are toddler groups good for babies?

Are toddler classes good for babies?

When we moved to Lancashire, Flea and I signed up to a variety of toddler groups and activity groups, hoping to meet some other Mums and kids.

On one level it was a resounding success – we met some great Mums at swimming, and I knew I’d get along with the local vicar the moment I clapped eyes on the Photoshopped picture of him with two bikini clad vixens on his bathroom wall.

But on another level, it’s all a bit depressing, isn’t it? Because so many of these toddler classes are telling us how to make our toddlers just a bit better. A bit smarter. A bit stronger. A bit more confident.

And while part of me thinks that’s great and important, another part of me wonders if we’re not just harping on new parents’ insecurities that being at home with your baby, going to the park, visiting friends – well, it’s not quite enough, is it?

Do toddler classes make kids smarter?

Give your child a head-start in the classroom!” chirrups one website, before moving on to a series of facts and figures about educational underachievement, with the unspoken assumption that if your child ends up with no GCSEs, shooting up heroin in a Camden bedsit, it’s probably because you didn’t do enough to nurture his pre-literacy and communication skills.

At one toddler activity class near me, I watched as a group of mothers tried to keep their toddlers focused on a series of small pictures, trying to match rooms with objects, and spotting things that rhymed.

Flea, like the impeccable three year old she is, gathered up all of her pictures, announced “These are my birthday party invitations” and proceeded to ‘post them’ through an imaginary letterbox, throwing them exuberantly across the room.

When I admonished her with the words “You’ll end up at a third-rate polytechnic at this rate,” I’m not entirely sure the class leader realised I was being ironic.

When I told another class leader it wouldn’t occur to me to be impressed by a three-year-old knowing all their letters, I got a lecture about “the downward spiral of educational achievement”. Pfft.

What makes a good toddler class?

For me, there are five things that make a really good toddler class, and that you should definitely look for when you’re finding things to do with babies and toddlers near you.

  • Fellow mums: The number one reason to go to a toddler class is to meet other Mums and Dads who have kids the same age as your kid, and will spend the next five years doing things you’ll be doing. If there are no like-minded parents you can bond with, skip it.
  • Fun: I’ve sat through toddler classes where kids were screaming in fury when the music started, or the class puppet got out, or they were asked to climb something. And you can see the parents getting frustrated and embarrassed and pushing their kids to join in. Newsflash: you can’t force them to have fun and you’ll both be happier if you just go and get a hot chocolate instead.
  • Easy: I recommend classes that are local, classes that don’t start too early or clash with nap or meal times. Even the best class will be miserable if your toddler is exhausted or hungry, or nobody has had enough sleep. Life’s exhausting enough with a baby, don’t add to your stress!
  • Play focused: There are classes that focus on building skills like literacy and communication or maths skills. My advice? You can do ALL of those things at home by building blocks and reading stories and chatting with your baby. If you enjoy the class and it’s easy and there are friends to be made – go for it. But please don’t feel pressured into thinking your baby will fall behind if you give them a miss.

The classes I do recommend

Not that all activity classes are evil, of course. Flea and I have been swimming since she was 10 weeks old – and hand on heart, she’s had a great time and still loves swimming. But the key is that we’d go swimming even if there weren’t any ‘benefits’. It’s just fun, and we both really enjoy it.

Flea also really enjoyed our toddler music group about 50% of the time, and 50% of the time it was the worst thing I’d ever done to her. She was afraid of Tumble Tots, bored at Talking Tots and flat out offended by Baby Art Classes. The worst thing that came of any of these was that she started pre-school unable to hold a pencil, and it took her longer to learn to write. She’s 15 now, and predicted double grade 9s in English GCSE, so I think it didn’t hold her back too much.

Our children could have 17 years of full-time education to look forward to. Personally, I don’t care about boosting my child’s academic performance when she is still learning to hold cutlery, thanks. As I toddler, I cared that Flea was learning to sit on a big swing on her own, had great manners and she could create an entire imaginary world using nothing more than a tea towel and a box of Playmobil. Oh, and she could go downstairs and get her own cereal in a cup while I stayed in bed.*

What do you think? What activities have you really enjoyed with your little ones?

* ps – not really.

About 

Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She's also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world's coolest ten year old.