Friday 25 April 2008

A learning experience

Off to the Littleboys’ nursery for a meeting about the ‘Early Years Foundation Learning Curriculum’ (or some such waffle dreamed up by Ofsted). I am here somewhat reluctantly. The meeting was announced at fairly short notice, for the night of the week where I normally do a yoga class, rush back and eat pasta with The Doctor watching The Apprentice (and regularly shouting ‘You muppet’ at the screen). All in all, it's usually a pretty satisfactory night in after a day churning out features. So I was toying with not going, but having failed to return the attendance slip I was nobbled by the Nursery Manager, and agreed to be there. When I enquired about the meeting’s purpose, she told me that a number of mothers had been wanting to find out about what the pre-school children were learning. That should have fired off warning bells, but for some reason it didn’t, so here I am, sitting on a tiny toddler’s chair, surrounded by other Mummies. There are no Dads here (funny that) - and so far it looks as if I’m the only one who has helped herself to the wine.

Now, my view of the Nursery is that it’s fine. It serves my purpose: which is to provide childcare for the Littleboys while I’m at work 3 days a week, give them some interaction with other kids and let them get all messy with substances such as water, sand and dough that I would never in a million years allow them to play with at home. If they learn to count and start on the alphabet at the same time (which they do) that’s fantastic. I want the staff to be kind, the food to be edible, and yes, stories to be read and all that. But I must admit, I never really expected the Nursery to be an academic powerhouse. Surely there’s plenty of time for that when they start primary school, when no doubt we’ll be overwhelmed by homework, tests and targets?

It transpires, however, that I’m clearly alone and naïve in this simplistic view of the world. Because, 10 minutes after the man from the nursery’s Head Office kicks off a rather turgid Powerpoint presentation about 'learning via play', the haranguing starts.

Glam Mummy (a lithe blonde clad in skinny black designer jeans), is concerned that the 4 year old kids in the pre-school room are being ‘held back’ by the 3 year olds, who apparently want to bash about and destroy the educational toys rather than learning with them nicely. Yes, why can’t they be divided into 2 streams? another mother chips in.

They also clearly don't think that the ‘learning via play’ philosophy espoused by the Nursery is structured enough. “Why can’t we have Letter of the Week?” asks Glam Mummy. (I am puzzled – Letter of the Week sounds like something you should win a selection of face creams for by writing into Grazia magazine – but I am soon enlightened). “My daughter and I pick a letter of the alphabet and do Letter of the Weekend every weekend,” she tells us. "And I tell the key worker all about it when we come in on Monday morning."

My God, I think. Frankly, if we can get through the weekend at all without tantrums, food-throwing, accidents and relentless demands to watch the Pingu DVD, it’s a bonus. Never mind theming our activity around a particular letter….and if this little girl is doing Letter of the Weekend at age 4 what will she be doing at 8 – Tolstoy character of the week?

Another Mummy wants Show and Tell (which I thought was an American thing anyway). Why don’t they have it at this nursery – "other nurseries" do? (When I tell The Doctor about this later, he says, "Well, why don’t they send their child to those other nurseries? It's not as if they're allocated one - we do have a choice.")

At one point, Head Office Man talks about the need for learning both indoors and outdoors. “That’s all very well,” retorts one mother disapprovingly, “But I just get the impression that when they go out into the playground all they do is run around and go down the slide.” (Surely, I am thinking – this is what playgrounds are FOR? What are they supposed to be doing - an archaeological dig?)

The chorus of disapproval continues, and suddenly I realise we’ve been here for nearly 90 minutes. What is more, because of all the interruptions, Head Office Man appears to be only half way through his presentation. “I don’t want to keep you too late,” he mutters, but then someone suggests going off to get samples of the kids' work......

At this point I’m getting more and more uncomfortable on my tiny chair, and I'm itching to get back home and watch Alan Sugar fire someone. So I sneak out, the first to leave and no doubt scoring extremely black marks with the other mothers for not taking my son’s education seriously enough.

As I thank the (lovely) nursery manager, I notice she is looking incredibly glum. I wonder what her Letter of the Evening will be.

Postscript: When I talked to NCT Friends about this the other night, they pointed out that these mothers are probably terrified their kids won’t get into some highly competitive pre-prep. Apparently one 4 year old girl was rejected from a local private school for not knowing that ‘ball’ starts with a ‘b’. Perhaps we’d better start buying Alphabetti spaghetti…..

Friday 18 April 2008

Ken you believe it

I have been sorely tempted to stick a ‘Vote for Ken’ poster in my window recently – and not just to annoy the Nappy Valley neighbours or my father-in-law.

Because, although I know that if I met Boris Johnson at a dinner party, he would be utterly charming, I just don’t want him to be Mayor of London. There are multiple reasons – like, a) he is a Tory b) he has some rubbish ideas, and c) He has the gravitas of a two year old (come to think of it, his hair often reminds of Littleboy 1's) and I don’t think he could be taken seriously on the world stage at events like the Olympics for instance. But mainly because I actually think Ken’s done a good job. I can’t see what’s wrong with bendy buses. The new cycle lanes are great (well, if I still rode my bike they would be). Oyster cards rock. Congestion charge - no problems with that, and it seems to work - and Death to gas guzzling four by fours (plenty of them in Nappy Valley). Lastly, I can’t bear the Evening Standard, which is determined to dig up dirt on Ken.

Naturally when our polling cards came through my door, I thought I’d stick them in a safe place, away from the prying little hands of Littleboys 1 and 2 (Littleboy 2 has thrown several things in the bin recently, plus a pair of shoes in the bath, and two of his brother’s books in the loo, so I have grounds for concern.)

But when I came to look for the cards today, during a rare tidy-up, they had vanished. In a slightly ridiculous frenzy (“I’m sure you can still vote without the card,” The Doctor* pleaded) I hunted high and low, behind bookcases, in files I haven't opened for months, under the sofa...

My concern, I have to confess, was not just for the battle of Ken v Boris. It was also for my own sanity – since the pram incident (see blogs past) I have really wondered whether my mind is going. I keep putting things down and forgetting where - something that in the past I have cruelly laughed at The Doctor for doing - and several semi-important things seem have gone to the netherworld of lost items. So I had to prove to myself that I’d put the cards somewhere sensible and not binned them by accident.

Eventually they turned up: in a drawer I’d already looked in. It contained the family passports, and as I’d opened the drawer first time around, Little boy no1 had grabbed a passport and raced off around the room with it in glee, totally distracting me from my search.

So tonight my mind is at rest. I am not going mad – and I can still vote for Ken in 2 weeks time. Fingers crossed.

*A friend suggested I should have some nicknames for regular characters in my blog. So my husband has become The Doctor. Not because he is a Timelord or reminds me of David Tennant, but because he is one. The boys are Littleboy 1 and 2.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Chelsea mummies at play

Where to go when it’s pouring with rain in Nappy Valley? Well, you can always opt for what one friend of mine calls the seventh circle of hell: soft play. You know the places: usually part of a local leisure centre, always overheated and smelling of sweat and wee, where everything is padded, tiny kids can rampage in pits full of plastic bouncy balls and if you’re lucky there is a cup of horrible coffee from an overpriced canteen. You go there thinking it’s great entertainment, but you spend the whole time trying to work out where your kids actually are and whether it’s your child screaming.

Then there is the Chelsea Harbour version of soft play – a brand new, cavernous and what’s more CLEAN space devoted to infant rampaging, where the Chelsea Mummies come to exhaust their offspring. We have recently discovered this delight, although it is not one to be savoured very often, as a two hour slot there, plus rip-off parking nearby and extortionate lunch, adds up to about £25. Oh well – at least the latte is drinkable….

What amuses me is how Chelsea's ladies who lunch cope with activities such as soft play – the answer is, badly. I know from experience that the best outfit for this sort of place is jeans, t-shirt and slip on shoes, so you can a) kick shoes off and dive into the maelstrom to rescue/remonstrate with your child at appropriate moments, b) go on the trampoline with your kids c) negotiate the padded jungle in order to round them up when it’s time to go home. You will inevitably get showered in crumbs/ apple juice at some point in the proceedings, not to mention a slathering of dribble from overexcited toddler.

So it’s with amusement that I spot Sloaney Mummy, a long-haired, perfectly groomed blonde in long, shiny boots, delicate tights, and a floral dress. The getup doesn’t look quite so elegant when she’s wrestling on the floor cushions to stop her son beating up another child. She’s also deeply embarrassed about her 2 year old’s (completely standard) behaviour, and can’t stop apologising. I guess he doesn't quite fit with her image, unlike her other accessories.

Meanwhile two Ski-bunny Mummies are sitting behind me with their lattes, discussing their jaunt to the Alps and slagging off their husbands (“…and I couldn’t believe he wanted Jemima to go up in that cable car without the Carte Neige, I mean I know she’s only two years old and not skiing but what if they had to be helicoptered off the mountain?”). From time to time, a small child appears looking frazzled and they vaguely ask ‘are you having a lovely time darling?’ before waving her off to play and going back to the bitch-fest.

Valley Girl here – a south of the river impostor – is meanwhile trying to read yesterday’s Observer and pretending that my son doesn’t belong to me as he climbs the wrong way up the giant slide and gets shouted at by an attendant. (He carries on, oblivious.)

Then I spot the ultimate Chelsea Mummy in the canteen queue – an actually-quite-famous actress. I won’t say who, but she’s been in several Brit flicks and a long running US drama series, and she’s absolutely gorgeous. Tiny, bone-china delicate, wearing Ugg boots and carrying an oversized leopardprint bag, she wafts serenely through the ranks of harassed parents carrying her coffee, as if nothing about the crazed atmosphere, bad lighting and airport-lounge like décor could affect her. So what’s her secret? Well, for one thing her kids are nowhere to be seen…..they must be over there, with the nanny.