Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New Thing #45: The Early Years Centre

Have you ever thought you should do something and then you just kept putting if off and putting it off, certain that you wouldn't like it, or it would be a bad experience, or would probably just be a hassle only to find that once you actually did it that you enjoyed it and wondered why you hadn't just done it sooner? That, in an overly-long sentence nutshell describes our New Thing for today.

The government of Ontario runs Early Years Centres all over the province for children aged 0 to 6. They are free spaces where parents or caregivers can bring their young children to play, participate in activities and meet other children and parents. The Early Years Centres also host free workshops for parents, ranging from Baby Massage classes to Effective Communication. The Centres are usually part of an elementary school, a church or a space in a mall.

I have been thinking about going to one ever since LP1 was born but just couldn't bring myself to do it. You may recall that I tried to earlier this summer but the one closest to us closed at 11:30 am. I'm not a big playgroup person. I don't believe this has been a disservice to our LP. They will be in daycare when I go back to work and they will eventually start school. They have all the time in the world to play with other kids. It is probably very selfish, but I view my mat leave as my time with them. I like having a flexible day. I like spending time with people that are in my life because I genuinely enjoy them and not because we've been thrown together because we happen to have children of a similar age and are therefore forced to pretend we like one another. I brought the LP to an indoor playground once, thinking it would be a good experience for us. I found all the other mothers there to be horribly cliquish and judgmental. I knew the second I left that I would be fodder for their gossip mill. They were all dressed nearly identically, with Lululemon pants, fitted immaculate white t-shirts, perfectly straightened hair, flawless makeup and ballerina flats. I, on the other hand, had hair that resembled a bird's nest with an elastic stuck through it, jeans that had remnants of strained squash on them, a black t-shirt with smudges on the shoulder from picking up a child with a messy face, whatever shoes I could find at the front door and absolutely no makeup on because some days the decision is: do I get the LP out of the house while they are still focused and in good moods or do I risk putting on makeup and having everyone melt down? One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just isn't the same...

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm a little gun-shy about going places where parents and children congregate. I decided to just get over myself today and check it out. If it was awful, we could just leave. We went to the main centre for our area and I was immediately impressed. When we signed in, I explained we had never been before. We were promptly given some forms to complete and then taken on a thorough tour. The lady behind the reception desk was so friendly and welcoming she made me feel as if she had just been waiting for us to show up. The rest of the staff there were the same way.

The centre was gorgeous. The first room was dedicated mainly to infants and toddlers. There were bright playmats on the floor, large, soft stuffed seating and toys designed to stimulate and amuse. The kitchen off to one side serves snacks three times a day, has ample high chairs and booster seats and offers free coffee for adults. The next room was designed to mimic a junior kindergarten setting so that older children could prepare for going to school. There were areas for painting, playing with play-doh, making crafts, dressing up, a train table, a water table, a story area and a table in the middle with seasonal items (in this case, small gourds, pumpkins, cedars and pinecones). A final room was for workshops and storytime. Every room had at least one or two staff members there to oversee things and help watch children. This is a place where you could go to the bathroom by yourself, provided you just asked for help in keeping an eye on the kids. There were storybooks everywhere, posters and pamphlets on a variety of topics and even a note asking to try to refrain from using your cell phone so you could focus on being in the moment with your children (I felt guilted by this note and missed a call from Daddy).

Most importantly, however, was the LP's reaction. The absolutely loved it. We spent the first part of our visit in the infant and toddler area, playing with blocks, alphabet magnets, animals and a dollhouse. We looked at feathers, pulled a bus around and read a story. And I did just stop and be in the moment with them. It was wonderful. We headed into the older room. LP2 played at the train table with the magnetic trains, similar to the one at the library, while LP1 painted a picture. They both checked out play-doh and the water table before heading into the area that was set up like a house. There were strollers and dress-up clothes and play cameras and play dishes and even a vacuum to entertain them.

A group storytime was coming up but I could tell that LP2 was starting to get both tired and hungry so I decided it was time to go. Neither one of them wanted to leave at first. There is a fenced area in front of the centre with little cars and firetrucks and tricycles for the children to play on. LP1 wanted a go on that. I let her play for awhile and I will admit to you that it was mostly because I was watching a most excellent fight unfold and if there is one thing I do enjoy, it is watching other people's dramas (a family trait...ask my sisters about that). A Chinese couple were at the centre with what I presume were their grandchildren. I don't know if they were speaking Mandarin or Cantonese, but they were having a no-holds-barred fight. If only I spoke whatever they spoke! It started inside and at first I thought they were just talking to one another but as I watched them, I realized they were arguing about something and that Grandma was beyond angry. They happened to come outside just as we did and I was able to watch the rest of it unfold. Grandma was yelling at Grandpa and waving her arms. Grandpa would yell back and then retreat. This went on for some time. I was loving it. Eventually Grandma opened the gate, slammed it behind her and stomped off, leaving Grandpa to gather the children into the stroller and head off after her. The children were entirely unaffected (or so it seemed, anyway). Am I horrible for watching this? Definitely. As if you wouldn't, though.

I am so happy that we finally went to an Early Years Centre and that the LP seemed to be very comfortable there. I hope we can make this a weekly outing because I think it will be a positive experience for all of us. I think the three of us will learn and grow together there. And I'm pretty sure that any place that encourages me to step away from all distractions and just play with our children is a good place for us to be.

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