An Introvert's Take on Baby Gyms

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Every parent relishes the chance to watch their kid be totally in their element, giggling and wiggling with other kids. Watching Sisi play is one of the purest joys I've ever experienced.  So after walking by many times, I decided to take a free trial mommy and me toddler class at our local baby gym (similar to "Gymboree" but a smaller local company.)

We show up early to fill out the paperwork and give Sisi a chance to warm up to the place before the other kids arrive.  Slowly, the other tots trickle in, all excited and busy.  They have about 10 minutes to explore the gym's impressive play structures on their own, and Sisi discovers the ball pit. The magical ball pit!  She beams with joy as she floats on the colorful orbs, truly in her own little world.

Then the teacher, a young blonde wearing colorful mismatched socks calls all the kids to the center for circle time.  Her voice is high and peppy, like a chipmunk cheerleader.  Circle time is a whirlwind of activity.  In the span of 20 minutes, the children do handstands on bars, hang from ropes, do high kicks in the air coordinated to upbeat music, a dance in which they pretend to be horses, and finally a relay race.  Whew.  All the while, the music is  hyper and it's blaring over the speakers.

With each activity, the teacher gives a long-winded explanation of the specific developmental skills they are learning.  "These handstands are improving hand-eye coordination, balance, spatial awareness, and building self-esteem."  I have to roll my eyes at all this psych-jargon, but I imagine most of the other parents are eating this up with a spoon.

Many of the kids seem to be LOVING every minute.  They are quick to jump right in to each new task. Some seem more reserved, and need some reassurance from their parents, but are still having fun.  Then there are a few who do not seem to be in the groove at all.  Not surprisingly, Sisi was in the last group. She wasn't distressed or crying, like the poor little boy next to us who was sobbing into his mom's lap, but Sisi wore a stiff, bewildered look on her face.  I wasn't seeing the big toothy smile and claps of delight I usually see when she plays at home or at our library story time.

After circle time, the kids are given some time to explore independently, although they are supposed to hit 3 play stations- a balance beam, rocking climbing, and a high jump.

Sisi accomplishes 0/3 tasks.  Instead, she tottles to the ball pit and finds her bliss there for 15 lovely minutes.  I'm a little self-conscious that my child is stuck on one activity, but she's having too much fun and I don't want to force her.  I sorta feel like if they gave grades in this class, we'd get an F.  

Lastly, we're called to the middle again.  5 minutes of swinging, 5 minutes of pretending to be jungle explorers, and 5 minutes of driving little cars.  We clean up, sing the goodbye song, and it's all over.  Wow, that was a jam-packed hour!  I'm freaking exhausted.

As we're packing up to go, the teacher asks me if I'd like to sign up to be a member.  I tell her that maybe we could sign up for a weekly free-play hour, as that's more our style than a structured class.  She tells me that free play is "not good enough", and Sisi should really join a class where she can learn to socialize with other kids and master physical and cognitive skills.

I say I'll think about it, but in my head I'm saying, "Peace out."  

It's not that the place is evil or bad. I think the intentions are good.  It certainly fills a niche in our suburban lives- it provides kids with safe places to explore and go crazy with their peers.  It gives parents that structured agenda to hit concrete milestones (and parents these days are all about milestones). I imagine most parents walk out of there thinking they just gave their kids the most productive and mind-blowing hour of play EVER. But I definitely think these classes are built around our country's extroverted ideal.  The extroverts thrive here, but all others either have to fake it, or end up crying in their mom's lap.  Since Sisi and I are both introverted and sensitive (me highly, she moderately), I can easily infer what was rubbing her the wrong way about this place.

1.  TOO LOUD.  The teacher, the music, it was all too loud. For the highly sensitive child (like the boy crying in his mom's lap), this alone can cause some anxiety.
2.  TOO FAST. The pace of the class was super fast.  The instructions given by the teacher sounded like they were fast forwarded. There was no time to warm up to the next activity, or time to reflect upon the skills they just learned. It was go go go!
3.  TOO MUCH.  The sheer number of activities crammed into the lesson plan was alarming.
4.  TOO MUCH MOVEMENT.  I know this sounds silly, considering it's a children's GYM.  Of course there will be a ton of movement, right?  But Sisi is not always a doer.  She's a watcher, and that's how she learns.  At these play groups, they really don't have the option to just watch.  Every child is expected to perform on cue, and if they don't, you'll even see parents puppeteering their kids and acting out the motions for them (which I hardly think is fun for any child. Who wants to be jerked around?)

In conclusion, I'll save my money and continue letting Sisi play the way she plays.  I'll let her splash in the hose, dig in the sandbox, lay on the grass daydreaming, and help me pick weeds.  I'll let her learn "social skills" in authentic situations like at church or on play dates with a few friends.  And I certainly won't worry about checking off long lists of milestones and developmental skills, because I know she is grasping these things on her own time and in her own quiet way.

There are some play groups that I think would be right up Sisi's alley.  The R.I.E. classes led by Janet Lansbury are exactly what I have in mind.  Relaxed, serene, open-ended, and child-led.  The kind of environment that fosters genuine creativity, learning, reflection and social interaction.  The kind of place that suits extraverts and introverts and anyone in-between.

I may have to invest in a ball pit though :)

Here are some pics of Sisi at play. 

Car wash- detailing :)


Erin October 17, 2013 at 10:57 AM  

my boy might enjoy that class, but I would be overwhelmed for sure! We have loved participating in Kindermusik though. Not as loud, more child directed, still social. There are kids who spend most of the time in mom's lap quietly humming along and others dancing manically or experimenting with different instruments.

Gari Stein October 17, 2013 at 12:02 PM  

I totally relate to your experience and I have been running a music-movement program for over 20 years. I still struggle with what's in the best interest of the children. So much of children's music is too loud, too fast, too busy. My classes are not chaotic, slower, gentle ambiance. Unfortunately, many folks want the type of class you describe. Glad you decided to go with your instincts and your daughter's temperament. Hard to go wrong. My daughter was an introvert for sure and now in her 40's is a social butterfly. You never know what's lurking. To thine own self be true. Enjoy this precious time. It's so fleeting. Wishing you the very best. Gari Stein-Music For Little Folks

juicy d October 17, 2013 at 1:20 PM  

Wow. I have had almost the exact same experience with my daughter. When I took her to her first "class" at 16 months, she cried pretty much the whole time, and in the classes following for several weeks. I have heard that peppy chipmunk instructor voice and hate it (no wonder it totally freaks out my kid). From your post, I'm guessing you may have read Quiet, which describes in detail the problem of the extrovert ideal in our society. Here was a rant I posted about introversion and sensitivity:

Aime Nagel October 17, 2013 at 3:04 PM  

I'm a pretty social person and that just sounds awful - and it really bothers me that a teacher/instructor anywhere would have the guts to tell a parent that they are making the "wrong" choice for their child. But I know you and Sisi are both strong women and will find what is best for your family!

Angela October 17, 2013 at 9:38 PM  

This is so right on! I love hearing how you're choosing to trust your daughter's natural play. I am a dance teacher and have taught parent-child classes for the last 3 years (since becoming a mother 5 years ago). It took me some time to work out a "formula" that is respectful, creative, connected, gentle and fun. I have tried the kind of classes you wrote about, and they really didn't work for us. My daughter is very sensitive as well but extroverted.

Anonymous,  October 18, 2013 at 6:09 PM  

Wow, the level of forced participation makes my head spin, I am the managing director at nonprofit which offers free play based "classes" for kids (ages infant through high school) in a lot of our classes we have multiple activities going on a lot of process based art, water, sand, building tools, and much more but the kids in our classes are free to join or not, to watch, touch or walk away. I can't imagine trying to corral these 2-6 year olds and try to get them to all do the same thing. It just seems so cruel, I know that I would hate someone doing that to me no matter how old I am. Meade from

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