GROWING PAINS: Red Tape Mars Mom's Kindergarten Reforms

Vika, our detsky sad teacher, has just spent a month in a German kindergarten "exchanging experience" as they say here, and since our sad is Western oriented, I was all fired up about what changes we might now make.

"We could have an indoor sand pit," I said excitedly, "and a big water tray for water toys. And let's stick their artwork all over the walls and get lots of throw cushions for a readers' corner. And how about letting them move about a bit during lessons, I mean they are only 4-years-old."

Vika, who had been staring at me incredulously, raised her hand to stop me in mid-flow. "You know that we can't possibly do any of that," she said. "This is Russia. This is a different system altogether."

"If we had sand and water, we'd have the sanepidemstantsiya (health authorities) down on us like a ton of bricks. We can't put paintings up or let parents have them because we have to file it all away to show the educational authority inspection at the year's end - and anyway, the state kindergarten we rent the premises from would say we're messing up the walls. And you know as well as I do what the fire inspection officers would have to say about throw cushions."

"But we're private," I said feebly, "surely we can do whatever we want?"

Nyetushki - no. At the end of every quarter, an army of inspectors march in to check up on educational standards and to search diligently for health and hygiene hazards. And speaking of hygiene, every three months all the kindergarten staff from the headmistress down to the humblest cleaner have to go off to be tested for skin and venereal disease.

"Good God! What a humiliation," I exclaimed.

Vika shrugged. "We've all grown up with it. We're used to it - it's the system."

"Well what about lessons," I said, getting a bit belligerent. "You don't have to make them sit still for 35 minutes, do you?"

"Yes we do. They'll all be going on to a Russian school and they'll have to know how to behave. Their parents expect us to teach them how to sit quietly and listen. And besides, there's always the chance we might get a surprise visit from an educational inspector."

Now my Bobby is not very good at sitting quietly, nor at copying leaf for leaf of the teacher's picture of a tree, nor at learning poems by heart, nor, come to think of it, at eating up all his lovely fish soup, which I get for free as a mother with multiple children. But the teachers are very kind to him, which is hugely important to me. Oh yes, and there's this other little thing that probably sets Russian kindergartens apart from Western ones. We have an armed guard on the door keeping 24-hour surveillance against "terrorist acts."