Classes for tots proliferate, sparking debate

A 16-month-old tot in pink overalls races into her Tuesday morning ''movement'' class, greets her teacher with a big grin, and bounds around the room while her mom gets reacquainted with the other parents in the room.

Special equipment for bouncing, swinging, sliding, climbing, tunneling, and crawling lies enticingly around the room - a church basement - while tots of similar age spill in. Some of them radiate joy at being there; some of them cling, cry, withdraw, or burrow into their parents' arms. The mothers and fathers are for the most part white, upper middle class, and educated. Many have chosen to have these, their first children, later on in life.

The class (actually an amalgamated version of several in the Washington, D.C. , area) is one of thousands springing up all over the country for children as young as three months old. Filling what their promoters perceive to be a gap in services between birth and preschool, the movement (or swimming, or art, or exercise, or dance) classes bring parents and tots together for an hour of ''quality time,'' as one instructor put it.

Just how high the quality of the programs is poses some debate. The public relations people at Gymboree, a California-based franchise that offers class-time exposure to 40 pieces of special equipment for the diaper brigade, hint at a connection between their classes and reading, understanding of certain concepts like ''under,'' ''through,'' and ''over,'' and ''self-confidence.''

But Bernice Weissbourd, president of the Chicago-based Family Focus (a support group for parents of young children) and columnist for Parents' Magazine , thinks ''most parents could give their children those things at the public park.''

She explains: ''Exposure to art and music and physical stimulation is really important in those first years, but it's most valuable if the baby receives it in context - if he's given household materials to work with in the course of the day.''

It's also critical that such activities be self-initiated, she thinks. ''The child needs to find them and play with them for as long or as little as he wants. These classes superimpose a formal boundary by giving the children a structured program, which is not at all appropriate to that age group.''

Alice Honig, an early childhood development professor at Syracuse University, who serves on the board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, agrees. ''The key is to take your cues from the child and let him initiate the play,'' she says. Dr. Honig says she has seen films of ''some of those movement classes, and the children are crying, or their eyes are glazed over and they're looking bewildered,'' all signs that it's time to stop, she thinks.

''These are middle-class mothers who are lonely and anxious that their children should be bright,'' she states. ''And they come in there with a hidden agenda - to meet other mothers and be in a place where they don't have to always be alert to their children.''

Karen Anderson, spokeswoman for Gymboree - which has tripled its size from 35 sites operating in 1982 to over 100 today - agrees that many parents come to meet other parents and have their children meet other tots (''That's a positive thing''). But she points out that, at least in their program, parents must stay with their children at all times and help them use the equipment. ''Parents really have fun when they're doing it,'' she asserts, ''and they know they're doing something good for their child.''

Says a participant in a recreation center exercise class near Washington, ''I know this is a solid hour I'll be spending with my son'' - time that is difficult to carve out of the ordinary day, she says. Ms. Anderson supports this idea, pointing out that classes like theirs allow for ''quality one-on-one time'' to occur.

And while Ms. Anderson admits that ''some programs are just really bad,'' she contends that Gymboree ''is noncompetitive and allows the children to choose the activities,'' aspects that make the 45-minute, 12-week classes worth the $50 price tag, she thinks.

Not even Gymboree, however, allows the child to pick the time, and any given class is bound to interfere with someone's nap. ''If you want to spend money on children,'' says Dr. Honig, ''spend it on books or on causality toys - toys that do something when the child manipulates it, like a jack-in-the-box.''

Ms. Weissbourd, who concedes that programs like Gymboree may be a ''nice luxury for people who can afford it,'' says she wishes people would turn instead to ''play groups.''

''It's unfortuante that there are not more neighborly things they can do together. It's very isolating to be in four walls with a young baby,'' she says.

If parents are interested in signing their tots up for classes, Dr. Honig advises checking for the following:

* Are the babies' faces blank-eyed or fearful, or happy and interested? If your child withdraws, get him out, she says.

* Are they using language with the children, telling them to ''go up the ramp'' or ''use the fat crayon''? Activities done in silence miss an important step, she thinks.

* Are they ''just shoving the baby around,'' manipulating his body for him, or are they letting the child initiate the action? The more the child can choose , the better the program.

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