doubt trot out – along with the photographs – much to his embarrassment if he ever goes to University and graduates for real!).

Of course Thomas isn’t actually “graduating” to anything. He’s left his old preschool to attend another, but unlike almost all the other grad-u-lation attendees, it’s still preschool rather than “big school”. But he’s been at the same nursery since he was six months old, growing from a baby who could barely sit up to a running, talking, reading, opinionated child absolutely bursting with character. I was really pleased that he was invited to graduate despite not leaving for school, in order to celebrate his time at that nursery with friends and staff alike. The idea of a ceremony for such young children may be seen by some as an unnecessary imported Americanism, but I disagree. Many of these kids have spent a huge chunk of time at this place, and I think it is fantastic to recognise and mark that.

I was also pleased because it helped us to draw a line under his time there. Generally he’s getting on well at his new school, but he’s having a hard time admitting that. He does, without a doubt, miss the security and familiarity of his old environment. (And I can’t blame him, because so do I, to a degree, and I just need to do drop off and pick up. I don’t have to stay there all day as well.) We’ve been seeing a lot of his bottom lip poking out. We’ve heard over and over again how he doesn’t want to leave his old school. How he misses his old school. It’s been a big change for all of us.

It was helpful to attend his grad-u-lation to point out to him just how many of his friends were also leaving. I think up until that point, having been one of the first to a actually leave, he really did believe everyone else was still there carrying on as before. It definitely helped to draw a line. To show him that everyone has to move on eventually.

It was an incredibly sweet ceremony. Some of the parents who have done this multiple times may roll their eyes, and maybe it is simply because I only have one child and will only get to do this once, but I did have a hard time not crying as the children filed in wearing their home made caps. The staff took turns to read out anecdotes about each child and they were presented with a certificate and teddy bear.

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Thomas being Thomas, of course, did not take long to start using his scroll first as a telescope (sadly no pictures due to privacy of other children) and then as a trumpet. By the time they filed back out of the hall he had several other boys trumpeting along with him. He may have been the youngest there, but he is by no stretch of the imagination the most quiet and retiring!

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As for me, I’m becoming more and more certain that we’ve made the move at the right time and that we’ve done the right thing. And watching him up there with is friends, in his cardboard cap, I felt incredibly proud of him and all that he is becoming. Making decisions on behalf of my child and dealing with all the associated worry and guilt is a big part of the parenting journey for me, but rolling with them and growing up is an infinitely more massive journey for Thomas.

And he’s doing it so well.

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The Idea vs the Reality

Every parent makes plans. And has dreams and aspirations. It’s all so much worse in the era of social media and Pinterest where it’s all too easy to get swept up in the romance and beauty of other people’s picture perfect moments, even when we know deep down that these represent edited highlights and nobody’s life can look that good all the time. But it’s so seductive. And appears so effortless. It takes enormous self-control not to be swept along in to believing that we, too, can create those moments and memories with our own offspring.

And so it was, this week, that we set out on a little fruit picking expedition.

We had guests yesterday, and I had plans for some summer-berry based puddings to serve up. And since we live in the heart of the so-called “Garden of England”, virtually surrounded by fruit fields, it almost feels a little bit wrong to buy pre-packaged fruit, that may well have travelled miles, from the artificially controlled environment of the supermarket when we can go out and get it ourselves, straight from the bush, at a fraction of the cost.

And, you know, maybe have a few Instragram-worthy frolics whilst we’re at it.

You see, it absolutely wasn’t the aim of our trip. I’m not that shallow. I really did need a fruit haul. And I asked Thomas more than once if it was something that he wanted to do. He was actually disappointed when I delayed the trip due to the prediction of an imminent rain shower passing in half an hour (what did we do before forecast.io?!). But it seems that fruit picking is an “activity of the moment” (and why not, given that it is summer), based on the number of blog posts and Instagram photos of people’s idyllic days in the fields, with contented children, willing and able to assist in the harvest.

The sensible part of me worried that Thomas would not be all that keen. Unfortunately he’s a bit of fruit-hater, despite having loved the stuff up until he was a little over eighteen months old. Now, he’ll scream if you so much as suggest that he might want to try a strawberry. But we did take him blackberry picking last year, which he enjoyed despite his refusal to sample any of our harvest. And the strawberries, tomatoes and chills in our garden have provided plenty of amusement, if not any sustenance for the smallest member of our family. And so the not-so-sensible side of me said it would be fine. I let myself get carried away imagining us with thorn scratched arms, fingers lips stained purple from the juices of the ripe treasures we were sure to find.

Um, yeah. Not so much.

Thomas was entirely unimpressed with the rows upon rows of bushes and tress at our large local Pick Your Own. From the moment we set off down the fields he began to whinge about wanting to find the car. He didn’t want to see the fruit on trees, or the berries hiding amongst green foliage. He wasn’t, unusually, even happy just to skip up and down whilst I picked what we had come for.

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“I just want to go and find the car Mummy” he pleaded, with such desolation on his face that to continue would have been cruel.

I did manage to get some blackcurrants. And we picked up more fruit from the farm shop on site. But it was most definitely one of those days where the idea in my head fell far, far short of the reality that ensued.

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Ah well, you can’t win ‘em all.

And we did head to the park once we got home. Which resulted in a much, much happier little boy (and pictures much more worthy of sharing, as it turned out. So much for the plans!)

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Even if he doesn’t like fruit, or its picking, he does love being outdoors and being active.

So you do win some!

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The Preschool Express

This post is destined to be a few poorly composed and poorly focused phone-camera snaps that might, on first glance, leave people wondering why on earth I’ve bothered to share them. But to me, they represent something big. They represent a moment of our week that has been an absolute staple, week-in, week-out, but which now, sadly, will be no more. And while it may seem unfathomable now that I could forget, I know that human memories are deeply fallible. So whilst the pictures may not be Pintrest-worthy, or or any way aesthetically pleasing, they and their accompanying story are important to us because they detail something that I don’t want to risk not remembering.

For the last three-and-a-bit years I’ve been walking to work with a little detour, to drop Thomas at his nursery. To begin with, Thomas sat in his pushchair, kicking his legs with glee at all that he could see. Later he’d hop in and out of the pushchair depending on how tired he was (or how much of a hurry I was in). There would be ritual demands to stop as we passed the station, in order to watch the trains. We’d have to wait at the Pelican crossing until Thomas could be the one to push the button, and then he’d jump up and down with excitement at the appearance of the green man. Then, for the last nine months or so, since we’ve ditched our pushchair, Thomas has walked raced at top speed there and back. And predictably we’ve been organised in to a train formation for the journey.

There have been stops off at convenient lamp-posts in order to “fill up” with (imaginary) coal or water. We’ve had to stop at the steam works numerous times to “fix” Thomas. And woe betide us if we aren’t in the right order (Daddy is the tender, Mummy is the coach. Until we lose Daddy at the station, then we become a Southeastern electric train!) And if we aren’t following the “tracks” on the path (the lines where the path has been previously dug up for cabling to everyone else, but definitely “tracks” to Thomas) we’ll be told in no uncertain terms that “trains can’t go on the road”.

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The evening walk home was the opposite in reverse. Once I regained my driving licence last year, Thomas took to asking with trepidation when I picked him up if I had the car, and insisting that he wanted to talk, come rain or shine. He gathered a collection of admirers at the pub around the corner from nursery. The same group of people who would often be outside smoking and would cheer as they saw him race around the corner, pumping his “pistons” and tooting his “whistle” with me in hot pursuit, struggling with multiple bags and his latest artwork offerings flapping in my hand.

As of next week, it’s all change.

There will be no more preschool express train.

Thomas’s new preschool is located just under a mile away at the wrong end of town for my work. In order to get him there in time and myself in to work by 8.15, I’ll have no choice but to drive him there (and yes, I know this is neither environmentally friendly, nor particularly healthy for my son, but needs must.)

I will miss these moments in our day, now matter how foolish I may look as the back end of a train, all whilst trying to instill road safety advice and consideration for other pedestrians. I’ll miss the times where I can barely keep up equally as much as the times that I have to keep encouraging a dawdling child to continue moving in the right direction. I’ll miss him popping out of the bus shelter shouting “boo” when I’m lagging behind.

But next year, once Thomas starts full time school, I’ll have the time to walk him there twice a week. Maybe, just maybe, he won’t yet have lost his passion for “being a train”and we’ll once again be able to reinstate this very ordinary moment in our lives.

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