Vienna’s winters are very dark, with relatively few hours of daylight.  Between November and February, my kids leave the house before the sun has properly risen, and come home after it has set.  We spend months only playing outside on the weekends, or in the dark (and cold) of early evening.  It’s tough on all of us.  The boys go a bit stir-crazy with tons of unspent energy, bouncing off the walls and bothering each other a lot more than usual, and I get absolutely frozen keeping vigil in the dusky playground while they brave the cold to climb and slide and swing a little.

I suspect that principally because of these long winter months, Vienna has several indoor “play parks”, but, until recently, we had never been to one.  I only had a vague idea of what they entailed, but I imagined massive McDonald’s-play-area-style ball pits and plagues of flu and stomach virus running through the revelers, so we had never gone.  Plus, my kids had never heard of them, so they weren’t asking to go.  I would have happily lived through our Vienna experience, and just skipped it entirely.

But last fall, B and Liam were invited to a friend’s birthday party at “Monkipark“, one of these indoor play places at a shopping mall we’d never been to.  B had heard all about it from the birthday boy, and he was so excited.  I was still apprehensive, but happy to try it out.

445It was not quite what I expected.  It was HUGE inside, and crazy, and chaotic.  In true Viennese style, the parents weren’t particularly hovering over their kids … and there were SO MANY kids, from toddlers to teenagers, running free in the play area.  There was a massive, inflatable climbing and sliding area, where my boys ran first.  (Being me, I did hover, so I went right along with them.)  It was crazy, but it was great fun.  It was like a giant, inflatable obstacle course.  The boys climbed, balanced, swung, bounced, and slid down a two-story-high slide.  And then they did it again.  And again.  And when they got tired of that, there was an indoor climbing wall, and soccer court, a ropes course (which was only for bigger kids), a bank of trampolines and a go-kart track.  And that was in addition to the snack bar and the private party rooms where the birthday boy invited us all for chicken nuggets and birthday cake.  It was impressive, and we all had a great time (though I still imagine that most kids come out of there with some illness they didn’t have before).  We really enjoyed it, and I understand it better now.  And it’s good that we liked it, because I’d put even odds that at least one of my guys will want to have their birthdays there this year.

Why school isn’t just a big party

013Yesterday, we went to a birthday party.  The birthday boy is turning three, and Benjamin was in heaven at this party.  The majority of the party was in the backyard — Benjamin rode bikes, a scooter and a train, he played in the sandbox, with toy cars and trucks, he ate pizza, cake and cookies — all on plates with Lightning McQueen on them.  There were about half a dozen kids there of roughly the same age, plus a complement of little brothers, all Liam’s age or younger.  He had an awesome time.  From about 5 minutes after we got there, he played on his own, or with the other kids, almost entirely without our help (except for a couple of times when we were asked to extricate a ball from the hedge, or a toy from a shelf).  The boys all played together and shared very well with little intervention on the part of any of the parents.  We checked in with him, from time to time, and had to convince him to leave the toys for a few minutes in order to scarf down some dinner.  He asked for my help to ride the scooter (which he’d never ridden before) but, although we kept a close eye on him, he spent large spans of time playing on his own.

On the way home, I was pleased with how well he had played, and how much he had enjoyed himself, but I was a little perplexed:  why was it so fun and easy for him to play with these boys (who were mostly strangers to him) yet so traumatic to go to school?  Isn’t it pretty much the same?  So, I asked him.  I thanked him for playing so well and being so polite at the party, and asked him if he had a good time.  He said, enthusiastically, that he had.  So, I asked, “Isn’t that pretty much what school is like?”  And he looked at me, and asked (completely sincerely) “Did you leave the party, Mommy?”

He was actually asking, not making a point.  I believe that he was having so much fun, that he thought he might actually have missed it, and maybe I had left.  I assured him that I had been there the entire time.

But now I get it.  From my perspective, as an adult, things at school are pretty much like a party (except no Lightning McQueen plates):  there’s inside play time, outside play time, singing time and snack time — what’s not to love?  To my little, sweet, three year old boy, the two things have very little in common — for one, Mommy is there, and a good time is had by all, for the other, I’m not, and that’s devastating.  It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t actually interact with me very much — it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t need me.  My presence makes the difference between him having fun and not, him feeling secure and not.  All the kids and fun games and toys in the world don’t make up for my absence.

Of course, that makes perfect sense, and this isn’t the first time I’m realizing this.  But, I forget.  I truly, honestly, forget.  I get wrapped up in how nice the place is, how kind the teachers are, how sweet the other kids seem to be, and I fail to understand why he’s so upset about going to school.  The truth is, it doesn’t matter where he is, if I leave, it’s a problem.  There’s a part of me that’s thrilled that he feels that way (the alternative, although easier to deal with from a practical perspective, would hurt a little).  But, I want my little boy to enjoy going to school, and to enjoy himself without my constant presence.  I know that the upheaval of moving to a foreign continent isn’t helping, and neither is the fact that my kids have only been away from Dan and I a few short times since we’ve arrived here (they used to do it all the time, but they are out of practice).

I don’t know how the next few weeks will unfold, in terms of school, but I’d love to figure out a way for him to have half the fun at school as he did at this party.  I’m inspired by how much fun he had playing with the other boys yesterday, and knowing how much of that interaction he will get at school.  But I know that being away from me will be hard for him, and it remains to be seen if he’s really ready (and if I am).