Sandpits, socialising and self-belief

In praise of preschool

Last week, my 16-month-old daughter did two things of note.

(To you, I mean. To me, Mabel did a couple of hundred noteworthy things each day, but I don’t expect too many others to appreciate that look she gave just then. Oh, and that one.)

First, she started toddling along without support. A couple of days later she left the baby class at nursery and, unveiling a sense of timing that surely indicates a glittering future, joined the toddler group. That, or, like her father, she intends to leave everything until the last minute.

Meanwhile, her three-year-old brother started preschool.

Preschool. Good grief. It’s quite the word. Last year, Arthur’s nursery class was called Red Group, almost as emblematic of joyful infanthood as Scabbed Knee Group or Wooooooooooo!!!! Group.

Preschool, by contrast, is decidedly serious, a signifier of imminent serious learning with overtones of impending “Farewell, father, do give my love to ma-ma, and please feel welcome to attend my graduation three years’ hence. Here is my key.”

It’s all a little… formal.

At heart, I lean towards the Swedish education model, whereby orthodox early years learning is eschewed in favour of extending a carefree childhood, and children aren’t required to start school until they’ve designed their first range of stylish-but-affordable home furnishings, or first rolled tutting eyes at the use of cheap and gratuitous national stereotypes.

By contrast, it seems to me that the last 30 years or so has seen– at primary level, especially – a wholly misguided obsession with testing young minds; one with the potential to give children a sense of lowly academic place, a lack of self-belief, even at an age when the pace of intellectual development is hugely varied and, with encouragement, swiftly accelerated.

Coupled with the introduction of league tables, and the consequent pressure on schools to focus on obtaining optimum test results, we find a perfect storm for training unfurling brains of infinite possibility to follow the narrowest of pathways.

(Quick aside: I appreciate that assessing schools has its merits, but such nuance ill befits a short, hastily-written blog, not least on a subject that really requires a short, hastily-written blog all of its own.)

Ah, it’s okay. I know that preschool is still very much about living childhood to its fullest, a daily programme of wall-to-wall-to-sandpit fun. And I know it’s only us parents who can discern the nursery leaders’ plan to cement in their charges a fulfilling life’s most common cornerstone: a sense of curiosity. The kids don’t suspect a thing.

To be honest, my children could leave nursery tomorrow and already be in receipt of life-changing education. Arthur was barely more than a year and a half old when the pandemic hit; Mabel was minus one month. The effects of the ensuing lockdown were routinely heartbreaking to behold.

While Arthur’s speech may or may not have been delayed without the strictures on socialising imposed by Covid-19, he certainly wouldn’t have routinely stepped from paths and pavements to avoid contact with oncoming strangers.

Still, at least he had a little understanding of a life beyond parents pre-March 2020. Mabel ‘met’ my parents at remote distance in the back garden a couple of times, but when they first saw each other indoors – it must have been around her first birthday – she was at a complete loss. Other people in the house; she’d never seen anyone but mum, dad, and brother on that side of the front door. Which is why she immediately crawled out of the front room and, for a long time, refused to do anything but sit by herself in the hall.

Thank the god of your choice, then, for the decision to let nurseries open while practically everything else remained closed. It was there that the whole other people thing was confronted. Now, Arthur can happily approach and talk with them, and Mabel can determinedly force her way into a ball pit overflowing with elbow-swinging, knee-jutting big kids and come up smiling.

With luck, for years to come, their learning will remain challenging, but never testing.