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No, I don’t want to give my child a ‘head start’, thanks.

Flea swimming at 4 months When we moved to Lancashire, Flea and I signed up to a variety of 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 rather depressing, isn’t it? 

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 activity class, 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.

Not that all activity classes are evil, of course. Flea and I have been swimming since she was 10 weeks old – she was about 16 weeks when the photo on this post was taken – 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.

If Flea follows my example, she’s got 17 years of full-time education to look forward to. I don't care about boosting her academic performance just yet, thanks. I care that she’s learning to sit on a big swing on her own, she’s got great manners and she can create an entire imaginary world using nothing more than a tea towel and a box of Playmobil. Oh, and she’s now able to go downstairs and get her own cereal in a cup while I stay in bed.*

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

* ps – not really.


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.

About The Author


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.


  1. Dan

    I couldn’t agree more. And at the end of the day everything tends to even out anyway. As long as you’re loving, attentive, and supportive a bright kid will do well and be happy, and a less bright kid won’t do quite as well – but will still be happy.
    On my last job interview they never asked me at what age could I recognize a triangle.

  2. Maternal Tales

    Hee hee – don’t believe your ‘not really’ – I think you’ve trained her to do it (and if you haven’t then you should cos it’s absolutely necessary don’t you think)?? Love the swimming piccie – I have them of my two as well – and yes, swimming’s one of those things that always brings a smile to my face (and more importantly of course – to the children’s). Apart from swimming, no other ‘organsied’ activities…but fiddling around with nets on the beach and looking for crabs always makes us smile…

  3. Sally

    @Dan – quite agree. I do worry that this kind of pressure to achieve can make children feel negative about school before they even start. I just want Flea to be happy and enjoy learning at her own pace, in her own way.
    @Maternal Tales – oh no, she *can* do it, but I wouldn’t stay in bed. I wait at the dining table and ask her to bring mine while she’s at it.

  4. Wife of bold

    So true, i had a similar experience at a “kindermusic” class i attended with my big girls – the teacher was far too middle class in her values and we eventually phased the classes out. Kids are under enough pressure so why start putting them into boxes so young…. i don’t get why pushy parents can’t let their kids just be kids, i’d rather have a happy but dim child as opposed to an unhappy one that’s top of the class in everything. x

  5. Sally

    @Wife of Bold – thanks for commenting. You’re absolutely right, I think some of these classes (and parents) wish away childhood. I find it quite sad, sometimes.

  6. Mwa

    Uhm, I’ve always really liked going to the supermarket with my children. We name everything, and they get to hold vegetables and various boxes. And the park/zoo of course.
    I’ve always stimulated my kids on my own. I’ve really never felt the need for a teacher to tell me how to. Never signed up for any classes at all. They’re probably going to start on crack soon.
    Then again, my son is five now and in swimming lessons and choir, which he loves. I don’t go with him, though. That’s what teachers are for.
    I would do it to meet other mums, though.

  7. Sally

    I’m with you on the benefits of learning to read later – it’s massively counter-productive to start pushing kids into literacy at three or four.
    I also REALLY agree with the idea of playing within adult-defined roles. I definitely try and give Flea space and freedom to make her own play, and it’s just lovely to watch. Sounds like your boys have lots of fun!
    I found I made the best friends at swimming, and the local church group. Funnily enough, I didn’t have *too* much in common with lots of the parents at those other sorts of classes.

  8. Hot Cross Mum

    Aarrgghh, the terribleness of ‘organised activities’. My kids have always done the exact opposite of what the ‘teacher’ wants them to do anyway. I start to feel cross with them for not conforming, which I then realise is utterly ridiculous. For now, they’re happiest playing trains, putting my sparkly shoes on and pretending to be dinosaurs. (also, I am secretly scared of Jimbo the Gymboree clown).

  9. ella

    I’m definitely a fan of ‘unstructured’. Childhood should be about play and using their imagination. Even toddler groups aren’t that wonderful – the children are playing but often the mums can’t help the competitive element entering the conversation (although I have made a few really lovely friends at these groups).
    So yes, we are big on nature walks, building dens, water fights, painting the garden with water, making a great big cooking mess in the kitchen. It’s only now that my eldest is 7 that I have encouraged him to do an afterschool club and that is football because I very definitely know my limitations in that area!

  10. Sally

    I think Mwa made a nice point which is that she’s never felt the need to hand over that role of being your child’s first teacher to someone else.
    I wonder sometimes if these classes are exploiting parent’s insecurities, and encouraging us to feel we need some expertly designed ‘curriculum’for toddlers, when in reality the right sort of play activities and good, supportive interactions are the only things kids really need to be happy and fulfilled.

  11. SandyCalico

    I love your underwater photo!
    These classes seem to be a very middle class activity. I agree with Brit, very young children shouldn’t be pressurised into learning too soon. They get so much more from playing.
    I have now phased out all activities apart from Baby Bounce and Rhyme at the library (because it is fun, and free) and Playgroup. For my children (and me) the important part of any activity has always been the social element. They have gained confidence from meeting other parents and children.
    As you gain more confidence as a mother I think you realise that you’re chucking your money away on certain classes.
    Sorry for the long, rambling comment!

  12. Sally

    @Sandy – don’t worry, we *love* a good ramble round these parts.
    You’re right though. When we first moved here, Flea went to playgroup, Tumble Tots, Talking Tots, Messy Monsters and Water Babies. Phew!
    For a few months, it was a great way of meeting new people, but I personally don’t think she got anything out of any of those activities that she wouldn’t have got from just playing with some other kids, some carboard boxes and potentially Brit’s idea of running round with balls on her head (genius!)
    In fact, she found some of them really frustrating. At Tumble Tots, she didn’t like having to do one thing for 3 minutes then move on just as she was having fun. At Talking Tots, I think there was just too much sitting down and being quiet for a lively toddler, and Messy Monsters was probably the best of a bad bunch, but nothing we couldn’t do at home, for free!

  13. Pauline Adams

    Well I actually enjoyed our ‘Maths lesson’ today. Myself and my two children sat on the floor for about 30 mins and played Pokemon maths!
    Both my children are home educated. My 11 yr old went to school until he was around 8 yrs and then I deregistered him and now the world is his classroom! My 6 yr old has never been to school. She can read and write and do maths. The great thing about this is that she is at the right level for her, nobody else, no comparing with other kids in a classroom, just what is right for her.
    The great thing is I don’t have to worry about how to keep the kids occupied during the school holidays………they just carry on having the same fun as always!

  14. Just a Mum

    Must confess, I never saw the point of Tumble Tots, I’d much rather take the children to the playground (although on a rainy day…!)
    As for anything that promises to promote literacy, reading readiness or any other pseudo academic claptrap, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to throw their money away wasting those precious early years in an attempt to give children a headstart. Aren’t they under enough pressure already with SATs and exams? It makes me REALLY cross, sorry!

  15. clareybabble

    I like going out to meet other Mums because I was starting to be a recluse! But I do like to do stuff where the children are ‘free’ to play as they want to.
    We go to the Children’s Centre on Thursdays which S calls ‘special playgroup’ because it’s a playgroup that Mummy and Baby B attend too. I pretty much let them get on with it while I chat over coffee! Then Fridays we go to music class which is half an hour of singing and dancing and an excuse to play instruments very loudly.
    At home we do lots of different things but I tend to leave the messy stuff for playgroup 😉

  16. Sally

    Clarey – yes, I think music classes are great, particularly for younger kids. Not so much because we don’t have instruments at home but there’s so much more fun to be had making music and singing in a group than at home. Also means I can hide my terrible singing voice!

  17. Dancinfairy

    I love that picture. I do plan on taking Squigler to some classes when he is born, but for my benefit to meet some people because I only have one friend locally who has children. I think the benefit of these classes for children as they get older is the social side of it – learning how to interact with others and share and generally be more sociable. I just hope I will be able to recognise what is good for him and if he is not enjoying something to try something else.
    I want to go outside and draw on the pavements with chalk now. Getting down (and back up) with a bump this big might be a struggle though!

  18. Sally

    @Dancinfairy – thanks!
    Yes, classes are a perfect way to meet other new parents – I remember a friend who had kids before me telling me that the class was irrelevant almost, she just needed new friends who didn’t mind walking round the park for hours on weekday afternoons!
    I totally agree with the social aspect of classes, I just don’t agree with the pseudo-academic stuff.
    I read something yesterday about a summer activity class that helps boost children’s communication – and I just thought “gosh, imagine the golden memories they’ll be creating there”.
    I mean – really? – what’s wrong with spending summer on the beach, in the park, visiting friends for playdates, hanging out in the garden? Why this constant need to “boost” and “improve” our children?
    Mine’s more than good enough as she is, thanks.
    (ps: draw on walls. Less bending!)

  19. Cecilia

    Just found your blog and this post really filled my heart with hope.
    I have an 18th month old and I want to do things that are fun for her. I don’t want to give her a ‘head start’, I want her to play and to build her own fantasie world as only kids can do.
    It’s good to know that there are more parents who are willing to let their kids grow up as individuals and just be kids 🙂

  20. Sally

    Thanks Cecilia.
    You reminded me once of an activity class leader I spoke to about individualism. When I said I was raising Flea to be an individual, and be her own person, she replied: “You’re raising her to be a FREAK!”
    It worries me this is someone who’s chosen a career working with children!

  21. Mummy

    I just stumbled across your blog and it is music to my ears. I live in Hong Kong where every child is diarised almost every minute of the day. I find myself increasingly apologising because I don’t send by 18 month old daughter to any classes at all. She goes to the playground a lot and plays all sorts of creative games with the other children, we have a pool in our apartment complex so she swims 4 or 5 times a week with us, we read to her, she does painting and drawing at home. I wonder what a class gives her that two university educated parents and her nanny can’t at the moment!
    Bring on the freaks. They are the ones who end up having the best jobs and the most settled relationships!
    Love the blog

  22. Sally

    Yay – long live the freaks!

  23. carolb

    well everyone’s said by the time I get here really, but yes I agree that organised activities stifle natural creativity and curiosity of children.
    We love walking to the post box, looking at insects, splashing in puddles, filling the washing machine…
    our playgroups are great fun, not too much structure – snack time, story time and singing lead the way to good manners and listening skills, the rest will follow.

  24. Sally

    @Carolb – Actually you make a really great point. As time goes on, I’m more and more convinced that these “experts” who tell us we need their expert designed activities to cultivate basic skills in children are completely missing the point.
    As parents, there are so many things we can do ourselves to promote things like listening – and without robbing children of the opportunity to make their own discoveries, in their own way.
    And it is funny, but Flea LOVES filling the washing machine – all the sorting of colours, finding the right letter on the dial, putting in powder and conditioner in the right compartments – just watching her do that simple activity, I can see her developing all sorts of skills – letter recognition, hand-eye co-ordination, colour recognition – and not an EXPERT in sight!

  25. Karen (@karenjwhitlock)

    As a teacher I always assumed I would be wanting to give my girls “the best start”, but it didn’t take me long to realise that actually what is important is making sure that they enjoy learning – that’s what will help them through their formal education more than anything else. I think with the pressure put on young children at school, we should be making sure that the precious time we have with them should all be about learning through play, being creative and having fun.
    We did (and still do now) swimming lessons but this is a survival skill and lots of fun, but baby sign language – no thanks!!


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