Article in the Spring 2006 edition of the magazine "little kids"
BETWEEN SWIMMING, SOCCER AND BALLET, LITTLE KIDS ARE BUSIER THAN EVER. BUT DO THEY REALLY NEED SUCH ACTIVITIES BEFORE THEY START SCHOOL? WHEN IS IT TOO EARLY TO START AND HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
Remember the days when being a little kid meant endless hours playing alone or with a friend, building cubbies, drawing, pretending, running around? These days, the average toddler has a busier schedule than many adults. On top of preschool or childcare, many kids are also booked into all sorts of extra activities. There's quite an array of programs on offer, including art and music appreciation, flamenco dancing for two-year-olds and up, and even karate for four-year-olds. And it all costs money.
Parents are under increasing pressure to stimulate their children's development and education as early as possible, with organised classes and activities. There's the idea that your kids will be somehow left behind in the social and academic race if they don't start learning all this stuff before they start school.
But experts are warning it can be all too much for younger children. In the US, they're calling it the trend of the over-scheduled child, and there's a growing call for parents to slow down and give their kids more free time.
According to education consultant Kathy Walker, author of What's The Hurry? (Australian Scholarships Group, $21.95), many preschool teachers report that some children arrive at preschool too tired to play and learn, as a result of being too busy during the week.
So what's the answer? A little bit of age-appropriate activity is fine, but only if they genuinely enjoy it. What's really important is to give children plenty of time to play. "Parents need to enjoy the moment in time your child is having now, and not be constantly worried that they are ready for the next bit," says Kathy.
How much stimulation and organised learning do little kids need before they start school? Experts agree that some degree of formal learning, or preschool, is essential to get them ready for school."By the time they're four years old, it's important to start having some preschool experience and decision-making without their parent or caregiver," says Kathy. "But if they're in that kind of program, they really don't need anything else."
Some parents worry their toddlers and young children need classes of some sort to help them socialise with other children. "Toddler's brains are different from older children and adults and they're still egocentric," explains Kathy. "When we talk about them being socialised, all they're doing is learning to work or play alongside each other, not in friendship." The best way for little kids to learn is in fact from a parent or someone they already have a relationship with, rather than in a group or class.
"Children learn through relationships," says family psychologist Beulah Warren. "For example, rather than an art appreciation class, they would get more from a visit to the art gallery with a parent."
When it comes to sport or dance activities, it's also important to bear in mind that little kids bodies are still developing and can cope with only a limited amount of activity.
"Children's bone calcification and physical development haven't finished in these early years," says Kathy. "They shouldn't be doing too much heavy exercise because their bones aren't even solid yet."
What kids really need is plenty of time to play alone and, yes, get bored. Letting kids get bored is one of the best ways to teach them how to play. That means allowing them lots of free, unstructured time when they're not at childcare or preschool.
"There is a danger that if we overstimulate them with lots of activities, we create the situation of children being bored because they're expecting to be entertained," says Beulah. "But it's free play that stimulates the imagination. If all you ever do is get organised by somebody else, then when do you learn to play by yourself?"
Kathy Walker reckons we should ban the word `bored'. "For kids to be successful learners, they need to be able to show some initiative and be comfortable in their own space. It's very important that they can go out in their backyard and home and play creatively."
While extra-curricular activities aren't essential for little kids' development, a small amount can help them discover new things they like to do and meet other kids. The key is to pick activities they enjoy.
"Children at this age need lots of opportunities to engage in different things they feel positively about," says Dr Louie Suthers, senior lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University. Many programs and classes might seem impressive to you, but that's no good if your child doesn't like it. "What you really need to gauge is whether it's something your child will enjoy," Dr Suthers says. "When you say, 'Let's get ready for music' or whatever it is, your child should say, 'Oh good' and be happy about going to that activity, and shouldn't be forced into anything."
It's up to parents to workout whether the child is really having fun. "Some might seem passive and don't want to engage, but once it's over they don't stop talking about how much they enjoyed it," says Dr Suthers. "It often takes two-year-olds up to 20 minutes to thaw out in a new situation. We have to be careful that we don't expect all children to have the same reaction."
So what sorts of activities are good options for little kids? Anything active or musical that they can enjoy. Most important is that the structure of the class is relaxed and informal. "An approach to some movement or dance in a relaxed way is preferable to a highly structured sport program," says Kathy Walker.
Classes for younger kids should also be short. "The younger the children, the shorter the timeslot," says Dr Suthers. For two-year-olds, classes should be no longer than half an hour.
"And within that, there should be structure so that the really intensive learning part may be only 15-20 minutes," Dr Suthers says. "Some informal time at the end of the class can be valuable too, because that's when many children start to feel relaxed. That can be a good time for the child and their parents to chat to the teacher and talk about what they've just done."
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