Will all those classes really help your little one? Story by Susan Dodge • Photos by Frank PincTammy Page and her daughter Mary take the Gymbabies class at Gymboree, 3158 N Lincoln Ave.
Once a week Clay Krantz gets bundled up to make the commute to his class in the Lakeview neighborhood, sometimes meeting friends for lunch or stopping by the local Starbucks on his way.
Clay gets so excited when he sees his friends he squeals and kicks his arms and legs. Clay is 4½ months old. But he's been going to class-in his case, the enormously popular Gymboree Play and Music program-with his mother, Karie Krantz, since he was about 8 weeks old.
"It's a great way to have a first-planned activity in a safe environment," says Krantz, a first-time mom who lives in Lincoln Park. "It's expensive, but I really need to get out of the house so my sanity is worth the money to me."
But is a newborn or 6-month-old too young to really appreciate a class in music or play, and can they learn just as much at their own pace by playing on a blanket in the park or banging on pots and pans in the kitchen?
Gymboree classes average about $160 for a 16-week session, but the company often throws in extras when a parent enrolls a child, such as free "open gym" sessions or retail coupons to the company's chain of children's clothing stores. Gymboree also allows parents or nannies to try a class for free with their child to see if they want to enroll.
Krantz has met so many other mothers through Gymboree's Gymbabies, one of many classes for babies 6 months and younger at the company's Lakeview location, that she and others plan to take advantage of other baby classes in the Chicago area soon, she says.
Many other parents of babies younger than 1-year-old are doing the same thing: Enrolling their babies in organized classes that emphasize music, play and movement. The names of the programs conjure up images of giggling, tumbling babies. In addition to Gymboree, there is Wiggleworms, Kindermusik, Musical Magic, Babygarten and Walk-A-Bye Baby (a stroller aerobics program). All are booming throughout the Chicago area and some are nationally popular.
Are we not only overscheduling our kids these days, but overscheduling our babies as well? Does little Ethan really need to be awakened from a nap to make it to his language immersion class? And are these schedules even about the kids?
My 6-month-old's Palm Pilot
"The race to turn children into the most talented kids in their classroom begins even earlier than the crib-it now begins in the womb," according to child psychologists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, authors of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.
Parents are urged to buy foreign-language CDs and classical music to play to their unborn children in an effort to enhance their intelligence. Once babies are born, many parents are overwhelmed by all the new toys marketed as something that will turn their newborns into geniuses.
And some of the things marketed, even fly in the face of what the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests. It discourages any type of television or video viewing for children age 2 or under. But that recommendation has not damped a flooded market.
From "Baby Einstein" DVDs to parenting books such as 365 Ways to a Smarter Preschooler, stores are filled with "smarter baby" gear. LeapFrog, which markets the electronic reading tools LeapPads, has a new product, the LeapTouch LeapPad, now aimed squarely at customers as young as 6 months old. Babies just learning to sit up and roll across the floor can begin learning about animal sounds and words by pressing images on the LeapTouch.
Is it any wonder, then, that classes aimed at newborns and toddlers have exploded in popularity?
"Do I think babies need this sort of interaction? No. I think babies can be exposed to all sorts of quality learning experiences in the home, whether it's banging pots to make rhythms while dad washes dishes or sitting in front of the mirror making faces," says Laura McGowan, an Aurora mom of Brendan, 4, and Timothy, 2. Her third child, a girl, is due in February.
"However, I think that the parents are the ones who want to reach out to other parents with children of like ages, in an effort to connect. It can be fun and also a means of support for moms to see what other 8-month-olds are doing if there aren't any in the neighborhood or if the child is not in daycare."
McGowan took her son Timothy to a postnatal aerobics class at Edward Hospital in Naperville when he was born. Despite all the music and activity in the class, Timothy spent much of his time snoozing. But McGowan lost 12 pounds that she credits to the aerobics class.
A few decades ago, organized baby classes didn't exist and stay-at-home moms simply met with other stay-at-home moms to let their kids play together at the park or in a backyard sandbox.
But the increase in families with two parents who work outside the home has meant many of those old networks of stay-at-home parents no longer exist. Today's parents have a tougher time finding other young children for their kids to play with, especially before they begin meeting other kids through school.
Rosemary Sedlak of Naperville says meeting other moms was a priority when she enrolled her son Ryan in organized classes when he was 10 months old. She later found a play group full of kids through her local moms' club.
"As a first-time mom/rookie, I signed up for Kindermusik because I felt I needed to do this for my son," she says. "I didn't want him missing out on things."
In retrospect, Sedlak says she wishes she would have worried less about enrolling Ryan in classes as a baby and spent more time putting together a play group.
Kindermusik classes cost $150 for an eight-week session and $295 for a 16-week session. The cost includes CDs, books and other materials for the family to use at home.
"Being a natural-born cynic, I occasionally thought during Kindermusik that the teachers take this stuff too seriously, as most of the class is off having a bottle break and not able to participate," she says.
But Connie and Mike Hines, owners and operators of the bustling Gymboree in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, say the Gymbabies classes for babies newborn to 6 months are important for babies' development, as are the other Gymboree classes targeted to crawlers, walkers and runners.
"In the beginning, they think they're a part of you," says Connie Hines. "They slowly discover their toes, their hands and through some of the tapping and clapping we do in the classes, they are learning visual tracking and getting auditory stimulation."
Hundreds of parents throughout Chicago flock to the Hines' Gymboree location at 3158 N. Lincoln Ave. The site is so busy that parents must call ahead if they are planning to take their baby to a makeup class because so many of the classes are already full. The site offers 65 classes, from Gymbabies to Gymboree music classes to a new GymARTS program for toddlers and kids to age 5 that allows them to sculpt, paint and draw-all without making a mess at home.
Gymboree also has locations in Westmont, Wilmette, Northbrook, Wheaton, Palatine, Mundelein, Geneva, Streamwood, Crystal Lake, Aurora, Dyer, Ind., and one scheduled to open this January in Plainfield. A second Chicago Gymboree class location is in the planning stages.
In Roscoe Village, newborns through 4-year-olds can participate in Musical Magic, which describes itself as an "enrichment and discovery program."
"Children are growing up in a different world today and need more than traditional nursery rhymes to help them develop positive self-image," says Rosanne Locricchio, the owner and operator of Musical Magic, 2255 W. Roscoe St.
But do 3-month-olds really need to work on improving their self-images? Or are businesses just marketing to parents' desire for their children to be successful? In this case, parents might define success as children climbing up colorful ramps, clapping their hands to music or learning to use finger paint.
Some overachieving parents are falling into a trap of "push parenting" in which they begin pushing their children to succeed all the way from babyhood through the college admissions process, says Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie, author of The Trouble With Perfect.
"Such pressure snuffs out crucial qualities such as curiosity, spontaneity and resourcefulness," says Guthrie, clinical director of the Learning Diagnostic Center at the Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y.
"The ‘I want the best for my child' attitude is certainly prevalent," says Laura McGowan of Aurora. "In and of itself, it's not a bad thing, but, like anything, can be taken to an absurd level. Kind of like saying that taking a 6-month-old to Disney World is a vacation for the infant. They won't know the difference between Disney World and a grocery store-both are equally colorful and stimulating."
McGowan points out that parents can offer their children inexpensive but enriching experiences by checking out free museum days in the Chicago area, visiting the zoo and historical sites in the city and suburbs, looking into park district activities and trying moms' groups.
"At 3 months old, an infant's world is the three feet around them-and all they need is love and attention," McGowan says.
Still, some parents are looking for the support they can get from other parents in a group setting with a "teacher."
Parents sometimes need to see how a teacher reads a book to learn the best books, and best ways, to read to a baby, says Kristin Nilsen-Noonan, a child librarian with a degree in developmental psychology. Nilsen-Noonan started the Babygarten program for infants through 18-month-olds. The program emphasizes reading to young children in a group setting, reading nursery rhymes, singing songs and teaching parents that simple handmade toys from things found around the house are best for stimulating a child's creativity, Nilsen-Noonan says. Babygarten offers classes in Buffalo Grove, Elmhurst, Geneva, Itasca, Schaumburg, Skokie and Woodridge.
"This is not a ‘my child will be the smartest kid in kindergarten' program," Nilsen-Noonan says. "Babies are rewired for learning and the way they learn is through living-not teaching.
"Singing a beloved nursery rhyme teaches an infant more about language than flashcards or drills," she says.
Bonnie Vozer of Bloomingdale plans to take her son Stephen to baby classes eventually, but is holding off until he is older than 6 months.
"We incorporate all different kinds of play throughout the day," Vozer says.
While baby classes might be fun for some, Vozer says she thinks babies can get the same benefit without an organized program.
"I think they are primarily for the caretaker," she says. "I can't imagine any of these classes with a baby younger than 6 months."
Susan Dodge is Ben's mother and a writer living in northwest Indiana.