When Helen leaves her nursery (Julia Durbin) in September, she will have been there for just short of four years. There have been month-long breaks for trips to Australia and shorter holidays, and she only goes to nursery four days a week, but that's still 30+ hours a week for most of her life — all her life that she has any memory of. And she is part of a tight-knit community in her preschool, the break up of which will be a huge change to her life. [The comparable adult experiences I can think of would be shifting from one hunter-forager band to another, or retiring after having worked in the same job for one's entire life.]
Two of her closest friends (Martha and Aadi) have left already, and she's been missing them, and her best friend Aimee finishes this week; Helen has just two weeks to go herself. (Families take children out for summer holidays and don't bring them back before school starts, in order to save money on nursery fees.) Julia Durbin being a workplace nursery, her friends are scattering to schools all over the place: Windmill, St Nicholas', Headington Girls, East Oxford, Mary+John, the Europa School, and more; she's lucky to have Samuel going to Larkrise with her.
The last twenty months, in preschool, dominate her and our memories (though she still remembers being in "green group" in the Ladybirds room and "pink group" in Bumblebees (before being in "purple group" in Butterflies and preschool), and even which groups some of her friends were in in previous rooms). But some of her peers have been at Julia Durbin as long as she has. I found an email from three years ago, about Helen and Thea doing preparatory visits for their move to the toddler room; and when she made that move she was welcomed by a friend, I think Aubrey, and the two of them toddled off holding hands. One of her preschool teachers, Heather, remembers being there for Helen's first settling-in session with Camilla, as a ten month old baby.
Her friendships have been dominated by an intense friendship with Aadi, with whom she remains close, and for the last year almost invariable playing with Aimee, but Lily May and Martha have also been core friends. She also plays with Ruan, Samuel, Tara, Anika, Emma, Thea, Jacob, Harris, Aubrey, and others (including some of the younger children not going to school this year). There are some children she never plays with, but she knows everyone's names, and their group affiliations, and which days they are at nursery, and who their siblings are, and who plays with whom even for cliques she's not part of. (Her peers seem similar here: I've had children I don't recognise at all call out "Helen's daddy" when they see me.)
There were some problems with keyworkers leaving just after room changes when Helen was two, but otherwise the staff have been quite stable: only two of the core six teachers have left/changed in her twenty month stay in preschool. The early focus on one key person -- Marie when she was a baby in Caterpillars, Karlea in Bumblebees, Claire in Butterflies -- has shifted in preschool to relationships with everyone, not just her key carers Annette and then Wayne, but also Heather and Oumou and Sarah and Beatrice and Victoria and Natasha. There are also staff shifted from other rooms for leave and load balancing, and some on zero-hour contracts, mostly students studying to be teachers, and Helen knows most of those too.
In her early months at nursery we - mostly Camilla - walked her there in the stroller, but almost all her life she has been cycled there, with occasional driving on very wet days. In the last few months we've taken to walking there once or twice a week. (Which may have prominence in her memory, since walking is slower and more involving than being cycled.) When it was wet and muddy, deciding whether to cross Warneford Meadow or go the long way around via Warneford Lane. Sometimes taking the "deep dark forest" route across the little bridge directly between the nursery and the meadow. Picking blackberries. Getting the helmet into and out of the stroller shed. [Since my bike child seat is likely to be retired at the same time Helen leaves nursery, we will also be saying goodbye to that.]
Some of the things I will remember, mostly dominated by the last year, when Camilla changed jobs and I started doing most of the pickups and drop-offs. Waving goodbye ("noup noup") to Helen through the preschool window on drop-off. Going to find her in top-garden. Having her run to me when she sees me. (A fast, confident run at four and a half; it was not always so.) Choosing a piece of fruit from the bowl in reception. Lifting her up onto the fence between the carpark and the preschool garden so she can wave good-bye to her friends. The nativity play (Whoops-a-Daisy Angel) that preschool put on, even though Helen missed the actual performance of that when we went to Australia: we still use that as our tooth-brushing tune, with the words replaced with "aaaah". Things I've almost forgotten about: nappies and dirty clothing from accidents, milk bottles, tearful farewells, tantrums about getting onto the bike.
In her early years we relied on handover notes from her carers, but her own accounts of what she does have got progressively more sophisticated. (She makes references to the past — "when I was three", "in Butterflies" — but I know she gets memories of different events mixed up and it's unclear how much she remembers from before three.) How often she went into the gardens (the little preschool garden and the big shared "top garden") and who she went with, or that she stayed inside with one friend while others went out. Who was at preschool and who was on holidays or off sick. New arrivals from Butterflies. Who was being "silly", and funny things they said to their teachers ("bonky"). Decorating a Christmas tree, making things such as Heather's spaceship. Sometimes accounts of what she ate. Occasional stories about her playing. Here's one account from when she was about four.
She played hide-and-seek with Aimee and Samuel in the top-garden. Aimee kept hiding in the same place, and Samuel hid very close to where they were counting. // Martha didn't want to play with her. // She and Aadi and Jacob pretended leaves were food. Jacob was a tiger, but a friendly tiger. He tried to eat their food, but Aadi and she stood on it to stop him. // She did painting with Lily May and Aadi. // Wayne [her key person] likes bananas a lot. // Lillia and Isabel are in her group. Both have short blonde hair with curls, but one [I forget which] has fairer skin and often wears a blue jacket.
Helen is counting down the days left. She has always looked forward to Wednesday morning yoga (this sometimes helped to get her out of the house) and hopes to have one more class before she leaves preschool (they don't have them in school holidays). And she is also worried about missing out on a visit to the library in Headington, where they've been taking the children six at a time. But she doesn't really understand the coming upending of nearly half her world.
Continued in: Leaving Nursery 2
They take safeguarding seriously. There was an incident once when a toddler tailgated another parent into the carpark, and the response to that was good: they notified everyone by email, asking them to be careful, and by the following Monday there was an extra fence in place, providing an additional barrier.
The food and food preparation (hygiene) seem of a high standard: I pretty much stopped even thinking about this years ago.
Not too much time is wasted doing things for parents. There were some clearly mostly teacher-made creations coming home in earlier years. There are "learning boards" on the walls which are clearly aimed at visiting parents, but they are not updated often. A folder of hand-written "Learning Journey" notes was replaced by migration to the online Parentzone system, and there are the mandatory EYFS learning goal checklists, but the teachers don't seem to spend too much time on their tablets updating those (instead of being with the children).
And there's limited use of stickers as rewards, though that is sometimes frustrating: for example when Helen was less excited by the baby chicks they had hatched than upset at not getting a sticker for helping to look after them.