School is back in session, and even those of us whose children are not headed back to the hallways with backpacks in tow are focused on a very important element of child development– extracurricular activities. Some day soon the day will come when my eighteen month old little girl will bound out of the car on her way into the dance studio without looking back, but if I were to currently drop her in a classroom for an independent activity I know that the meltdown she experienced would be legendary. She’s just not ready to progress to activities without me present. Lucky for us, there is no shortage of Mommy and Me activities available for parent and tot duos looking for a way to get plugged in!
Mommy and Me classes sometimes catch a bad rap from people who brand them as just one more thing for hyper-scheduling parents to load on their over-burdened toddlers… shuffling from sport tots to tiny yoga to little fishies to twinkle toes. As a former educator and professional dancer turned professional mama and Mommy and Me Dance Instructor, I personally know that a well structured, developmentally appropriate choice will set the stage for years of success in organized activities. Like anything with the three and under crowd, moderation is the key to success; but just how do you choose the right activity when there are so many options available?
To help guide your search, I’ve created a list of guiding principles using my “insider’s” perspective:
Is the timing right?
This might seem obvious, but it is totally worth saying… If the class time falls during your toddler’s tried and true naptime, then that specific class time is not for you no matter how many of your best friends have signed up for it! Don’t tempt fate and mess with naps by either trying to “adjust” the nap or muscle through the class. You’re just asking for a meltdown.
On the flip side of this guideline; if the class falls close to your babe’s normal meal time, be sure to adjust your personal schedule accordingly to ensure that your child will not get hungry/thirsty during class (unless there is a snack built into the activity) and that you allow enough time for adjusted potty stops or diaper changes so you don’t have to spend your time in the restroom while everyone else is having fun!
Does it feel like the right fit?
The purpose of Mommy and Me activities is not only to allow you to experience and observe your toddler’s development through interaction, but also to introduce your child to the joy of organized activities. But there is no joy in classes that are uncomfortable or forced.
Both you and your child should feel welcome by the instructor and accommodated in the activities. A good instructor understands that a rapidly developing youngster will have vastly different needs each week and that mom is the very best advocate for understanding those needs. You should be welcome to comfort and interact with your child in ways that align with your parenting style without a raised eyebrow or rolled eye. Otherwise, how else are you supposed to truly enjoy yourself when doing the twinkle toes stretch!?
Are the activities organized and flexible?
“Wait…” you’re thinking, “How do organized AND flexible work together?” When you enter class, you should immediately begin to recognize a structured flow to the activities. This flow creates a familiar routine for toddlers and helps them to adapt to the flow of organized activities that they will do without their caregiver present in years to come. It also communicates that the instructor has put careful through into the class and values your time (and money).
However, classes and activities should not be so regimented that they are unable to cater to the needs of participants on any given day. Last week one of my little guys let me know that he wanted to run AND dance that day, so I swapped out a few of our slower paced dances with some higher speed movement games- we were able to focus on the same basic skills while accommodating his needs. A good instructor will have a number of activities in their pocket that can be used to customize instruction as needed.
Are the activities simple?
This is important as complex skill development does not begin cognitively until children are four or five years old yet seems counter intuitive to parents wanting to get a jump on organized activities to ensure their child has the chance to become tomorrow’s Baryshnicov. The key to successful “mommy and me” activities is building BASIC skills and introducing children to how enjoyable organized activities can be through positive interaction with peers and their caregivers. In early ballet we only introduce two foot positions (first and second), not because the others aren’t important, but because those are the positions the youngest dancers are able to correctly master which helps foster confidence and a sense of achievement instead of presenting learners with tasks tat are outside of their ability level.
Mommy and Me classes should present a variety of activities that allow participants a certain degree of mastery while exposing them to the expectations of organized activities in a fun and exciting way. With that being said, don’t worry if your tiny dancer spends a class simply checking herself out in the mirror- she is learning through observation and becoming familiar with her surroundings.
Are YOU participating?
Mommy and Me classes should elicit activity from both MOMMY and… ummm… me. Parents are baby’s first teachers and are able to set the emotional tone for a child better than anyone else, so if you’re having fun and participating then your little one will too. Your instructor should gear instruction to address both mom and tot so that everyone feels included. Respond to instruction and activities the way you desire your child to respond by modeling listening skills, eye contact, and body language, but you don’t feel like you have to get so wrapped up in being the model student that you neglect to bond and enjoy your shared activity time.
An instructor well versed in child development will also offer frequent commentary and descriptions (or sometimes notes or handouts) of how selected activities benefit participants. They should also be willing to answer questions; suggest home activities; and share access to resources, music or ideas.
Whether you choose a swimming class or end up rocking out in dance class with my toddler and I, the most important thing is that you find the right place to provide a positive beginning for many years of varied organized activity for your little one. Follow that mama instinct!
Join Jenn for Mommy and Me Dance on Tuesday (10 am), Wednesday (3 pm), or Thursday (11 am).
Photos by Marlo Wise Photography.
Jenn Larson is the Austintacious attachment mama of one very boisterous 18 month old daughter who joins her in the studio as a pint sized teaching assistant three days a week at Balance Dance Studio. Jenn has been dancing for more years than she wants to admit she has been alive, and has enjoyed the satisfaction that teaching and performing has brought her through the years. She is gearing up for her first post-baby performance this fall when she joins her fellow Houston Texans Cheerleader Alumni on the field to celebrate the franchise’s 10th season in the NFL. Jenn also shares her adventures in the mommyhood with the world as the Resident Mama Blogger for Bump Club and Beyond.