Away we go

November 6, 2015
Drawing of school bus on blackboard

Photo by anthonycz/

A few things you should know about a busload of preschoolers (and the parents left behind)

When you see a busload of preschoolers in the Czech Republic, the students haven’t been kidnapped, nor have the teachers lost their minds. Well, you might argue that any preschool teacher is slightly out of (his or her) mind, or, at the least, blessed with an inordinate amount of patience for tying shoes, wiping noses and cleaning up juice spills. Still, you wonder, who would willingly take some 25 children aged four-to-six for a bus trip, much less on a weeklong overnight?

Weeklong out-of-school trips to the mountains or Czech countryside are called “school in nature,” or, in this case, “preschool in nature.” They are an optional, but highly-encouraged aspect of the educational system in the Czech Republic. The trips are sometimes an initiation week for students and teachers to get to know one another or, as in the case of preschoolers, as a last hurrah, celebrating three years of preschool together before starting “real” school education.

Typical school in nature trips combine physical activities, such as hikes or swimming courses, with art and drama projects like rehearsing a play students will perform at a later school festival or spending a week learning about the history or art of an ancient civilization. The school in nature trips continue through the middle and high school years, with older students heading off to European destinations beyond the Czech Republic.

You might wonder if there really are educational needs that should be addressed outside the regular school day? And even if you agree that there are needs, do you have to send your preschooler on a bus halfway across the country to spend seven nights in a strange place, eating strange food and sleeping in a strange bed to accomplish it?

Some parents don’t think so, and that’s fine. Nothing happens if your child doesn’t attend the trip. Except, as my son’s teacher said, “He might feel left out of the collective.” Being a part of the collective seems to be one of the key elements taught in Czech preschools, and I hated to set my son up for feeling different.

Still, the decision was left up to me. Or rather to us.

As far as Sam was concerned, if the rest of his classmates were going, including his best friend Jachym, then he’d like to go too. He’d heard from his older brother that there would be miniature ponies to ride, and he was curious about what kind of food they’d serve at the pension where his class would stay. Unlike his older brother, Sam wasn’t scared of the dark. Nor was he particularly scared of trying new things. He had the encouragement of his two older siblings, his classmates and his father. If he noticed his mother’s hesitation, he didn’t let on.

Although I wallowed back and forth, in the end, with the backing of the rest of the family, I decided to send him. We set about gathering the page long, single-spaced itemized list of things he’d need for the week. Some of the items, like thermal underwear and, not one, but two pairs of sturdy walking shoes, I expected. I was surprised he needed only two pairs of pajamas but three sweatshirts, ten pairs of underwear and ski pants – it was only the end of October. The list even included three rolls of toilet paper.

With my daughter’s help, we packed and labeled everything. She drew pictures of Sam’s clothes so he could tell what was in each plastic bag. When I got to the part about six already-written postcards, I began to second-guess my decision to send him. Sam can’t even read yet. But Anna and Oliver reminded me that getting mail was essential, and they set about coloring, stamping, stickering and otherwise adorning cards for their youngest sibling.

In the week leading up to the trip, each day when I collected Sam from preschool, I would meet another mother who would say, “So, I hear Sam’s going to school in nature,” as way of starting a conversation. When I explained my long list of misgivings, the mother would either try to reassure me or change the subject. It took about four conversations before I happened to speak with a dad instead of a mom would told me that his wife was as nervous as a cat about sending their daughter too. All the mothers were, he said. I tried not to take offense because he’d implied that only the mothers were nervous and the fathers were fine, even though, at least in our case, it seemed to be the truth.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Radek was away on business on the day of Sam’s departure. On the way to the school Sam complained of a tummy ache. Just as I was about to recommend that he use the bathroom at the school, his brother piped up, “Oh, that’s just the way you feel before you go for a trip. It’ll be okay.”

The bus was waiting by the time we arrived at the school. When we handed over Samuel’s note from the doctor that said he was healthy, I saw other mothers giving the teachers řízky (schnitzel) wrapped in aluminum foil and bábovky (bundt cakes). Nervous that I’d forgotten to bring something for Sam to eat in addition to his snack and a pack of soft bonbons, both written on the list, I asked another mother. She reassured me that the children would get lunch at the pension once they’d arrived.

As time drew closer to departure, a few of the children cried. Sam, however, seemed oblivious to the length of time he’d be away and more interested in a game of hide-and-seek his classmates were playing in the grass by the sidewalk. When it came time to load the bus, one four-year-old burst into tears, and I didn’t think she’d make it on the bus. While her mother was trying to calm her daughter down, one of the teachers scooped the child up and sat her down on the bus. Sam and his friend Jachym boarded together.

For what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few minutes, the teachers did a head count and instructed the children to stow their backpacks, take off their coats, sweaters and hats. All eyes were on the children as they got themselves situated. A collective of pint-sized, independent travelers. In a flurry of waves and silly faces pressed to the bus’s windows, they were off. Not a single child was crying now.

Outside the bus, however, I saw more wet eyes than dry. And, yes, some of them were dads.

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