My son’s school day finishes at 2.45pm.
Some afternoons we leave right away: for his swimming lesson, a haircut, or perhaps just to beat the post-school rush at the grocery store. He will run up to me with books and artwork spilling out behind him, and once they are gathered up we bundle ourselves into the car.
On the days when we don’t have to scurry away, he often asks to stay and play. I always say yes. It’s a chance for me to catch up with other parents. We sit on the wooden ledge that borders the vegetable patch and talk about work and family and weekends. Mostly, at this time of year, we grumble about the cold. I’ve taken to making myself a hot tea before I leave the house, and as we sit chatting I wrap my hands around the plastic keep cup, wondering if winter will ever end.
I don’t remember my school being like this: a place to stay and play, even when lessons are over. Thirty years ago, when the last bell of the day rang, we headed straight for home. But things are different now. Everyone takes the opportunity to let their kids run around and burn off that excess energy.
There are stacks of old tires for free play. The kids work in pairs to carry or roll them along, before arranging them in patterns across the grey asphalt. Occasionally a rogue worker will haul one up the steps and launch it back down with a whoop, cackling away as children scatter on either side.
There’s a dress-up box on a nearby bench, and the resulting princesses and pirates form a conga line around the edge of the playground. On the monkey bars, a big sister helps a little one across, cheering loudly once her feet touch the platform on the far side. It’s a happy place. The occasional bumps and tears are far outnumbered by hugs and giggles.
Recently, it seems, my son and I are always the last to leave. When the playground is empty of everyone but us, it turns into such a different place.
The noise subsides slowly. We hear shouted goodbyes at the top of the driveway, then laughter and chat along the pavement before finally that too fades. The sun drops low in the sky, and blackbirds emerge from the bushes to peck spilled blueberries and raisins from the ground. There’s a pink bucket lying on its side, which my son returns to the sandpit, and tiny green chairs that he stacks in neat columns by the wall.
“Are you ready to go?” I call.
“Almost,” he shouts back. “A bit more tidying first.”
I watch as he wheels the bikes and trikes into a line, arranges the tyres into rows by the fence, pops a stray plastic tiara back with the other costumes.
I see the teachers leave one by one, until only the principal is left. She gives me a cheery wave from her window. The janitor does his last walk of the day, checking that all the doors are locked and lowering the flags from their poles.
As the light falls lower and the air starts to chill I stand up and stretch, before moving to one of the raggedy old armchairs that still holds some warmth from the day’s sun. From here I can see boats scudding past on the river. Just behind my head are kindergarten paintings pegged in the window: beautiful rainbows all in a row.
My son doesn’t have long left at this school. It is the only one he has ever known, but after the summer holidays he will be moving on to Grade 3. Onwards and upwards to a new and bigger place. He has not said as much, but it feels like he is already aware of how much he’ll miss it. I watch him stop sometimes, just standing and looking around as though he’s trying to take it all in and save the memories for later.
After one last go on the swings, one last spade that he returns to the sandpit, he is finally ready. As I stand up to leave, I reflect on the fact that this tiny playground is full of legacies. A plaque for a teacher loved and lost. A lemon tree gifted to the school by a family who moved interstate. A buddy bench donated by the school community.
A few months from now this playground won’t be ours anymore. Such is the nature of a school: people come, and then they go. But I hope my son will leave some trace of himself behind. A plant, or painting. A toy car buried deep into the dirt. Perhaps a memory of his laughter and a whisper in the trees: “Soon Mum. I’m nearly ready. Just one minute more.”
Ruth Dawkins is a freelance writer and mother-of-one from Scotland, currently living in Tasmania, Australia. She has been widely published on lifestyle and parenting sites in the UK, US and Australia. She blogs as DorkyMum (http://dorkymum.wordpress.com) and her professional website is http://ruthdawkins.net