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Meet You at the Sandbox -- After Class

By Helaine Olen
Sunday, April 30, 2006

My younger son and I were sitting on the floor in the back of a local shop, bopping to the beat of a children's music instructor playing guitar and singing kiddie classics. Or at least I was keeping time. My toddler instead spied a clear glass door leading to a small garden beyond. He ran over and began pounding on the portal. "Outside," he yelled. "Outside!" Soon a few other mini-rebels joined him. The teacher strummed louder and louder as mothers and nannies tried frantically to round up their miscreant charges. "Dance. You're supposed to be dancing," I heard one parent mutter. "Get back in the circle," snapped another. The teacher glared at everyone. "Ladies," she said at the end of the song. "We're here to sing. We can play outside after class."

When I called my mother later that day looking for a few laughs, she was less than amused. "Who pays for this nonsense?" she asked. "What kind of person takes a 2-year-old to a music class?"

Well, lots of us.

A generation of middle- and upper-class parents, vulnerable to constantly evolving theories about the importance of the first three years of life to a child's intellectual development, has been convinced that infants and toddlers need enrichment to get ahead. Sensing opportunity, for-profit business is playing an increasing role in the lives of the youngest children.

The choices of structured activities for the under-3 set are seemingly endless: Exercise outlet My Gym has increased its franchises by almost 50 percent since 2002; Kindermusik and Gymboree are now known nationally; yoga and language lessons for wee ones can be found in upscale neighborhoods from Bethesda to Beverly Hills. These organizations promise to teach kids -- sometimes as young as a few weeks old -- the foundation work necessary for learning how to tumble, dance, sing and draw, as well as how to be a good team player. Yet the sessions cut into the time young children need for exploring and playing with little adult guidance or interference -- activities that ultimately teach them other equally necessary skills.

In a world where organized play dates are more common than free play on the block, those pushing the classes say they are giving moms and dads just what they want. "It isn't the old summer childhood, where kids hang out in the back yard," says Jill Johnston, senior vice president of Gymboree Corp. "In our market research groups, people say they want their children to have a breadth of experiences -- they want children better prepared for preschool or even help them get in."

This phenomenon raises inevitable questions about class and elitism. The sessions rarely cost less than $12 for 45 minutes of supervised learning and games, with prices running higher in large metropolitan areas such as New York and San Francisco. Scholarships are few and far between and are often not well publicized.

But parents pay because the advertising by these organizations feeds on their anxiety. According to a brochure I recently received from Music Together, the classes "introduce children to the joys of making music instead of passively receiving it from CDs, radio or television." Apparently, parents are now assumed to be incapable of teaching their children to sing unless they sit in a supervised circle for 45 minutes to warble "Peas Porridge Hot" and "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain."

There is, however, little evidence of any infant artists or toddler gymnasts left behind simply because their parents neglected to enroll them at the local gym or music studio. A New York City class that teaches infant sign language touts a study purporting to show that babies who were taught to sign before they could speak had greater vocabularies at age 2 -- a finding that common sense suggests could also be explained by the fact that parents willing to put that much effort into communicating with preverbal children might also be working harder on their language development.

There also is no reason to believe that attending an organized sports class improves any child's physical well-being. Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods," has pointed out that the rise in childhood obesity has actually dovetailed with the growth of organized activities, and he suspects an overscheduled childhood may be a contributing factor.

Moreover, childhood development experts say that when children are told what to do and when to do it, they don't learn to mediate their own disputes or trust their imaginations. "Kids are better off with access to some amount of unstructured time where they just have to figure it out themselves," says Susan Oliver, executive director of Playing for Keeps, an advocacy organization dedicated to promoting children's play.

In my experience, it is a rare class that promotes independent activities. Instead, infant attendees are expected to perform the approved activity on a schedule, and woe to the rebel (like my older son) who wants to play with a firetruck when a teacher announces it is gluing time, or (like my younger son) who refuses to return the maracas when an adult decides it is time for a drum.

I will admit there has been a benefit to these classes -- for me, that is. They've been the place where I've met many friends over the years. Although my life has been enriched enormously by these acquaintances, it is likely we all could have met at a park or winter playroom if the groups didn't exist. In fact, the scheduling involved in ensuring a child's attendance at these activities cuts into the flow of a neighborhood life centered on a common meeting place, almost forcing parents to join up and pay cash to meet one another.

My son's music class was his last formal lesson, though I'm happy to report that he likes to sing along with the group's music on the CD I received when we registered. I've decided we don't need to pay to play. I'm going to let my children play -- on their own. I'm sure they'll learn to sing and tumble without professional help. After all, my mother swears I did just that.

holen@aol.com

Helaine Olen is a writer living in New York.

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