I couldn't help remembering my reaction when we first toured the nursery last June. Then, I was blown away by the facilities they could offer, while also being brought to tears that this place was unequivocally right for him. On the day we toured, we saw children strapped into wheelchairs and unable to move unaided, others wearing only nappies as they were unable to tolerate clothes and others who were slightly more able-bodied...and all of the children were treated with respect, attention and care - not defined by their abilities or lack of them. (And the head teacher smilingly plied me with tissues to mop up my tears!)
As yesterday approached, I tried to manage my fear that Adam might struggle to fit in at The Bridge - you see in mainstream nursery, he is one of the less able children and distinctly outstripped in abilities by his peers who are progressing rapidly, in an 'ordinary' environment, he needs a great deal of support. But in attending this special needs nursery, I feared the opposite might be true and he would stand out for the reason of being significantly more able bodied than his new peers. You see, The Bridge caters for every child with special needs, from those with 'less visible' needs to those who need a great deal of support and I had no idea what sort of 'class' he would be placed in or how I would react to it. All I wanted was for him to find 'his' place where he 'fit' and until I knew how it would go, I worried.
As it turns out, I had nothing to fear and our experience yesterday was wonderful. After collecting Adam from his mainstream nursery at lunchtime and hearing that the children had not been allowed to play outside because of the rain, we were greeted at The Bridge with, "Oh, don't take his coat off - we're heading straight outside!" It was absolutely tipping it down and they weren't remotely phased. Properly dressed in waterproofs, wellington boots, hats, coats and everything else, a rainy day was simply another sensory, learning and playful experience. Instead of shying away from inclement weather, The Bridge actively cater for it and play outdoors in everything (ok, well perhaps tornados or hurricanes might merit staying in, but that's about it!)
The thing is, Adam adores water. He is constantly into sinks, turning on taps, pouring cups of it over himself and generally making a nuisance of himself while indoors. But once he realised it was not only ok, but was being actively encouraged to jump in puddles, splash, throw water around and generally get soaked he was in his element. The staff brought out bubble trays, bottles full of warm soapy water to squirt about, a huge flat tray to splash and jump in and they were actively trying their best to get him wet while having as much fun as possible. And this was the result:
Wreathed in smiles, Adam was absolutely beaming. He danced, splashed, played and giggled for a full forty-five minutes in the pouring rain. You may have noticed that Daddy was slightly less enthused by the idea of standing in the rain, with no hood for three-quarters of an hour, but at least the staff loaned him a very fetching, masculine sort of umbrella - and it did match his coat...
No, of course I wasn't laughing at him. Well, ok, maybe just a little but not that much.
I did take just a very small handful of photos before realising my mistake and being (very politely) asked to put my camera away, as of course adults can't just take photos of children in schools these days, so I can't share very much of Adam's fun with you, but it really was a joy to see. He danced, he bounced, he splashed and he even slid on his bottom once or twice.
Finally, even Adam was cold enough to want to go back indoors and was actively tugging me towards the school entrance, so the class of four children and four supervising adults (plus us) returned to his classroom for snack time. Here is where I saw yet another difference between this nursery and pretty much any other one, the adult/child ratio is currently 1:1 (the most it ever gets to is 1:2) which is quadruple the OFSTED requirement for this age group in mainstream nursery (1:4 for toddlers and 1:8 by preschool) After getting changed, warm and dry again, we trooped into 'the group room' where each of the children have their own chair with a photo of them pasted to it to aid recognition. Because every child has an adult sitting with them, it made no difference that Adam struggles to stay seated or comprehend 'circle time' because an adult was there to gently help him each time he bobbed up and to show him what to do. The thing is, that the four children who are in his class - while all clearly having differing needs - were on a reasonable degree of spectrum with Adam. He didn't 'fit in' so to speak because every child is unique...but he also didn't stand out. He was just one of the group and that was wonderful. I was able to relax.
After singing a song and washing hands with wipes, all aided by Makaton sign language and picture exchange cards for each step, we returned to the main classroom for snack time where each child's place had a personalised placemat with small picture exchange cards of the items that were on offer that day (milk/water/apple/pear/breadsticks) and every single mouthful was used as a teaching time. Adam was shown the choices, the picture card was matched to the item and the corresponding sign was made for every single bite. Through it all, just as for the other children, he had an adult sitting directly with him and helping just him. This meant he was able to drink from an open cup (something that is rarely achieved elsewhere as he simply tips it over himself) and was able to make choices, albeit by reaching rather than understanding the cards and signs. But it was a start.
And the immensely major thing about it was that the staff simply weren't at all phased by his struggles to sit down, communicate or any risk of overstuffing his mouth because they've seen it all before and they knew how to handle it. It is just immense to say that despite knowing these people only for hours, I was able to feel absolutely confident that Adam was safe with them. So much so, that after snack time, Adam was in turn able to trust the staff enough to no longer need us to stay quite so close. He began to spend time playing with them while we first hovered by the door and were then able to sneak out to have a cuppa in the parent room - no screaming, no tantrums, in fact he didn't even appear to notice we had left because he was so absorbed.
We were told that in addition to spending time with the ordinary toys in the classroom, Adam had spent some time in 'the dark room' which is a specific sensory experience where he can play with lights and control buttons to create custom rainbow atmospheres - another form of heaven for him as our little munchkin adores playing with light switches to see what happens. Usually he gets told off for doing so, but here it was all part of the fun!
Periodically, one of the staff popped in with her camera to show us digital photos they were taking of him while he played so that we could be confident he was safe and happy and at the end of the session, he was returned to us wreathed in smiles, jumping and wriggling in delight.
Today, I dropped him off for his second session, and this time I only needed to stay for twenty minutes during the outdoor play session until he was fully absorbed and I was able to sneak away. Chris is currently collecting Adam from his second session and then, hopefully, we will be able to celebrate his older brother's twelfth birthday, so despite one broken fridge freezer and one cat having yet more surgery at the vets, the week isn't shaping up too badly.
And I'll leave you with this one last photo of my Monkey playing outdoors, soaked to the skin, and clearly having a fabulous time: