- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2001

The toddlers in the "Fun Fit" class groove to the music, shaking their bodies this way and that as they sing. They limber up, racing from wall to wall, short legs pumping. They hoist Hula-Hoops, steering imaginary cars.

"[The class is] a great experience," says Tom Salyers, a communications professional whose 2-year-old daughter, Camille, participates in the class. "We thought it would be a good social activity for Camille; we also thought it'd be something she'd enjoy, and indeed it is. We enjoy doing it together."

Camille and the other Fun Fit students are just a handful of the nearly 3,500 "tiny tots" registered this fall in Montgomery County Department of Recreation children's classes that range from "Art Adventures" to "Discovering Music" to "Mommy and Me" swimming. Like Mr. Salyers, many parents believe in the value of preschool instruction for their children, as evidenced by increased enrollment in area toddler classes.

Child-development specialists, including Melissa Welch-Ross, a health science administrator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, are unable to point to hard science to support belief that such classes are essential or significant in the development of children. They do say, however, that participating in organized classes can enhance the lives of young children, listing faster language development and increased confidence and self-esteem among the potential benefits.

Burke pediatrician Dr. Stacey Staats, a physician at Inova Fairfax Hospital, says that when parents ask her opinion about toddler classes, her reaction is positive.

"As kids go from being infants to toddlers, they grow to being a person learning some cooperative play, so the value is to allow them to see other children and have a forum in which to interact with them." She says that when children interact, it can have a positive impact on language development.

"While there certainly are some classes that have a little bit more cognitive approach to them where they're working on colors with the kids or song memorization, most of the toddler classes don't have a true academic curriculum. They're learning through play, which is a lot of fun for parent and child."

Indeed, all types of experiences enhance the developing brain, says Stefanie Powers, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization that sees the first years of life as important to a healthy life later.

But children do not have to participate in an organized class to gain, she says. "Taking the child to the park for free and playing ball the child will get the same benefit. The brain will not differentiate between a gym session or the park across the street."

Ms. Powers says that toddler classes can help to structure experiences, however.

"You have it on your calendar every week," she says. "You know how parents can be so busy these days if you have something on your calendar, that can be a great way to get the children having new experiences, as long as they're having fun. The parent and child can have ongoing relationships with others the same age. It gives you great opportunities to connect."

Ruthann Castillo's four young children have lots of opportunity to connect in their own Falls Church home as well as at the parks, library and museums the family frequently visits. Yet Ms. Castillo, a stay-at-home mom, says she regularly involves her two preschoolers George and Alice in toddler classes at the nearby community center and elsewhere.

George, 4, takes a music class and attends a gymnastics class with several of his buddies. Along with a part-time morning preschool program, Alice, 2, attends a music class and probably will be signed up for a gymnastics class this winter.

The basic reasons, says Ms. Castillo, are interest: The children's interest in the various classes and "my interest in having a structure to our day and getting out of the house."

Ms. Castillo gives the structured classes high marks.

"I think there's some benefit to kids in the exposure to newer things, especially art and gymnastics," she says. "It's also beneficial to have them in a group setting of someone else teaching, because at least my kids occasionally listen to another adult's instruction better than my own." In addition, Ms. Castillo says, "the older ones like a break from the little kids being around little kids and doing little-kid activities all the time."

The classes can mean a break for the adults, as well.

"There definitely is a social element for parents," Ms. Castillo says. "When I first quit working, I was just looking for any way to connect with moms and meet moms of young kids. I think that was definitely part of the reason I was signing up for programs because, obviously, moms need adult interaction and sometimes need a break from their kids, too."

Sure, involving your children in toddler classes can be more valuable for the adults in some ways, says Marilou Hyson, associate executive director for professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

She says, however, "That's not necessarily a bad thing. Some adults need and enjoy these kinds of activities, and simple toddler classes often involve the parents. Many parents may be somewhat socially isolated from other families with young children than a generation ago in any neighborhood, a very high percentage are working full time. These classes can be an opportunity to meet other young parents and build bonds and relieve the stress of being a new parent."

She suggests parents ask themselves several questions when deciding whether to involve their children in toddler classes: Are these classes taking up so much of the child's time that there's little or no time for the kind of free exploration that toddlers really enjoy? Are the classes well-suited to a toddler-age attention span and interests in general? Are the classes suited to the specific child's interests and style?

"This last one is important, because what is absolutely wonderful for one child may be just the opposite for another," she says.

Doing without

"I think that there is some anxiety on the part of parents in trying to give their children everything their children can possibly need in order to succeed later in life," Ms. Hyson says. "People perceive this as a very complicated society. They know early experiences are very important, but I'm saying there is no research that suggests that planned baby or toddler classes are essential, and children will develop well with day-to-day, ordinary toys and activities."

Terry Abdoo King usually has relied on such day-to-day activities for her children throughout their early childhood. With plenty of other mothers in her close-knit Arlington neighborhood and five parks within walking distance of her home, Mrs. King says she just hasn't seen much need to sign her children up for toddler classes.

As a stay-at-home mother with "zero income," she says, there is added impetus to take advantage of free resources in the area.

If she wants to chat with other parents, she heads to the playground. If she wants more cerebral experiences, she takes her children Katherine, nicknamed Kattoo, now 5 and a kindergartner, and Johnny, 3 to the library for story time, to the nature center for a live-animal program or to the Discovery Room at the National Museum of Natural History.

She says she thinks classes are fine but "there's enough to do without taking classes. It just never worked out for me, logistically and financially. I wanted to be free and easy. I didn't want to have to start paying for stuff."

Mrs. King recently enrolled her son in a music class for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, however, "because it's his special thing to do" now that his sister has gone off to kindergarten.

"I'm choosing it basically for socialization," she says. "And I thought it would be a good idea for him to experience sitting in a class and having a teacher."

In fact, their daughter's relatively small amount of experience within organized groups save for short stints in ballet and swimming worried Mrs. King and her husband, John, when they sent Kattoo off to public school this fall.

"I was concerned about how she would do because she hadn't done day care or preschool," Mrs. King says. "But she's fine and she loves going to school every day."

Ms. Hyson understands such circumspection.

"Many parents feel that before children start kindergarten, organized activities can be useful in helping them become more comfortable in being in groups of children. But everyone knows that children who didn't get that are OK," she says.

Dr. Staats, the pediatrician, agrees.

"Kindergarten is an equalizer. Your kids go to school, and your kids acclimate. There is no true detriment to not involving your kids earlier. Kindergarten allows for very different levels of kids entering and gets everyone up to speed by the end of the year."

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