Monday, 30 December 2013


I’m writing a series of blog posts exploring the books “How to be Free” and “The Idle Parent” written by Tom Hodgkinson.  I enjoyed a lot of the ideas expressed in these books, and think that exploring them further will help me to explore the principles behind my own way of living and parenting.

Chapter 27 – Depose the tyrant wealth – WANT LESS
Having plenty of money offers the promise of freedom.  Freedom to do what you want, not to have to work, buy what you like, live where you want etc. etc.  In reality how many people have this much money?  Only a very small percentage of us have so much money that we can live with freedom, and even then there are disadvantages… the more money you have the more ways there are to spend it, on more expensive cars, a bigger house requiring more maintenance, charitable institutions, the health club, the golf club, private schools and all the trappings of a wealthy lifestyle.  The money soon disappears.  In the meantime the rest of us continue working towards this aspiration “to be rich”, in the meantime sacrificing the freedom which we strive for. 
Would it not be better to try to alter our lifestyle so that we want less?  Get rid of some of our stuff and rather than buying the biggest house that we can afford, buy a small one that’s “big enough”.  Just because you can afford two cars (can you?) doesn’t mean that you need two cars (or even one).  Be thrifty, reduce your need for and dependency on money, and you will have more freedom to work less, do what you want etc.

How does this match up to the ink-spots-and-grass-stains life?
It’s worth acknowledging here that Tom isn’t talking about real poverty.  There are people out there who haven’t got enough to feed their family for the week, who don’t spend on “extras”, who work hard and still can’t make ends meet.  Because we live in a time at the moment where the cost of food and fuel and generally living has increased far more than earnings.  It’s nice to think that we can all reduce our wants, our needs and our spending, but not everybody can.
We can.

We don’t seem to spend nearly as much as others on nights out for example (what are those?), on holidays, on make-up and cosmetics, on home entertainment, on childcare and education.  But we do spend more than we need to.  We live in a nice big house in a lovely area.  We have technology, more than one car, toys and books etc.  We could definitely reduce our outgoings so that we need less money.  The less money that we spend on a monthly basis, the less we’ll feel the need to work, and the more likely we are to take the leap to the big dream…

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Quilted place setting place-mats - TUTORIAL

Quilted place setting placemats – tutorial

First decide on the layout of your place settings.  I used an A3 sized piece of paper and laid out a plate, cup and cutlery and then drew around them.  Do this in mirror image as well.

Choose your fabric.  Use a plain fabric for the place setting side, but you can use any pattern on the other side.  You’ll need your A3 size of each, plus some wadding.  I made six, so needed 6 times this much.  Measure the perimeter as well, as you’ll need to buy bias binding.  You’ll also want some co-ordinating thread for the quilting, and some contrast thread for your place setting.  Cut out the fabrics to the right size.

Baste your plain fabric to your wadding to hold it in place.  Draw over the design on your mirror image layout with chalk.  Then press it face down on the plain fabric so that you have a chalk image the correct way around.  Use back-stitch to hand sew your place-setting design.

Now baste the other piece of fabric on to the other side of the wadding.  Depending on your design you can hand or machine quilt this.  I used a machine to do simple diamond shapes.

Trim the edges of your fabrics and wadding so that they all line up.  Pin your bias binding in place and sew it on.

Trim all loose threads and pull all basting out.

Enjoy your very own personal quilted place setting place-mat!

Friday, 27 December 2013

Crafting gifts - crochet cushion

I first picked up a crochet hook this time last year.  I'd bought a book "First Crochet" by Lesley Stansfield, and took it with me to Mum's so that she could help me master the crochet chain.  Then I posted back in March about a dolls hat I crocheted and in August I crocheted a little bag. I've been alternating big knitting projects with crochet, but when I made the bag in August I knew that I had finally got the hang of double crochet.

In view of Mum's support and inspiration in all things crafty, I decided back then that I was going to make her a crochet cushion cover using double crochet for Christmas.  It's one of the next patterns in the Lesley Stansfield book.  I altered the colours to suit mum's sitting room, and towards the end of November, when I'd only got the hood left to do on C's jumper I put the knitting aside and got on with the crochet so that it would be finished in time for Christmas.

I'm pretty delighted with the result, it came out really well, with even stitching, no stitches lost randomly on the ends of rows and the outcome looks very smart.  It was also quite cheap to post!  The cushion pad to go inside was quite tricky to find, as it's not a standard size, but John Lewis came up trumps.  I think I might make one for my sitting room next!

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Toddler Activity Cards

When reading parenting forums, particularly amongst Stay-at-Home-Mums you'll often come across a plea for ideas of simple things to do with toddlers.  Things which don't take much effort, minimal resources.  We're talking about easy activities to allow parents to spend quality time with small children who don't have the attention span or skills to play involved games.  Sometimes these activities can be used to distract a child who is about to lose the plot, who is demonstrating that dreaded attention-seeking behaviour.
When C was little and I was heavily pregnant with Bug I compiled one hundred simple activities and made a set of cards.  These cards have been in a stack on the bookcase in the sitting-room ever since (nearly three years now) and whenever I could see that the children were needing some direction I would just grab the top card on the pile and try to do the activity.  Now that they are older (four and a half and nearly three years old) they are pretty good at using their own imaginations for independent play, and if they are struggling I'll get out the colouring books, or a card or board game, or simply change around the toys on offer in the sitting room, but there are still ample opportunities for these five-minute activities to distract and redirect, to build skills and interact.

In short, these activity cards have been awesome.  So here comes my commercial idea... Could I print these out on nice card with an attractive design on the back, and sell them on my website or craft stall?  Would people pay £5 for a set of 100 "Quick And Simple Activities for Toddlers"?  What do you think?

Monday, 23 December 2013

Crafting away in the background

I haven't posted much here about my crafting just lately.  Some of that is because the things I've been making are secrets, and I don't want the victims (oops, I mean "happy recipients") to know what I've been making for them.  I have also been making something which isn't a secret, but its taken me a very long time, with breaks in the middle to make the other stuff.  I finished it over the weekend, and here it is:

This is my first ever attempt at cable knitting and I am very proud.  As you can see its pretty enormous on C.  Mum suggested that the first time people do cable they tend to make their knitting tighter than usual, and also I didn't know how long it was going to take, so I made it for age 6-7, even though he's still only 4.  Never mind, at least I know he's going to have a nice woolly jumper for a few years!  There are a couple of mistakes, but I don't mind and I don't think he will either.  I certainly wasn't going to unpick my knitting again, I already had to do that to the front when I was about thirty rows in, and to the back at about fifty rows in.. grrrr...

The pattern is Design 2377 from Hayfield "Arans for Beginners" booklet.
The yarn is Wendy Aran with 25% wool, shade 696 "Oak", I bought 400g at £9.95, and still have plenty left.

Saturday, 21 December 2013


I’m writing a series of blog posts exploring the books “How to be Free” and “The Idle Parent” written by Tom Hodgkinson.  I enjoyed a lot of the ideas expressed in these books, and think that exploring them further will help me to explore the principles behind my own way of living and parenting.

Chapter 26 – The reign of the ugly is over; long live beauty, quality, fraternity! – HAIL THE CHISEL

Things used to be more beautiful.  When you start mass-producing things, you start to think about the bottom line, and convenience, and the quality and beauty of a thing is diminished.  Tom talks about how clothes have become plainer as time has gone on, more plain and less embellished.  (Has he been to Primark lately?  There's plenty of embellishment going on in there.  In fact, it's the rich who choose, simple, plain, less embellished "classic lines").  Yet again here Tom blames the descent into plain and ugly on the puritans for whom decoration and colour were frivolity and to be frowned upon.  So to counter this, avoid ugliness, and learn and embrace crafts.  Only buy beautiful things, only make beautiful things.  Avoid plastic at all costs.

How does this match up to the ink-spots-and-grass-stains life?
In some ways I disagree with this.  While I do agree that individuality is beautiful in its own way, and that nothing beats true craftsmanship for real quality and beauty; it's also true to say that not everything handmade is either beautiful or good quality (depends on the hands!), and that mass producing decorative items mean that many more people have been able to afford to think about how their home looks, and put their own identity on it, rather than being stuck with what they could afford, which would have been practical and simple rather than necessarily aesthetically pleasing.  It's really only now that we have had the luxury of seeing and choosing rococco ornate that we have chosen to go back to the simple, rustic look.

Saying that though, I was struck yesterday by a beautiful and well made piece of furniture which had just been installed at the pre-school, and which was a bespoke item hand made by a local joiner.  Definitely better than anything we could have got from our friendly scandinavian furniture warehouse, but probably considerably more expensive.  Not everybody can choose to go the handmade route.

I definitely do crafts, and I choose to make things where I can.  But making things takes time, and buying hand made crafts costs money.  Once I'm established on the crafting scene, perhaps I'll be able to exchange practical and beautiful handmade items with my fellow crafters.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Advent Activities

December is fast racing past on route to the big day so I thought we'd do a little catch up of some of the things that I've been doing with the children on our Advent route so far:

  • made Christmas cake
  • made Christmas pudding
  • made Christmas cards
  • posted Christmas cards
  • went to Christmas market at St Enoch Square in Glasgow.
  • wrapped and posted Christmas parcels to far-flung family
  • put up and decorated the Christmas tree
  • made mince pies
  • went to the Scout District Carol Service
  • went to the Christmas Theatre production for children (3-6) at the local theatre ("The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot" - I think they got the target audience a little wrong, but...)
  • made cakes for the Pre-school Christmas party
  • made snow flake decorations
  • some Christmas colouring and activities (free from the library)
  • Christmas stories (from the nativity story to "Father Christmas Needs a Wee")
  • went to Winter Wonderland pre-school activity session at Dundee Science Centre
Still a few more things to squeeze in before the big day, but we are still mostly anchored to the ground, and rather than hindering me in Christmas preparations, I've enjoyed involving the children.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Making intentions into habits

I've blogged here about how I'm trying to turn my resolutions into habits.  I'm trying to focus on one new resolution each week, and keep concentrating on it for five weeks, by which time hopefully it will be a habit.  

Week One was drink more water.  The focus was to try to drink a glass of water every hour and a half, until it became habit for me to drink much more water.  I'm definitely drinking more than I did before, but I'm still only averaging three or four glasses, and yesterday (after three weeks) I fell off the bandwagon completely and drunk no glasses of water at all.  I think a little more effort is required here.  I don't think I need to drink 10 glasses a day, that's a bit extreme, but I would aim for about six glasses.

Week Two was to help the children remember to feed the fish before they brush their teeth, morning and evening.  They've been doing really well.  We're two weeks in, and they've even been reminding me on occasion.  Yesterday was the first day that both of them forgot (and me).  What happened yesterday?

Week Three was to get the children doing a "ten-minute tidy-up" in the morning before starting to play.  We set the timer straight after tooth-brushing, I give them a job to do (hoovering the sitting room, wiping the cupboards, dusting the shelves), set the timer and off we go.  This has gone quite well this week.  C is enjoying the jobs.  Bug needs supervision and support, as she's only two, and very easily distracted, quickly losing interest and playing instead.

image from www,
Week Four started yesterday.  I'm aiming to do just 50 sit-ups a day.  My exercise regime is very haphazard.  In the long summer evenings I'm often out running, but our muddy footpaths and tracks around here are lethal in the dark so that doesn't happen in the winter.  The exercise DVD and exercise bike were good when I had some time to myself during the day, but as soon as I start when the children are around there are instant interruptions.  The best I am managing at the moment is a walk either slowly with the children and the dog, or quickly in the dark with the dog.  50 sit-ups will be a significant addition to this.

Each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity.
Marie Curie

How do you make and keep resolutions?

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Jobs in the garden this winter

Any regular followers will know that I'm a compulsive list maker.  So rather than gazing out of the window at all the jobs that need doing this winter, I felt the need to stroll around the garden and catalogue the big jobs that need doing.  That way I'll have a list, and a list means things to tick off.

So here's what we have:

this area needs to be dug out to make a pond, and the edges evened up

both the holly and the ash here are completely overgrown and encroaching on overhead cables as well as my garden, so they need a bit of serious work
these leylandii are coming down.  There was a row of them and Hubby has taken most of them down, just leaving the two largest to take down a little at a time.  It'll add a lot of light to the spare bedroom window (on the right).
we have several piles of leylandii choppings which are gradually being mulched or burned as the winter progresses.  It's a slow job.
here's another pile of leylandii clippings
this bed at the front needs tidying, and I'm going to take some hardwood hineysuckle cuttings too, and plant them here to scramble up over the railing.  I'll try it and see what happens.
this bed is being gradually encroached upon by both the beech hedge behind and the lawn in front.  The lawn is mostly made up of moss, so I'm aiming to dig out more lawn to make the flower beds bigger, and plant with some flowering perennials, bulbs etc.
I need to finish trimming the beech hedge.  It needs doing twice a year, but while I was doing it in July I disturbed a wasp nest and they let me know that they weren't very happy about it.  I nursed my stings and left the hedge well alone.  The wasps all seem to have gone now, so I'll wait for a dry day and finish the job.
a couple of dry days in early spring should be enough to get the garage doors repainted (then I just have to start on all the railings on the verandah, and the gates to the back garden)

veggie beds need: carrots harvesting, overwintering garlic and onions tending, everything else clearing and mulching.
I'm building a sort of wall here with 'found' stone and bringing it up to make a flat bed.  The conifer shrubs will be going.

lots of these to tidy back

leaves all over the place needing to be collected and put in the leaf mulcher (chicken wire bin)

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Long train journeys with little ones

I was going to blog here about our recent train journey from Scotland to Devon (and back).  

Unfortunately, Thursday morning blew in some stormy weather here in the UK.  

Waking up as the wind howled around the house and turning on the TV news to see the bedlam, we realised that we might have some problems.  Checking the rail websites we found that all the trains in Scotland before 7am were cancelled, and that after that time there was only a limited service.  Our train was from Edinburgh at 9.08am and we were planning to catch the train from Inverkeithing (on our side of the River Forth) into Edinburgh.  We left at about 7.30am for the 20 minute drive to Inverkeithing.  On a normal day, any train before 8.30 would be enough to get to Edinburgh with at least ten minutes to spare.  The M90 motorway was already queuing for the Forth Road Bridge before our exit to Inverkeithing, so we knew immediately that there was absolutely no way we could drive into Edinburgh in time.  The train was going to be our only hope.  At Inverkeithing we wrapped the children in waterproof coats and headed through the gusting winds and freezing rain across to the platform - which was absolutely packed with hopeful commuters.  Normally there are about ten trains into Edinburgh between 8 and 9.  Today there were two.  The children started to get cold very quickly, but there was no space under the shelter or in the waiting room, so we stayed on the platform, as close to the edge as possible, knowing that getting on the train was going to be a challenge.  As the first train came in, I began to despair.  It was already packed in, with commuters standing like sardines before it even got to Inverkeithing - nobody could get on.  Certainly not me with two small children and a big bag.  We decided to wait for the next train and hope for the best.  Same story.  Luckily Hubby had waited with us to see us onto the train (making himself late both for a Doctor's appointment and work), and he was able to take us home again.  C was wailing in misery and Bug was howling with disappointment.  Both had been looking forward both to the train journey and to seeing grandparents, aunties and uncles and cousins on a long-awaited trip home for me.  We got them home, stripped off their wet clothes and gave them cuddles and hot chocolate before I headed out into the garden to try to put the greenhouse back together and return the garden furniture to its rightful place.  As it turns out, even if we had made it to Edinburgh, our train to Devon was having problems of its own.  I did think about driving down... but it's a nine hour drive, and I was already tired.  Plus I'd already spent out on train tickets, and the expense of diesel... plus the weather was really bad and driving would have been very tough!  However much I wanted to see my family this weekend, driving down for an entire day, spending two days there and then driving back for an entire day just seemed silly in those conditions.

Here are some of the things I was planning for the journey:

  • Try to get a table seat for you and the children - you can do much more.
  • Take plenty of snacks and drinks.  I aim to get some food out every hour.  Eating it provides a distraction, a change, and takes ten minutes.
  • Make sure that you have a change of clothes accessible for the children, just in case.
  • If your train journey is about 8 hours, then aim to have about 16 activities up your sleeve.  Allowing half an hour for any new activity, it means you always have something to do with your children.  My ideas included: colouring sheets, dry-wipe cards with drawing and mazes, a couple of story books, drawing books, a set of cards, a magazine to look at, an 'out the window' scavenger hunt, a catalogue to look through, a train timetable and map to examine, baby doll and clothes, handwriting practice, I-spy etc.
  • Aim to keep the children sitting down at the table as much as possible so as not to irritate fellow passengers by your offspring running up and down.  At appropriate intervals (every couple of hours?) take a wander down to the toilets, and at some point, head an expedition to the on-board shop.  This will satisfy their curiosity and allow them to stretch their legs a bit.
  • While its okay for your children to chat if somebody talks to them, and to peer between the seats and smile at the passengers around them, you don't want them to become annoying, so if your child is constantly playing peek-a-boo with the person behind you, then gently distract them and give them something else to do.
  • If you have little tots who aren't walking yet, then firstly, encourage them to sleep as much as possible (breastfeeding on the train is absolutely fine).  Secondly, don't be afraid to ask kindly looking fellow passengers if they will hold the baby while you take the older children to the toilet.  The alternative is placing them on the lovely clean toilet floor!  Equally, it's okay to ask other passengers to watch the children for you while you go to the toilet, or while you change the baby's nappy.
  • One thing I was worried about was if the train was busy.  Because children under 5 are free, you don't get a seat reservation for them.  I was planning to keep my seat reservation in hand, and go and find a free table.  If there wasn't one because the train was busy, I would have ended up with two small children on my knee - fun!  You can simply buy the tickets so that you do have enough seats.  It's much more expensive, but if you are on a long journey and you know the train is likely to be busy then it may be worth it.
  • When travelling with older children, do get a "Family and Friends Railcard".  It will most likely pay for itself on that first long journey (1/3 off adult fares and 60% off children's fares, for £30 per year), and then you have it to use, saving you money on any further train travel during the next 12 months.

Sunday, 8 December 2013


I’m writing a series of blog posts exploring the books “How to be Free” and “The Idle Parent” written by Tom Hodgkinson.  I enjoyed a lot of the ideas expressed in these books, and think that exploring them further will help me to explore the principles behind my own way of living and parenting.

Chapter 25 – Live free of the Supermarkets – GROW YOUR OWN

Tom starts this chapter by declaring “Supermarkets are evil” – they control what we eat and what we buy, they lend us money and sell us holidays, they keep an eye on our habits and manipulate us to spend more.  They exploit labour and suppliers, they kill town centres, and they don’t look after their customers.  In the UK £1 in every £3 spent on groceries goes to Tesco.

We can’t complain about this situation, after all we are all complicit in the way it has evolved.  Who can say that they don’t shop at the supermarket?  Who can say that large, free carparks, everything under one roof and long opening hours aren’t convenient?  But is convenient always better?  Now that we have all given them licence, the supermarkets have destroyed everything else, so now we have little choice.  Small towns often no longer have a butcher or baker or grocer on the high street, they’ve all closed because we chose to spend our money in these giants, and now we have no choice.

Shopping and working in supermarkets is pretty tedious too – compared with the animation and diversity of a busy market.

So… stop buying from supermarkets and claim back choice.  Bake your own bread, grow your own veg, shop wholesale and shop locally.

How does this match up to the ink-spots-and-grass-stains life?

I’m all for this philosophy, but it’s harder in practice than it is in reality.

I tried ignoring the supermarkets for a while and shopping in my local village, where the butcher/grocer is a local legend.  It was fine for my day to day shopping, but where was I to buy loo roll or flour, rice and pasta?  The corner shop only sell those in expensive brands and small bags, which makes things more expensive.  Plus, the reality of shopping through several shops in winter with two small children hit home – you can’t carry all that much at the same time as holding two little hands.

So I tried ordering a larger shopping delivery each month from the supermarket, and doing the smaller shopping locally.  But I live in a small village, and doing my day to day shopping then involved a six mile round trip in the car, which I wouldn’t have needed to do otherwise.  So I started to do my grocery shopping while I was already out in the car, so inevitably ended up back to a weekly supermarket shop.

I really would like to use them less, and to support small businesses more, so I am going to look into the idea of buying wholesale, particularly when I’m already buying from a wholesaler for parts of my business, and then making a weekly trip to another village about 9 miles away where they have an excellent green-grocer and butcher among other lovely shops, and which I could combine with a beautiful dog walk.

I am quite pleased that I do already grow some of my own vegetables (a work in progress) and bake my own bread, but I could definitely do more to break free of the tyrant supermarkets.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Developing writing skills with pre-schoolers

Writing is a pretty handy skill to have.  As an adult, being able to write means that you are able to communicate effectively.  I know that in our digital age typing skills are more and more prevalent, but it's still important to be able to form your letters correctly and to be able to spell and construct a sentence, and doing it by hand is still the way to learn.  I'm not advocating hot-housing your children and teaching them to write before they start school.  Just give them the opportunities to develop foundation skills, and gradually move them on if they are ready.

Write - your children should see you writing all the time.  Whether it's notes to your partner, typing your blog (C is watching me right now), writing a shopping list, writing letters, labelling pictures, writing in a diary, journal or calendar or just noting your ideas.  If you usually use your i-pad to make notes and lists then that's fine some of the time, but try to use paper and pencil too.
Ensure that your child has access to pencils, pens and paper.  Notebooks, old diaries and calendars, shopping list pads, pads of paper, different types of pen, pencil, highlighter, eraser and so on.  Your child will want to make marks on the paper, and if they see you writing with a purpose, then they'll start to incorporate that into their play, writing notes and letters all over the place.  C (age 4) has made a joke book quite recently and Bug (aged 2) is regularly writing birthday cards to her teddy.  Praise all attempts at marks that are supposed to be writing, and point out the marks that look like letters, your child will want to repeat those ones.

When introducing letters, use tactile ones and encourage your child to trace over the shape of the letter with their finger.  Also play lots of games and activities introducing letter shapes, such as letter printing, making letter shapes with playdough or plasticene, sticking letter shapes, drawing  letter shapes in salt or sand trays.

Provide an easel, chalk board or white board for lots more mark making fun.

Encourage your child to copy you drawing vertical (standing up) lines, horizontal (lying down) lines, circles, wave patterns and zig-zag patterns.  Also encourage them to trace over your lines, shapes and patterns.

Begin to introduce letter formation.  You can buy early handwriting books from supermarkets and book shops.  Some use dry-wipe pens so that they are wipe clean.  Most will start with simple pattern tracing, and build up to similar groups of letters.  Always do these with your child so that you can help them to hold the pencil correctly and to start the letters in the right place.  Poor habits started now will be difficult for your child's teacher to fix later.  It's very important not to push this.  If your child struggles to trace over the lines then leave it, go back and do more activities to develop hand-eye co-ordination and come back to the early handwriting a couple of months down the line.  If your child has had enough after tracing four letters, then let them stop and come back to it when they are ready.  You can get special left-handed handwriting books from which offer handy hints on letter formation and page orientation for left-handers.

Make a name card for your child using cereal box card and clear writing, and then make a tracing paper booklet the same size.  Get your child to practice tracing over their name (naming the letters/sounds as they go) until they can do this confidently without the tracing.  From this point on, always get your child to write their own name on birthday and Christmas cards and on their art work.

Once your child is confidently reading CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant words such as cat, mug etc) and can confidently form most of their letters, then encourage them to write a word and draw a picture to accompany it.

Continue developing neat letter formation by getting your child to dictate a sentence, which you write in, for example, a daily diary, using yellow felt pen or orange pencil and getting your child to trace over it and then draw an accompanying picture.  You can begin to get your child to sound out the words for you to decide which letters should be used.  Once they are confident with this, you can start to get them to write their own simple sentences.

Where do I get the ideas and information from?  I'm an experienced primary school teacher, and also a mother of two (aged 4 1/2 and 2 1/2).  Bug, the younger, is at the stage where she tells me she is writing, and some of her marks are beginning to resemble letter shapes.  C is much more confident, can write his name with ease, as well as other CVC words, and attempts on others.  He dictates and traces a sentence at least once a week in his daily diary.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

How to choose a pre-school for your child

As a parent it can be confusing when you start to think about what to do with your child to prepare them for school.  The provision can be divided up into the following categories:
  • day-nurseries, nannies and childminders, who look after children of all ages before they start school.  These are child-care facilities allowing parents to get back to work or to have their child looked after among other children.  Day nurseries and child-minders usually offer extended hours to fit around your working day.  Day nurseries are usually divided into different rooms for different age-groups, and the pre-school room will often cover much the same ground as a pre-school or nursery class.  Child minders will usually have far fewer children, and will happily take your child for you to playgroup, pre-school or nursery class.
  • playgroups and preschools.  These are provisions with fairly short sessions, for children from the age of around 2 and a half.  They may be with or without parents present.
  • nursery classes, often attached to schools.  These usually take children for the last year before they start school.
  • The other option is, of course, no provision at all.  Compulsory education in this country starts at age 5, not at age 3, so there is no need at all to send your child somewhere if you are happy with them at home.  It's just a case of weighing up what is offered at these facilities and whether you think there is any benefit to them.
This and all other pictures are from the Facebook page of our pre-school 
This article is concerned with what is on offer at a playgroup or pre-school or a nursery class, though often nursery classes are attached to schools, so they are selected more based on what the school as a whole offers, rather than just the nursery class.

Playgroups and pre-schools often offer shorter sessions.  They are about easing your child from the home to a more sociable setting where they learn that other people than the parent can give instructions, about working and playing with other children, and experiencing a wide range of toys.  There is usually some routine, but plenty of unstructured play, outdoor activity, arts and crafts etc.

Nursery classes are usually more structured, with more routine and with the intention of offering a secure grounding in key skills before they start school.

All the options mentioned above will be following an early years curriculum stipulated by the government (or Scottish Parliament) which intends to lay the foundations on which future learning will build.  You might wish your child to stay with one provision all the way through, or you might move from a play-group to a nursery class.  In some areas, your options may be limited, either because of rural geography, or because in some towns and cities demand for places is very high.  It's worth making contact several months before you want your child to begin, so that you can have a look around and fill in the relevant paperwork.

Charges for different provisions will vary.  Three and four year olds throughout the UK are entitled to some free early-years education, though the amounts in the different countries varies.  If you use less than your entitlement, then you'll be getting it for free, but if you use more, then you'll need to know what charges are.  You will often also be charged for snack (or asked to contribute some fruit each week), and expected to pitch in at fundraising events to help raise cash for equipment.

Questions to ask
  • is it clean?
  • when you visit, are the staff welcoming and friendly?  If you have your child with you, do they engage with them straight away or spend all the time talking to you?
  • does it have a good reputation?  Check out the inspection reports on-line, and ask other people (particularly at the school gate) what provision they used and whether they would recommend it
  • do they have an open-door policy?  I don't mean that they leave the front door open all the time and any weirdo can walk in, I mean that any parent can pop in for a visit at any time.  If they don't - what are they hiding?
  • following from that - what is the security like?
  • Do they have clear guidelines on timings, sick-child policy etc.
  • Ask about what they do to develop pre-reading skills
  • What provision have they made for left handed children?
  • How do they deal with Special Needs?
  • What does a normal day/session look like?  How much routine is there?
  • How much of what they do is focused on reading and writing skills and how much on play?
  • what kind of snacks do they serve?
  • what do they do if a child is having a tantrum?  What is their behaviour policy?
  • how much time do they spend outdoors?
  • what are the toys like?  are they easily accessible, kept clean, varied and age appropriate?
  • what provision is there if your child still naps regularly?  What about if your child is not yet toilet trained?
  • How many staff are there?  What is the ratio of children to staff?
  • What qualifications do the staff have?
  • What is staff turnover like?  Do the staff seem happy to be working there?
Once you've asked all those questions you'll have a good idea of the quality of the provision you are looking at, and more importantly, whether it's a good fit for you and your child.

I'm pretty lucky.  I live in a small village.  Our nearest pre-school is about 2 miles away and came recommended to me by several parents at the toddler group in the village hall.  I decided that as an active and busy stay-at-home mum I offer plenty of opportunities to the children already, so there was no hurry to get them into the education system, but that the chance to develop more social skills with other children and adults, and to ease into the routine of a school day would be valuable in the year before school.  I first went to an open day at the pre-school myself, and liked it and the staff.  A few months later I went to another open day with C.  Then a couple of weeks later  (in June) he went for a taster morning (with me staying as well).  By the time August came along he couldn't wait to get started and has gone from strength to strength there.  He's a smart cookie, and his reading and writing are coming along brilliantly at home - I don't think this has been developed much at pre-school, but that's fine with me because that's not what I wanted to get out of pre-school.  I wanted him to learn to play and share with other children, to get into a routine, and to learn to respond to and interact with other adults, and he's doing those things brilliantly.  C (age 4) has been attending three mornings a week since August, and after Christmas is increasing to five mornings a week.  After the Summer he starts school.  Bug (age 2 1/2) has been attending one morning a fortnight in an unofficial capacity when I'm on the parent duty rota.  She's got to know all the routines and is keen to get started.  After Easter, when she's gone past three and her free provision kicks in, she's going to start three mornings a week as well.