The graduates line up to take their places for the ceremony, the tassels on their mortar boards swinging as they walk.
On the front row, proud parents smile, wave and take pictures as they watch their children prepare for the next important step in their lives - big school.
The four-year-olds beam as playgroup director Sue Merrick presents them each with a certificate, teddy bear and goody bag and thanks them for the years of fun they’ve brought her.
Most of the ‘graduates’ from Frecheville Playgroup have been attending this weekly class since they were just weeks old, making it a truly emotional day for everyone, as they get ready to say goodbye to important first friends.
“It’s the first time we’ve held a graduation for a group of our kids to celebrate them moving on to big school,” explains Sue.
“This particular group of kids have been friends for the whole of their short lives. Their mums have brought them here every week for four years and the kids and mums have seen each other through so much and we decided that deserved a celebration.”
And it was all hands on deck to prepare for the ceremony, held at the group’s regular Thursday morning session at Frecheville Methodist Church. One mum made invitations, another baked a cake, some decorated and Sue personally hand-stitched seven little graduation gowns. The ceremony itself takes just ten minutes and then the party begins.
But while the graduation may be new to Sue, saying goodbye isn’t. She has welcomed thousands of kids through the ranks of the playgroup since she first launched it in the city 27 years ago.
“It’s not something you realise until you sit back and think, wow, we’ve been running for 27 years - that’s really something!” says Sue, aged 66.
“I’ve seen so many kids come through the door and I absolutely love it when, years later, a six foot tall young man comes up to me in the street and gives me a big hug and I realise it’s ‘little Alex’ I haven’t seen for 15 years.
“I’m also starting to get the next generation looping around now - women who were once babies here themselves bringing their own babies back – it’s just wonderful.”
It all began in 1988 when Sue, working as a mobile hairdresser at the time, worried her year-old son wasn’t spending enough time around other young kids. She took him to a new playgroup, just launched by a friend of hers. By the end of the session, the woman had decided it wasn’t for her and Sue agreed to take it over.
“I wrote begging letters and applied for funding and, slowly but surely, built it up to what it is today,” Sue reveals.
Mum Sarah Moralee has had two babies at Frecheville Playgroup over the course of seven years and explained that Sue is something of a hero among the mums in the group.
“She’s a Surprise Surprise candidate waiting to happen, genuinely,” insists Sarah, aged 40, of Nether Edge.
“She’s very kind, very loving and always goes the extra mile for everyone. If you have a doctor’s appointment or something on the morning of playgroup, she will tell you to bring your little one along and leave them with her and you can trust her to do that - she’s done that for so many parents.
“All the kids run up to her when they see her, they just love her. She looks after everyone and makes bad days better. This group is a support system for parents as well as a wonderful place for the children and it’s no wonder so many mums struggle with the idea of leaving once their kids are in school.
“Luckily many of them come back with their next children and Sue keeps the sessions running in the school holidays, so mums often bring their older children back too, who love seeing Sue and their old friends, and Sue always organises activities for them.
And so loyal are the mums to Sue that, when she had spinal surgery last year, they rallied around to keep the sessions running without her.
Sarah adds: “She really didn’t want the sessions to stop so we mums pulled together and managed to keep it running - with one buying snacks and one planning activities; it wasn’t as good but we kept things ticking over until she was back.”
Sue, who has spent most of the last two decades working with children with special needs, has always had just one stipulation for any job she’s had - that she have Thursday mornings off to run her playgroup.
She smiles: “Nothing interferes with playgroup morning. These kids mean everything to me. My son is now 28, all grown up and married, but I’ve been an aunt thousands of times over thanks to this group and I’ll keep it going as long as I’m fit to do so.”
n Frecheville Playgroup runs every Thursday from 9.30am to 11.30am.