Starting nursery or preschool
If your child's about to start preschool education (which comes in many varieties but, broadly, we're talking private nursery, community nursery, school nursery or playgroup), you've probably got a few questions and anxieties about the whole thing
By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated May 5, 2023
How can I prepare my child for preschool?
Visit the nursery or playgroup
Make sure you and your child visit together. It's a good time to sell the joys of preschool, showing your about-to-be-preschooler activities you know they'll be interested in and talking about the other children to play with.
But never oversell change to children. Tell them that although you hope they'll have so much fun that they'll never feel sad, if some kid steals their comfort toy they can and should tell a grown-up.
Preschool routine: naps and rest time
Staff at your chosen nursery or playgroup should explain their processes, staff-to-child ratio and routine.
If possible, make a copy and talk your child through the routine so they know what to expect (messy play, story time, snack time etc – it's really a great life).
Most full-time nurseries have a rest time and you should discuss this with your child – by three, some children won't nap during the day. Find out how they serve lunch and the sort of food your child is likely to be given.
My son tells me he does nothing at school at all, but I know from his diary that he does in fact do quite a bit. He 'helps' with snack time, he does role-play, he feeds the animals, does a bit of gardening and plays outside a lot. They also read books at circle time.
Good preschools get you to fill out a questionnaire that tells them a lot about your child. Staff are similar to your child in not liking surprises and they'd rather know if your child throws up after eating broccoli or is terrified of dogs.
Does my child need to be toilet trained?
Your preschool will want to know how toilet trained your child is. Being toilet trained is de rigueur for some of the playgroups or nurseries that only take children aged over three, but no one expects small children to be fully accomplished at going to the toilet by themselves.
I found that my daughter was completely uninterested in using the potty until she went to nursery and saw loads of other kids do it.
If your child is already toilet trained, don't make them wrestle with zips and buttons but dress them in trousers or skirts with elastic waists (they can get over such fashion crimes later).
Even with these precautions, some children do only want to 'go' on their home toilet, so it's wise to take in knickers and a change of clothes just in case.
What about discipline?
Preschools differ in their approach to challenging behaviour. Some will have a 'time out' chair or place, others will expect staff to kneel down and try to find out why the child is doing what they're doing (often a mystery to them as well).
They may ask the child to apologise if they think he or she hurt another child and if something serious has happened they'll tell both sets of parents (so they can fight it out between themselves).
What about dressing themselves?
Most preschools don't expect small children to have many life skills. Phew. While you don't have to worry about your child eating, undressing or putting on shoes, because that's what preschool staff are used to helping with, you could help them socially. Inviting other children round and encouraging them to chat (sort of) and take turns is helpful.
Outside preschool, try to expand the range of your child's activities. For example, libraries often have storytelling sessions – these will help your child get used to sitting and listening in a group of other children.
You could even teach your child some songs and games from your childhood.
How can I help my child settle at preschool?
It's doubtful any self-respecting two or three-year-old will voluntarily enter playgroup or nursery, wave goodbye cheerfully and start playing. They're not stupid.
You should leave enough time to settle your child in every morning, especially early on. Never appear to be rushing, as this will encourage them to cling to you desperately, however much they want to start work in the messy play area. Make them feel you have all the time in the world to say goodbye, but get on with it as prolonged goodbyes don't help anyone.
My son turned three and when I mentioned preschool he said 'But mummy I neeeed you… you can't leave me' etc etc. On his first day I left after less than five minutes and he ran off to play with barely a second glance – I almost felt put out!
Never sneak off – always say goodbye clearly or your child will never know who is going to disappear, when. Good preschool staff will open the door and greet your child by name, with a smile, to reduce the risk that you lose your nerve and take your child home again.
What worked for me was saying goodbye very firmly and cheerfully. It seemed to calm him a bit seeing my happiness and confidence that he would be OK. And so he was!
Almost all children, at some point, will be upset when you leave them. Preschools expect this and most encourage you to stay on or near the premises when your child first starts.
Crying when you leave
If your child is upset when you leave, staff are usually happy to distract them, and to reassure you that your child will have stopped sobbing by the time you've reached the end of the path.
Many preschools encourage parents to phone later to check and will call you if your child does not settle within a reasonable time.
Anything preschool staff need to know?
Make sure you tell nursery staff if there's anything your child might be worried about at home – even the goldfish dying can upset a small person.
Preschools advocate 'learning through play', so, unless you've sent your child to a hot-housing private nursery, do not expect them to write their name after a week.
"All preschools are required to deliver the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum. The biggest difference between the EYFS and previous curricula is there is now far more emphasis on being led by the needs of the unique child, rather than a one-size fits all approach."
"I was under the impression that the only thing they were expected to do was not physically harm each other. I accept some parents want to know every little thing that their children are doing and learning, but at three and four I think that playing and being happy is more important."
Most preschools have parents' evenings so you can see what your child has been doing – usually fingerprints with paint or, in some more upmarket nurseries, extraordinary feats of artistic genius that almost certainly required several hours of adult 'encouragement'.
Each child has a key worker who will write down observations about your child that you can read. If you're worried your child isn't settling or have any other concerns, you should speak to your child's key worker and try to find out the cause, as well as gently quizzing (try not to sound hysterical) your child.
Going home time
When you or your child's carer meets your child after preschool, do it properly (ie not while you're speaking to someone on your mobile).
Your child needs undivided attention and cuddles for a moment – at least until you can get home and put on a DVD.
How can I help my child make friends?
Some children find it easy to make friends – they're naturally outgoing. Others will struggle in the playground (if your nursery is lucky enough to have one) and hang around the edges.
Preschool staff are good at spotting this and often encourage older children to take the younger ones under their wing. They will also encourage group games.
Once term has started, you can launch your child's playdate career and invite one of his or her friends over. If your child is tired after preschool, you may want to wait a while. One friend round every couple of weeks is probably enough for both of you.
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I have sat there with the 'other' mum in the wreckage that used to be called my home, trying to be friendly, but really the only thing we have in common is that we are both mums and that our (or if I'm really uncharitable, 'her') children are responsible for the terrible scene we survey and that's going to take me most of the night to clear up.
Encourage your child to talk about who they play with and what they do, but don't grill them. You're probably more anxious than they are and you don't want them to get concerned about their popularity. Plenty of time for that.
Coping with your own feelings
It's a landmark moment when you first leave your child and as soon as they say goodbye many parents wonder what on earth they're doing. Do not, however, cry audibly and cling to your child because you will look weird.
However desolate you feel, you must look cheerful and be supportive as your child hangs up their coat on the little coat peg under their name – sometimes, motherhood is all about letting go before you really want to.