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 :)|