At 11 o’clock on Monday, 14th August, I arrived at a Kindergarten in central Berlin with my 15-month-old daughter. It wasn’t to be a long visit – in fact it lasted just a few minutes. But this was the start of Cecelia’s ‘settling-in’ period at her new nursery or Kita. It’s an incremental approach that the German childcare system demands.
The Kita we have chosen is a bilingual (German and English) private institution that caters for children aged one to six. (It’s also affiliated to a school, which our son attends.) Thanks to the large childcare subsidies offered to working parents by the Berlin authorities, we pay just a fraction of what it would cost in countries like the UK. Yes, it took several months and oodles of paperwork to get the Gutschein – childcare voucher – but it was worth it.
In Cecelia’s class there will be a maximum of thirteen children who will be looked after by three adults – each of whom is well qualified in childcare. (Educators in Germany are highly regarded and better paid than their counterparts in countries like the UK.) The two German members of staff (one male and one female) speak only German to the tots and the American (female) speaks English. So far I am really impressed with their care, commitment and calmness.
The following day, Cecelia and I were in her new classroom for twenty minutes. She seemed to be enjoying herself – particularly all the healthy snacks that she could pick at. And while she liked being with the other babies, I was grateful to meet their parents who were in the same position as me.
By Wednesday I was allowed to leave my daughter alone with the children and staff for five minutes. Although it was for such a short period of time, the Berlin system asks parents to always look at their child and say goodbye before leaving.
It was a joy watching Cecelia and the other little ones discovering their new world. But I have to admit that the first week went by slowly. I was beginning to think I’d never be able to leave her. In fact, the settling-in period in Berlin Kitas can take weeks, even months.
By the Friday, however, my daughter was without me for two hours – and absolutely fine. The following Tuesday she stayed long enough to have lunch in the classroom and by Wednesday she even had her daytime sleep.
On Thursday, 24th August, the staff told me Cecelia was fully settled and I was no longer needed. So after fearing that she would struggle to adjust to her new surroundings, she surprised me and proved just how independent she can be.
I think it also illustrates that this slow process works, because even those children who cried a lot in the first few days seem very happy now. (I am of course fully aware that any sickness Cecelia gets will result in us starting the process again.)
We’ve also seen so much change in our daughter over the past two weeks. She’s chatting non stop, pointing and making herself understood. She loves sitting at the little kids’ table we have in our kitchen and she’s doing all she can to walk by herself.
Rather like Denmark, Germany doesn’t seem to have the same health and safety culture we’re used to in the UK (and of course the US). That’s not to say they don’t offer safe environments here, but it does mean that children can be much freer and experimental.
There’s no doubt that we have been extremely fortunate in securing our daughter a place at a Kita – and particularly at such a good one. There appears to be a severe shortage of Kindergarten places in Berlin especially in family-dominated areas like Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte. But I do think the German kindergarten system is a great set-up and I feel very grateful that we are able to enjoy it while living in Berlin.