Some things never change: the back-to-school notices in the shops; the panic to find the school blazer; the cries of "But you said I could have packed lunch!"

But for some parents, this is a whole new ball game: their child is taking the first, hesitant steps into formal education or, as they still call it, big school.

Most children will have had the opportunity to look round their school.

It can be reassuring to find that some activities are very similar to those familiar from pre-school or playgroup.

There will still be messy play, story time and the whole enjoyable process of learning through play.

This is not surprising, as all four-year-olds starting school will still be following the early-years curriculum.

And that means continuation of learning over six interlinking areas: Knowledge and understanding of the world; communication and literacy; numeracy and number; emotional and social development; creative development; physical development.

But your child will find differences. There will be more children. The activities will be more focused.

And, for most, the day will be noticeably longer. All the more important, then, that they have the opportunity to unwind.

But, what about children whose parents have to work? What are the options for them and you?

Some schools operate after-school clubs.

If your child's school does not, there may be a voluntary-sector club nearby, managed by a committee of parents and run by playworkers, who specialise in organising play activities for school-age children.

They will sympathise with your feelings of trepidation about yet another new experience for your child, because most will have been there themselves.

On a practical level, this means most of your anxieties will have been voiced and dealt with.

Many after-school clubs, for example, operate a collection service with approved "walkers", who literally walk the children from the participating schools to the club.

Others, where there is a greater distance involved, collect by car or mini-bus. Security and safety are very high on the agenda because, as parents and professionals, they know it is important for security not just to be a priority but to be seen to be so.

This is why parents are asked to complete a form giving practical details, including contacts in case of emergencies and the names of those who will be collecting their child.

All children, for obvious reasons, are signed in and signed out.

Increasingly, too, after school clubs and their before-school equivalents, often run by the same organisations have developed their own equal opportunities policy.

Some have even evolved a code of conduct, which can include input from the children, the staff and the parents.

And the code will apply to all.

But what do they do? First, while many offer homework facilities, they are not little learning emporiums.

Children extend their learning in a broad sense but, essentially, these are places to unwind and relax.

This could involve playground games under supervision. It could mean roleplaying.

It will mean fun.