On the Day you Start School

Dear Thomas,

The time is here, kiddo. Tomorrow is the day that you start big school.

It’s a huge milestone. And a huge one for Mummy too. I stood hanging out your clothes to dry this weekend and I suddenly remembered doing exactly the same thing the weekend before you were born. I was so aware, then, that life was about to change in ways I couldn’t quite truly imagine. This might not be quite such a massive shift, but it’s a significant change nonetheless. No longer a baby, a toddler or even a preschooler. You’ll be a real-deal school boy.

I look at you, in your uniform and you at once look both so tiny – hands disappearing inside a blazer that slightly swamps you – but also so grown up. And I can’t help but wonder how exactly we got here. In some ways that weekend of hanging out tiny baby clothes feels like yesterday, but simultaneously the time that you were not in our lives feels a whole lifetime ago. Perhaps I feel that more acutely because this month marks four years of trying to give you a sibling. And those four years have been interminably long. (I’m sorry we haven’t succeeded on that one, but I know that you are going to be part of such a warm, friendly school and hopefully your friends will continue to be your surrogate siblings.)

I look back, too, at just how much you’ve learned in the last five years. From the scrunched up little boy with a mop of dark hair who knew only how to suck and to scream (oh, how you could scream) you’re now a little boy full of knowledge. And not just facts but ideas, imagination, opinions. Yes, plenty of those and you’re not afraid to share them. You’re a character with a personality to rival the size of your newborn screams.

It’s true that children are like sponges. You’ve proven that. You’ve learned to crawl, to walk and then to talk. You’ve learned shapes, colours and numbers. You’ve learned to read. The list goes on. And now you constantly surprise me by just how much you know about so many different subjects. Trains are still your top obsession, but space – the sun, the planets, asteroids and comets – comes a close second. One of you favourite games this summer has been “Give me a fact about…” where we have to ask you for a fact about a variety of given subjects. And the stuff you come out with when we ask for a fact about the sun, or trees, or insects, so often amazes me, if not for the fact itself, but where you get this stuff from. You just soak up information and bring it out again at will.

And that is why, my most favourite little boy, you are so, so ready for this next step. Life with you is filled with a never ending barrage of questions about what, when, why, how. You’re ready to learn more. And I know you will. Not just more facts and information, but skills too. (And some of those will be more challenging for you that the basics of letters and numbers. Learning to lose gracefully for starters!)

Of course I have my worries about you. It’s true that we send children to school here in the UK when you are all still so tiny and sometimes your anxieties and your behaviour give us a glimpse of the baby boy still inside.

But I have to let you go. It’s time.

You’re excited.

And I’m excited too. To watch you take this next step. I’m ready for there to be someone else to respond to all your many, many questions and to start to teach you the things I have no idea how to teach. I’ll miss you. Of course I will. Those two days a week that I don’t work have always been “Mummy and Thomas time”. And no matter how nice it might be to have a quiet cup of tea or do the shopping in peace, I’m going to really miss your company. The funny things you say and the adventures we have. I’m so glad that schools have holidays and that I get you back.

You know, it’s a real privilege to be your mum.

And that is why, amongst all the things that you learn at big school, I hope that you don’t unlearn the skill you’ve perfected of being the indescribable you.

I love you, always and unconditionally. But I hope you already know that.

Mummy xxx

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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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Everything Changes (But You)

Dear Thomas,

I’ve been putting off writing this letter, in much the same way that I’ve kept dithering over talking to you in depth about the changes we’re about to inflict upon your life and your routine. But now, it’s just weeks away and there is no more escaping it.

In a few weeks we’ll be moving you from the only nursery and preschool that you’ve ever known. You’ve been there since a few days shy of six months. When you started you could only just sit up. You couldn’t crawl, let alone stand. You were just days in to your weaning journey and I still had to visit you each day to feed you your milk because you never did get the hang of taking it from a bottle, stubborn as you are. You’ve moved through the rooms there, forming attachments to the staff, who all know you and your (huge) personality now, making friends and making yourself thoroughly at home.

You really are at home there. Confident, sociable, outgoing. You chatter about your days and you friends. You have favourite places, from the window where you wave to me in the morning, to the book corner and the playhouse in the garden. By now you can, of course, run, jump, skip, hop, talk nineteen-to-the-dozen and even read and write, and so many of these developments have been aided by your fantastic nursery and the people there who have watched you grow. People who really know you and genuinely care about you.

So making the decision to move you has been one of the hardest choices we’ve had to make as parents so far. It’s hard, this aspect of parenting: making decisions on behalf of your child, trying to decide what is best for them when you can’t really know how it will all turn out, and all the while being aware that it could have far reaching consequences. We talked for so many hours about the pros and cons. We looked at the option of moving you after another term. We looked at the option of leaving you where you are for one day a week and moving you for two. Believe me when I say, we really thought this through. But in the end, the choice was made.

In my heart, I know this is right. We’re moving you to the preschool at what, all being well, will be your “big school” and where you’ll be until you’re eleven. Eleven! Imagine that? (I can’t.)

No matter how much your current preschool has helped you flourish, I know you are ready for some new challenges. Being an older child in your school year, you’ve already done three terms of “official preschool”. And before that you always moved up a room every few months. I know that staying in the same place again may make you stagnate. You might lose your currently seemingly infinite passion for learning and exploring. And the very last thing I want to do is switch you off education before you’ve even had a chance to properly begin. I firmly believe that you’re someone who benefits from change, and variety. And I want to encourage that.

I know that you will miss your friends. But we picked the timing carefully. So many of your friends are already four, and they’re all off to school in September anyway. It makes sense for you to move at the same time. In fact, I sort of thought you’d think everyone was leaving, but for just a moment I forgot how smart you are. As you told me “I’m too small to go to school”.

Yes, you are kiddo. But then, I’ll probably always think you’re too small to be such a grown up boy. I think we’ve overcome the confusion that panicked me for a while, where I think you believed we were packing you off to “big school” early. You know that this is still preschool. Just different preschool.

So, yes, this is happening. You’ve visited your new preschool over and over. You’ve told us how much you like it there. In three weeks it will be where you go three days a week. It will be a big change. You’ll wear a uniform. We’ll have to leave earlier in the mornings because instead of dropping you off on my walk to work, I’ll have to drive you to the top of town, before turning round, driving home and then walking to work alone. That drive will mean your pick up is a little later too. The routine will be different. And because the preschool is attached to a school, you’ll go from being one of the biggest fish to being one of the teeny tiniest, as you mix with the reception children during playtime.

Such a big change for you, because you know nothing different to what you do now.

But everything changes.

Everything except you. Because no matter what, I know that you’ll still be my bright, bubbly and confident boy. At least, I hope you will. I hope that I’ve made the right decision on your behalf and that this move will help you soar, rather than hold you back.

Everything changes. But you’ll always be my best boy.

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All my love, always

Mummy

A Christmas Pudding in the Preschool Nativity

Last Friday was one of those parenting milestone moments for me. It was Thomas’s very first preschool nativity performance.

I don’t care that they’re only three and four years old. I don’t care that it’s not “proper” school and so, according to some “not a proper nativity”. I don’t care that the children didn’t do any acting, and only a couple of them had anything to say. It may just seem to be a glorified sing-along to some, but it was Thomas’s – along with his friends’ – first chance to stand up on a stage and perform something that they’d practiced really hard for in front of their families. And they all sang their hearts out.

There were traditional nativity characters – Mary, Joseph, Kings, shepherds and angels. They stood at the front during a short reading of the Christmas story, and whilst everyone sang carols including “Little Donkey” and “Away in a Manger”.
There were also plenty of other Christmas characters – Father Christmas, reindeer, snowmen and the like, which fitted with the many other songs the children sang. Thomas’s part? The Christmas pudding! I racked up some serious Mummy-points by making his costume myself – it was a very simple tabard style outfit made from felt and had the advantage for the nursery staff of being light and very easy to put on!

Thomas absolutely loved it all. From the moment he spotted us when we arrived, through the part where he ran down the aisle to me where I was seated just after they’d been walked on stage (yes, I was the mum walking my child back up on to the stage – and yes, I had a tear in my eye at his overwhelming enthusiasm) to his actions and dancing on stage and waving to us throughout. All of that is what I will remember forever more. No question at all that this was a special moment.

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Thomas Turns Three!

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So Thomas, you’re three!

It’s amazing to think that just over three years ago you’d yet to take a breath in this world. But now, you’re very much here in glorious, unmissable four dimensional technicolour. I think it’s fair to say that you’re already determined to make your mark and make sure that everyone knows you’re here. You have opinions, and you’re not afraid to share them.

I actually can’t overstate this. You’re so vivacious, with an infectious enthusiasm for life. You chat non-stop to everyone – even strangers. You tell them about your trains, or trains in general. You tell them what you did yesterday. Or what you had for lunch. You tell them about your mummy, your daddy, your house and your car. And you’re so interested in everything. You look around you, taking it all in and asking questions that sometimes blow my mind.

You’ve always been a wriggle pants and a fidget bum, and that much hasn’t changed. You are pretty much always moving, even in your sleep. (Sleep which you still don’t like much – your answer to tiredness is to run around even more!) Your speeds are still “stop” at which you dawdle incredibly slowly, examining every last minute detail in your vicinity, or “go” which means full pelt, top speed, as fast as you can, be that on two feet or the two wheels of your beloved balance bike. Everywhere we go you can be heard shouting “Let’s be a train” and we follow lines where the pavement has been dug up (“get on the rails mummy”). You’re usually the engine. Of Daddy is with us he’s usually the tender. I’m invariably a coach. We’re most often steam trains, but lately we’re increasingly asked to be Pendolinos – your new favourite. We have to stop at stations, (or because the road has been dug up, or the imaginary signal is red) open our doors, let the passengers on and then you “whoo whoo” as we take off again, snaking our way through the town in a line – I do wonder what people think of us!

Speaking of “whoo whoo-ing” you’ve got a little fan club at our local station. When we sit and watch the trains – usually on a Friday evening – you “whoo” loudly as the train dispatchers blow their whistles. They all know you now, and you’ve caused at least one to burst in to fits of laughter with your exuberant whistle blowing.

You’re still obsessed with your wooden train track and your collection of trains. You love to make your “Thomas Wooden Railway Collection” videos, emulating some favourites on YouTube, where you line up all your trains and tell us who they are. We’ve given you your very first proper electric train set for your birthday, and it’s definitely fair to say it’s a hit!

Despite your unwavering train love, there’s also some room for other obsessions. Toy Story is one. And role playing as a doctor is another. For some reason your diagnosis is always “Bees” and we’re cured by tweezer extraction of the offending critters! In fact, role play in general is big thing. You devise tea parties for your toys (although insist there must be actual water in the kettle and tea pot!) and you act out stories you imagine with your trains, cars or other models. The insight in to your mind from these games is amazing!

Your other new love is numbers. You learned to read all of your numbers up to 20 several months ago, and you’ve since worked out by yourself how to count higher by adding the numbers to twenty. Everywhere we go, you point out numbers, which makes a trip to the supermarket painful! You’ve now started wanting to write them, and your pen control really astounds me. You’re also making strides to decode the world around you by reading. You can sight-read an impressive number of words and spell your name. You can also read many letters individually, although you currently know a mix of phonic sounds and letter names – the hazard of learning in the Internet age, I think!

Above all though, you’re still my funny, smiley, cheeky little boy. Since you’ve learned to crack jokes, we hear your laugh even more, and my heart still melts where your face cracks in to a grin and your dimples emerge. (The fact that the jokes have a disturbing tendency to involve poo or willies is something I’m overlooking for now. You are only three, after all!) it’s hard to argue with that cheeky grin when you barter for more biscuits, or present a convincing argument as to why you need ice cream.

And inside, there is still my cuddly little boy. I absolutely adore that you love cuddles so much. And then when I kiss you, tuck you up in bed and tell you that I love you, you always lift your head and say “I love you too Mummy.”

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